The Dubai World Expo, a tech-saturated site teeming with talking robots and solar-powered canopies, sought to be the future.
Now that’s history.
Expo 2020 in the United Arab Emirates, delayed by the pandemic, closed on Thursday after eight years of anticipation, more than 7 billion dollars in investments, 240 million hours of work and six months of festivities.
The fate of the showmen is clear. Some national pavilions will be demolished. A few will remain, such as a huge lace dome and the UAE’s falcon-shaped pavilion. Other buildings will be renamed for a new business district that will soon emerge from the site.
But the deeper legacy of the event proves more elusive.
When Dubai won the bid to host Expo in 2013, it felt like a rebirth. Just four years earlier, the glitzy city-state suffered a property crash during the Great Recession, saved by a $20 billion bailout of oil-rich Abu Dhabi.
As property prices soared, Expo, the Middle East’s premier world fair, seemed to indicate that Dubai’s troubles were behind it. Officials offered bright predictions. The largest fair in the world would attract 25 million visitors. This would generate $33.4 billion in investments until 2031. This would help Dubai rise to the top rank of global financial centers.
But, in the end, the billions of dollars, the frenzy of fancy construction projects and the barrage of publicity proved powerless in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced Dubai to postpone the event for a year.
It certainly didn’t do what officials would have wanted, said James Swanston, an economist at Capital Economics. There were wildly optimistic assessments of Expo driving the next five to 10 years of real estate and business growth, and Covid-19 disrupted that.
Dubai has rushed for widespread vaccination so it can open its borders and ease virus restrictions, earning it a reputation as a party haven for tourists fleeing lockdowns at home.
The fair has since recorded a staggering, if murky, total of 23 million visits fueled by repeated stops by those already living in the city. Public sector employees were granted six days paid leave to visit. School children regularly went to the Expo for field trips.
While the concert lineups included only a few star names, such as Coldplay and Alicia Keys, culturally specific crowd-pleasers managed to attract diverse and rabid fanbases. K-pop stars, Bollywood singers and a beloved Iranian pop diva attracted thousands.
“It’s a unique experience for all of us,” said Samiya Awan, 37, a Pakistani resident of Dubai and Expo fanatic who has volunteered at three national pavilions. “I come here every day, even if I don’t volunteer, I come with my children.”
But the event also attracted attention.
As the FIFA World Cup is hosted by Qatar, the Expo has highlighted the issues of migrant workers. Many low-paid Expo workers said they went into debt to cover recruitment fees, had their passports confiscated and struggled to afford food while working at the multi-billion dollar fair .
However, no company or country ultimately heeded calls from the European Parliament to withdraw their participation in the Expo on human rights grounds. Dubai counted on the event to enhance its international profile and provide a boost to its economy as it rebounds from the pandemic.
“Bringing the world to Dubai and showcasing Dubai to the world was one of the successes of this event,” said Tarek Fadlallah, Managing Director of Nomura Asset Management Middle East.
Other analysts note that while Dubai has increasingly asserted itself on the world stage in recent months, that may have less to do with the Expo’s appeal than the government’s response to the pandemic and the major reforms.
The United Arab Emirates changed its weekend to align with the West, allowed unmarried couples to live together legally and eased visa restrictions and foreign investment rules. The game seems to be next. As hordes of well-heeled foreigners flock to the emirate, prices for luxury properties and villas have surged.
“I wouldn’t give Expo full credit for the residential real estate price increases,” said Sapna Jagtiani, director of S&P Global Ratings. “It was mainly driven by the way the UAE has handled the pandemic and the wealthy people who have settled in the country.”
Dubai may no longer have a major global event, but observers say the city’s business-friendly rules and lack of sanctions and policy will support the emirate in its Expo descent. This is especially true as Russia’s war on Ukraine has pushed oil prices to multi-year highs and caused economic turmoil in the region.
“We have a lot of oil money going into real estate in Dubai,” Jagtiani added. “It’s seen as a safe haven where investments flow whenever there’s a conflict.”
However, concerns remain that the end of Expo could deepen Dubai’s debt and oversupply problems if demand does not materialize for the expected flood of new hotels and housing developments. Rising interest rates are also looming.
“It may not explode in the same way as 2009, but it could raise debt repayment concerns where Abu Dhabi has to step in again,” Swanston said.
But while unfinished white elephant projects still litter Dubai, more successful ones have propelled growth and transformed swaths of its vast deserts into gleaming new developments.
Whether the Expo site will have a lasting impact remains to be seen, even though crowds rushed in during the final hours of the festivities.
“I heard a lot of mixed comments about the quality or quality of the Expo, about it not meeting certain expectations,” said Khaled Iskandar, a Palestinian architect visiting the site for the fourth times this week. “Personally…I was in awe.”
In a dazzling closing ceremony, the Expo’s dome shone with hypnotic scenes of swirling water and orange-yellow light.
When Expo ends and this site evolves, the enduring spirit of Expo 2020 Dubai will persist, proclaimed Jai-chul Choi, chairman of the General Assembly of the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions which oversees the Expos.
Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed a slow, mournful solo. The dark sky lit up with fireworks.