UAE Expects Millions at Expo 2020, but It's Emirati Investment It's Concerned About

The biggest world's fair in history may not cover its costs, but organizers are hoping the deals signed will make it worthwhile for local businesses

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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An aerial view of the dome in Al Wasl Plaza at the Expo 2020 site in Dubai, UAE, September 2019.
An aerial view of the dome in Al Wasl Plaza at the Expo 2020 site in Dubai, UAE, September 2019. Credit: EXPO 2020/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The United Arab Emirates is poised to rack up some impressive achievements. Raja Easa Al Gurg, the managing director and vice chairwoman of the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group conglomerate, was ranked 84th in Forbes magazine’s 100 most powerful women in the world in 2019. She heads the 27 companies that make up huge corporation founded by her father, and serves as the president of the Dubai Business Women Council and sits on the board of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Dubai Women’s Association. She was also the first woman on the board of HSBC Bank Middle East.

In 2020, Al Gurg will be even busier: Her group of companies will be exhibiting at the Expo 2020 world’s fair in Dubai, which is expected to be the biggest in the world’s fair’s 168-year history.

Al Gurg will meet another talented female relative at the expo: the famous fashion designer Latifa Al Gurg, who was chosen to design the uniforms for the entire 30,000-strong workforce at the fair – which itself is headed by another woman, Reem Al-Hashimi, the UAE’s minister of state for international cooperation and the expo’s managing director. The official opening may be 10 months off, on October 20, 2020, but the construction and infrastructure are just about finished.

Workers are now busy doing putting the finishing touches and decorations on the 86 low-rise buildings that will comprise the fairgrounds, and dividing the structures according to the three main subthemes: Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability – as designed by the British architecture firm Hopkins Architects. The overall theme for the fair is Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.

Technicians at the site of Expo 2020 in Dubai, UAE, October 8, 2019.
Technicians at the site of Expo 2020 in Dubai, UAE, October 8, 2019.Credit: Kamran Jebreili,AP

The three main streets will meet in the central square of the fairgrounds, the Al Wasl Plaza. Shaped like a dome 65 meters high and 150 meters in diameter, it will be built with transparent materials to allow for exhibiting companies to show videos on its interior. The square will hold up to 10,000 visitors and was designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, who also designed the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.

The expo is expected to draw 25 million visitors before closing in April 2021. It’s not at all clear whether the guests will cover the huge costs of building it, but organizers hope the deals that will be signed during the fair will pay off to benefit local businesses.

Those who are already profiting today are construction companies in Dubai, which are busy not just with the expo project itself but also with building hotels and high-rise residential towers to be filled – they hope – by foreigners who want Dubai to be a permanent base for their businesses. This could provide an important shot in the arm for the real estate sector in the UAE, which for the past two years has been suffering from a major drop in sales and a fall in the number of foreigners who want to live in this luxurious city-state.

The real estate industry in Dubai contributes 6.4 percent of the UAE’s GDP, according to a report released by the Dubai chamber of commerce. At the moment, some 4,700 real estate projects are under construction, making up 42 percent of the construction in the entire country. These projects include expanding the international airport and building a light rail line that will link the expo to the center of town. The report also presents a number of future projects totalling an estimated $48 billion in costs.

In pursuit of a second passport

But in spite of the many opportunities the UAE offers to local and foreign investors, it seems that more and more Emirati businesspeople are investing outside of the country. One of the indicators is the growing number of citizens of Gulf states who have submitted requests for residency in other countries in return for an investment there.

Figures reported by the local media show that the number of requests submitted for a residency visa in return for an investment in 2018 was six times higher than in 2010. Just for the United States, where the basic investment needed for a residency visa is $900,000, the number of requests climbed from 1,369 in 2010 to 9,602 last year. Other countries have even more attractive terms: Some Caribbean islands only require a $100,000 investment for residency. Turkey, too, grants citizenship in return for purchasing real estate worth $250,000.

The explanation for the rising numbers of Gulf citizens who want foreign passports in return for an investment seems to lie in feeling a lack of safety in recent years, whether in light of the threat of a war with Iran, attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen or the fear of economic instability resulting from a total dependence on oil.

These fears have not escaped the leaders of the UAE. While some of Gulf states have presented their vision “only” through 2030, last week the Emirati rulers – Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Nahyan and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the crown prince of the emirate of Abu Dhabi – announced their vision for the next 50 years. The vision lacks detailed plans and budgets, and makes do with lists of goals meant to improve the quality of health and education – and in particular how to diversify the country’s revenue sources. This statement of intentions is designed to preserve citizens’ confidence in the ruling families’ ability to guarantee the public’s economic welfare in years to come – as if the future depends only on the leaders’ talent and the citizens’ loyalty.

But until this future arrives, the UAE of the present is inviting citizens and foreign visitors to come for the 25th annual Dubai Shopping Festival, which will open on December 26 and continue through to February 1, 2020. Some 4,000 stores will offer customers discounts of up to 90 percent. Visitors will also be able to enjoy performances by international artists, and a hologram of Egyptian singer and icon Umm Kulthum accompanied by a live orchestra of 20 musicians.