Even for a city that seems to reinvent itself every few years, the landscape of Dubai could change immeasurably by 2020, if all goes according to plan. While the city has marched south along the Arabian Sea shoreline in the last decade, a large desert landscape is still awaiting development. If Dubai wins the rights to hold the World Expo in seven years time, a 438 hectare site in Jebel Ali will play host to one of the planet’s biggest events.
Dubai Trade Centre – Jebel Ali – as the site will be known, is equidistant from the centre of the city and Abu Dhabi. It will be sandwiched between what will eventually be the world’s biggest airport, Al Maktoum International, and the world’s third biggest port. But far more importantly than that, a Dubai win would represent the first time that the Expo has been held anywhere in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region.
“It would be life-changing for Dubai,” says Hamad Buamim, the director general of the Dubai Chamber, the industry body that represents the private sector in the emirate. “I can see that in 2020, with Expo 2020, that the whole area will be like what we see in the middle of Dubai today. You can see that Dubai has been successful in doing the same thing with areas like Internet City in the past, so in a few years, I think we can do even better than that.”
More buildings, more hotels, more roads, a mammoth convention centre and metro links are all on the cards. And expectations are massive; Buamim says that if the bid is secured, the emirate will be expecting roughly 25 million visitors a year by 2020, a huge jump on the roughly nine million tourists who made their way to the emirate in 2012.
Also in the running to host the event are cities in Thailand, Russia, Brazil and Turkey, all of which are, like the UAE, emerging and fast-growing economies. The competition is tight, and with the results expected to be announced in November this year, the Dubai team certainly isn’t complacent. But it also has some heavy hitters backing its bid, including Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who is chairing the bid’s higher committee, and Minister of State Reem Al Hashimy, who is the managing director.
“We believe that the only place [to hold the event] is Dubai; we have the infrastructure and we can build even bigger infrastructure going forwards,” Buamim adds. “And, of course, if you take the UAE as a country, it’s the second-biggest Arab economy, an open one, it’s growing, and it’s well-connected with the rest of the world. Safety and stability is very important – and if you look around the Middle East, the UAE is one of the few areas that has that vital element.”
If promoting Dubai’s Expo bid was Buamim’s only job, he’d still have his hands full. But that’s just a small item on a to-do list that seems to be growing by the day. He’s a regular traveller, marketing Dubai’s businesses to the world, and in turn trying to get international firms to set up shop in the emirate. And he also acts as a go-between between the private sector and the government, offering the chamber’s advice on laws and regulations, and trying to cut down on the amount of red tape that local firms have to put up with.
If the World Bank is to be trusted, then Buamim is doing a pretty good job. Every year the agency publishes global rankings that rate each country in terms of their ease of doing business. The UAE ranked 40th in 2011, but shot up to 26th place last year, putting it in second place in the region behind Saudi Arabia, which dropped to 22nd place from twelfth place in 2011. The report praised the UAE for streamlining some start-up processes, implementing an online system for paying and filing taxes, and reducing the time it takes for firms to get an electricity connection.
“There were a lot of improvements in the legal parts,” says Buamim. “We always say starting a business in Dubai is very good and that’s where we score high, but there are a lot of challenges when it comes to closing a business or where there are disputes.”
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