As the corks popped and the fireworks cracked nearly three years ago when Dubai won the right to stage Expo 2020, some killjoys could be heard wondering what all the fuss was about. After all, the event is only a business fair, isn’t it?
Simon Clegg, although not there at the time, would not have been among the cynics. “Expo will be the biggest event in the history of the Middle East and North Africa, in terms of the numbers attending,” he says, pointing out that the 25 million visitors expected is bigger than the crowds at the last two Olympics and World Cups combined.
Mr Clegg, who has been the chief operating officer of Expo since March, has made a career out of organising high-profile sports events as big as the 2012 London Olympics, and most recently the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan.
But he feels the weight of history on his shoulders with Expo. “We’re carrying a burden for delivering something all Emiratis will be proud of. It’s a huge responsibility,” he says, looking out of the window of the Expo headquarters over a vast expanse of levelled sand.
He cites other great exhibitions in history that have seemed to sum up the spirit of the age. “In keeping with the times, Expo this time will be all about cutting-edge technology, along the lines of our motto “connecting minds, creating change”. We need global solutions to global problems, and Expo will help us to find them,” he says.
For the UAE, Expo is a chance to showcase itself to the world just before the 50th anniversary of the founding of the country and to mark the progress the country has achieved in such a comparatively short time. The expectation is enormous.
But Expo has also taken on a different significance in the current economic and financial climate. The IMF has said preparations for Expo will help Dubai escape the slower growth rates the rest of the oil-dependent region will endure, and will accelerate the urban growth of the emirate.
“There will be considerable economic impact. Somebody forecast that there was likely to be a Dh70 billion positive impact for the UAE and I could not disagree, it will be positive.
“Remember that 70 per cent of the 25 million visitors will come from the international community. Plus there will be a reputational profitability on a global level that you cannot put a dirham cost against.
“It is not just a case of ‘putting Dubai on the map’, because it is already there thanks to the long-term vision that has created this place. But there is a global reputation at stake,” Mr Clegg says.
When Dubai won the bid for Expo, oil stood at more than US$100 per barrel but he says there appears to be no second thoughts now with oil at $50. “I’ve only been here six months, but in that time I haven’t seen anything that suggests there has been a change of thinking by Dubai.”
Those six months have brought substantial progress to the project, but not all of it is immediately apparent from the windows of the majlis at Expo HQ. A vast expanse of flat white sand extends in three directions. That in itself is progress.
Before work began, there was scrubby undulating desert there, with a camel farm and some other buildings, which had to be levelled before work can begin on the main construction. About 4.7 million cubic metres has been shifted and will be recycled for the project.
There has also been progress in other respects. Two countries – Switzerland and Slovenia – have signed up to participate in the event.
Mr Clegg is expecting many others to take advantage of the assistance Dubai is providing poorer nations to be part of the Expo. The bigger countries are taking their time assessing plans and budgets for the bigger pavilions on the 438-hectare site.
Detailed financial analyses of the Expo are not in the public domain, although some were made public at the time of the bid in 2013. One early estimate, by Deutsche Bank, put the total cost of the Expo, plus the infrastructure and construction work to support it, at $43bn. That is roughly the annual GDP of Dubai.
“I don’t recognise the figure of $43bn. The budget for the project itself in the registration documents was in the region of Dh25bn. But it’s very difficult to single out general investment and actual investment in the Expo project itself,” says Mr Clegg.
He points out that the Expo site represents only 3 per cent of the gigantic urbanisation project called Dubai South, which itself is part of the strategic development of the city southwards around the hubs of Jebel Ali and the new Al Maktoum airport.
“Some 80 per cent of the project will be used in the legacy phase, which is all part of the growth plan for Dubai. You cannot really describe Expo as an incubator or a catalyst, because it would have happened anyway. Would Dubai South be here without Expo? Yes, certainly.”
The strategic nature of Expo is illustrated by the sponsors the project has so far pulled in, to the tune of “hundreds of millions of dollars”. DP World, Emirates airline and Etisalat are the first tier-one sponsors, but Mr Clegg and the rest of the Expo executive team are on the hunt for nine more top-level sponsors. Negotiations are continuing with several big companies, working exclusively within product categories. “Some may be the kind of companies that get involved in sport sponsorship, but Expo represents a different type of investment opportunity to an Olympic Games,” he says.
There will also be second and third-tier sponsors, but the main bulk of Expo revenues will come from ticket sales. “The market research is still being done. We have to get the price right to drive numbers through the doors. We’re selling this as an opportunity to get on to the Expo site and touch the world. I’ve been lucky in my career – I’ve been to about 50 countries in my time. But not everybody has been so lucky. Here there will be nearly 200 counties represented and visitors can get a taste of each one. We’ll be working on pricing for another year,” he says.
Expo is not the same proposition as the Olympics, he insists. “With the Games, the specifications are set by others, it is only for around 17 days, and with the biggest stadiums possible. There is no real interest paid by the organisers to ongoing use, to legacy.
“On the other hand, we will run for six months, we have a lot of leeway in the buildings and services on the site and we have paid a great deal of attention to legacy. We have a lot of potential here. What can you convert a canoe slalom course into?” he asks.
Once the crowds, and the 30,000 volunteer workers, have gone away in April 2021, the Expo site will become a business park with mixed-use residential and commercial facilities. It will be home to one of the largest conference and exhibitions sites in the region, with a mall built by Emaar and with the whole site hooked into the Dubai Metro system and connected to the new city of Dubai South.
“This is not just a business fair,” says Mr Clegg.
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