Dubai Expo 2020: The countdown begins
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Dubai Expo 2020: The countdown begins

Dubai Expo 2020: The countdown begins

Promising to be the ‘greatest show’ the world has ever seen, Dubai Expo 2020 begins exactly a year from now


Out in Dubai South, not far from Al Maktoum International Airport, the home of one of the most anticipated events to ever be held in the UAE is beginning to take its final form. Expo 2020’s three themed districts have been completed, all major site construction is expected to be concluded by the end of the year, and participating countries have begun to break ground on their pavilion plots. For anyone who has watched the site’s progress with keen interest over the past three years, it’s an accomplishment to behold.

In a year’s time, Dubai will host the first World Expo to ever be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. With 25 million visitors expected to attend and the UAE to receive an estimated economic boost of $33.4bn, it’s a huge undertaking – and the largest event to ever take place in the Arab World. As Ahmed Al Khatib, chief delivery officer at Expo 2020 Dubai, says, it will be a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Expo 2020 will bring together 192 nations, coinciding with the UAE’s 50th anniversary in 2021, and will act as a ‘global six-month celebration of creativity, innovation, huma­nity and world cultures’. In doing so, it will not only have a considerable impact on the UAE’s economy, but on its businesses, too.

In April this year, the global consultancy EY predicted that Expo 2020 would add the equivalent of 1.5 per cent to the UAE’s GDP, benefiting a wide range of economic sectors, most notably the construction, events and business services, restaurants and hotels industries. For events and business services, that means $18.7bn worth of business. For construction, including UAE-based companies such as Al-Futtaim Carillion, Khansaheb, Besix, Arabtec, Tristar Engineering and Al Naboodah Construction, it has meant an estimated cash influx of $7.3bn.

Najeeb Mohammed Al-Ali, executive director of the Dubai Expo 2020 Bureau, said at the time that the independent report “demonstrates that Expo 2020 Dubai is a critical long-term investment in the future of the UAE, which will contribute more than Dhs120bn to the economy between 2013 and 2031.”

Expo 2020’s long-term impact for businesses will be a broad one. More than 7,200 non-construction contracts have been awarded to more than 1,000 different companies, 70 per cent of which are registered in the UAE, and it is committed in growing the SME sector. To date it has awarded just under $1bn to SMEs through direct and indirect business and is on track to deliver 20 per cent of all direct and indirect spend from its budget toward SMEs. Currently, 55.4 per cent of all Expo 2020 contracts have been awarded to SMEs, amongst them Mirzam, the Camel Soap Factory, and Bateel, all of whom have been awarded merchandising and licensing contracts.

The organisers’ sheer ambition sometimes seems beyond belief, but the figures involved give you a sense of the overall scale of both the event and the site. For example, a total of 4.7 million square metres of earth had to be moved before construction could begin, while there are currently nearly 40,000 workers onsite.

At one stage during construction, 5,000 cubic metres of concrete was being poured every week and 500 tonnes of steel was being brought in every seven days. In total the site covers 4.38 square kilometres, two square kilometres of which will form the Expo event area. The remaining land will be dedicated to support facilities such as the Expo 2020 Village, warehousing, logistics, transport and hotels.

Yet just two years ago there were only two buildings: the Expo 2020 headquarters and a half-sized mock-up of a country pavilion. Everything else was construction related – an on-site batching plant for concrete, three 132kb substations, 12 tower cranes, a number of air-conditioned rest huts, and a colour-coded signage system to guide the thousands of on-site workers.

Only here and there were structures beginning to emerge. An extension to the existing Metro system, which now connects the Expo 2020 site to the Nakheel Harbour and Tower station, was making headway, while all excavated earth was being re-used, all on-site lights were solar powered, and the steel from previous buildings was being repurposed.

What a difference two years makes. The three main thematic districts – Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability – were completed in May, with more than 130 million working hours going into developing the site so far. The themed districts are integral to the overall site and converge at its centrepiece – the 130-metre wide, 67.5-metre tall domed Al Wasl Plaza (which is yet to be completed). The three petal-shaped districts include 86 buildings that will be used for some country pavilions, as well as food and beverage and retail outlets. Each themed district will include performance spaces, innovation galleries, art installations and outdoor gardens.

There will also be separate themed pavilions, including the Santiago Calatrava-designed UAE pavilion (modelled on the wings of a falcon), London-based Foster + Partners’ tiered trefoil-shaped Mobility pavilion, and Grimshaw Architects’ Sustainability pavilion. The latter, for which main basement construction is to begin shortly, will be able to capture energy from the sun and fresh water from humid air.

“Putting together an event of the size, scope and ambition of Expo 2020 Dubai presents a number of complexities,” says Al Khatib. “The vast majority, approximately 80 per cent, of the buildings on the 4.38 square kilometre site are being built to be at least LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Gold certified and for permanent use in Expo 2020’s legacy at District 2020.

“Through the hard work and dedication of almost 40,000 workers on site, who have put in more than 130 million work hours to date, we continue to progress and are on track to deliver the event on time. In May, we announced the completion of the three thematic districts that form the largest built-up area of the Expo 2020 site. International participants have already started breaking ground on their pavilion plots and there will be further announcements in the coming weeks.”

In total, 192 countries have confirmed their participation in Expo 2020, surpassing the 180-nation commitment made in Dubai’s 2013 host bid. Every participating country will have its own pavilion (a World Expo first), with many designs, themes and visitor experiences having already been revealed. Amongst them are those of Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the UK. The latter is inspired by a project from the late scientist Stephen Hawking and will feature a continuously changing poem – generated by artificial intelligence and visitors’ contributions – on its exterior.

All of which fits into the Expo’s theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ – the belief that innovation and progress are the result of people and ideas coming together in new and unique ways. Its three sub-themes of opportunity, mobility and sustain­ability (hence the districts) are focused on unlocking the potential for individuals and communities to shape the future; creating smarter and more productive movement of people, goods and ideas; and respecting and living in balance with the world we inhabit to ensure a sustainable future for all. It is these three themes that Expo 2020 views as fundamental to shaping our world.

Given current global debate, sustain­ability is of particular interest and importance, with Expo 2020 gearing up to deliver the most sustainable World Expo ever. The Opportunity pavilion, for example, is being built from organic, recyclable materials and will encourage visitors to make a meaningful contribution to the UN’s sustainable development goals through interactive exhibitions and activities. With 50 per cent of the Expo’s electricity to come from renewable sources, and smart building and smart grid tech to reduce power consumption by 20 per cent, organisers are seeking to address the many challenges of living in balance with our environment.

“Expo 2020 Dubai will be the world’s greatest show of human brilliance and achievement and [will] act as a springboard to accelerate the UAE’s growth as a leading global business destination with a diverse and resilient knowledge economy,” says Al Khatib.

“It will provide visitors access to the latest innovations and breakthroughs, with more than 200 participants – including 192 nations, multilateral organisations, businesses and educational institutions – coming together to create a better future for us all. It will be a never-experienced-before event that will inspire collaboration, spur he exchange of knowledge and ideas and create tangible opportunities for innovation.

“[It will be] a spectacular event that will wow the world with art, culture, cuisine, architecture and entertainment, it will also be an unmissable opportunity for businesses. It will contribute to the UAE Vision 2021 National Agenda by supporting the development of tourism, stimulating the growth of innovative enterprises and enhancing the country’s international reputation as a place to do business.”

For the Arab World, Expo 2020 – which is scheduled to run from October 20, 2020 to April 10, 2021 – will be an unprecedented affair. Between 20,000 and 35,000 people will work at the site every day, more than 30,000 volunteers will help to deliver it, and approximately 150,000 people are expected to visit on an average day. When operational, the site will be able to accommodate up to 300,000 people per day, will host 200 food and beverage outlets, and will have its own dedicated Dubai Metro station on the Route 2020 line. The Metro’s carriages will be capable of transporting 44,000 passengers per hour to and from the site.

In addition, Expo 2020 will also house the Dubai Exhibition Centre (DEC). So far, a number of major events have already been confirmed, including nine healthcare conferences, the BlockExpo and World Blockchain Summit 2020, which will run from November 2-6, 2020, and the next World Government Summit. The latter will be held from November 22-25, 2020.

“For six months during Expo 2020, there will be no place on the planet providing better opportunities to network with governments, businesses, educational institutions, thought leaders, business titans and industry associations, than Dubai Exhibition Centre,” says Shaun Vorster, vice-president of programming at Expo 2020 Dubai.

“Co-located at the Expo 2020 site, DEC is a world-class venue that brings together state-of-the art facilities, cutting-edge technology and top-notch hospitality services across 45,000 square metres of customisable space, offering a unique venue for summits, seminars, new product launches, exhibitions, networking and business meetings, concerts, and even weddings and gala dinners.

“DEC delegates will have access to the rich content of Expo 2020, including front-row seats to the world’s largest meeting of minds, 60 live events a day, a smorgasbord of outlets offering the best of international cuisine, cultural celebrations at 192 country pavilions and access to 25,000 media professionals during the course of the six-month event.”

What happens after the event, however, is just as important as the Expo itself. So much so that it intends to leave an economic, physical, social and reputational legacy. The Sustainability pavilion, for example, will become a science Exploratorium, and the Mobility pavilion will be transformed into high-end office space. All will form part of what will be known as District 2020, a multi-purpose development designed to contribute to the UAE’s drive towards a knowledge-based economy.

EY has predicted that the legacy period (what it classifies as May 2021 to December 2031) will provide just over half of Expo 2020’s total economic impact ($16.9bn). Benefiting most will be events organisation and business services, and the retail and restaurants and hotels sectors.

“Across the period of our study, spanning the pre-Expo, during-Expo and legacy phases between 2013 and 2031, Expo 2020 is expected to support billions of dirhams of gross value added (GVA) and thousands of jobs in the UAE,” says Jamie Torrens, director of economic advisory and transaction advisory services at EY. “Although the Expo event lasts less than a year, the positive economic impact continues far beyond the event.”

When transitioned to District 2020 (which will take an estimated six months after the event), the Expo site will include 65,000 square metres of residential space, 135,000 square metres of commercial space, and world-class innovation, educational, cultural and entertainment facilities, all with the idea of creating a destination to ‘connect, create and innovate’.

“District 2020 is a mixed-use urban development that will result from the urbanisation of the Expo 2020 site once the event concludes on April 10, 2021,” says Marjan Faraidooni, chief pavilions and exhibitions officer at Expo 2020 Dubai.

“Approximately 80 per cent of Expo 2020’s built environment, including the three thematic districts, will be repurposed and live on as part of this smart and sustainable city that will promote an innovation-driven business ecosystem and holistic, balanced lifestyle. This includes Terra, the Sustainability Pavilion, which will continue to inspire visitors as a children and science centre, and Al Wasl Dome, an architectural masterpiece that symbolises connection and innovation.

“Leading corporations, start-ups and SMEs are already choosing to house their headquarters at District 2020. Anchor tenants announced so far include Siemens, which will set up its global logistics headquarters at District 2020, and Accenture which plans to open a digital hub on the premises.”

Importantly, the event’s organisers have placed great emphasis on inspiring younger generations. It has already provided 47 teams of students with grants of up to $13,500 each, as well as exposure and support to help develop their creative solutions to pressing challenges faced by the UAE and the wider region. It is engaging with schools and educators across the UAE, has reached more than 58,000 students from more than 700 schools, and has engaged more than 7,700 educators from both public and private schools to discuss how they can involve their students in the next World Expo.

All this is part of the UAE’s wider goal of building a knowledge-based economy and providing Emiratis with the skills required for the future. For example, in April this year the UAE Cabinet adopted ambitious plans to position the country as a global leader in artificial intelligence. Indeed, the country’s leadership has continuously promoted innovation, invested in research and development, supported creativity, and embraced groundbreaking technologies such as blockchain and placed digital transformation at the heart of national strategy.

“In addition to District 2020, which will ensure the physical legacy of the event, the experience of hosting a World Expo is ideal training for any and all future events that will be held in Dubai and the UAE,” says Faraidooni.

“Not only is Expo 2020 helping build a large workforce skilled in construction, operations, leadership and marketing, it is also ramping up skills that will foster new ideas, accelerate knowledge exchange, trigger innovation and lead to collaborative relationships. This contribution to the UAE’s knowledge economy will create value for generations to come.

“With humanity facing a number of complex and increasingly diverse challenges, collaborating to build a better and more sustainable future for our planet is the need of the hour. Expo 2020 is an unprecedented opportunity to bring together more than 200 participants, including countries, multilateral organisations, businesses and educational establishments, as well as millions of visitors, and inspire them to build a better future for us all.

“The global economic and political centre of gravity is shifting eastwards, and the UAE sits at its heart. Hosting a large-scale, global event such as the next World Expo is an unparalleled opportunity for the UAE to showcase its dynamism and hospitality, highlight its strong vision of the future and reinforce its status as a connecting hub for the globe.”


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