By Ed Attwood
Dubai’s victory in the Expo 2020 vote last week may have been a historic moment, but delivering one of the world’s showpiece events will be no easy feat.
I have to be honest and say I wasn’t convinced Dubai would win the Expo. I certainly thought the city had the best bid, but there were too many variables and too much uncertainty. Countries tend to vote with their own political and economic interests in mind. Wouldn’t two of the world’s most powerful and rapidly emerging economies – Russia and Brazil – be a better bet than the UAE?
After all, you can press the flesh as much as you like and collect big-name endorsements by the bucketload, but in a secret ballot there are no guarantees. Take a look at Turkey; the country’s transport minister predicted that Izmir had the support of 60 countries but when push came to shove, the city only picked up 33 in the first round.
In contrast, Dubai’s team stayed calm, focused and under the radar, occasionally saying they were cautiously optimistic, but refusing to indulge in a guessing game as to how the vote would go.
Now that Dubai has won, the organising team behind the bid will be only too aware that the hard work begins now. You only need to look a short distance over the Gulf to Qatar to discover the pressures associated with putting on a truly global event. When you’re in the global spotlight, you have to expect all the exposure – both positive and negative – that can come with that.
But whereas Doha is effectively undertaking a root-and-branch revamp of its urban infrastructure, a decade of serious investment means that Dubai is already ahead of the game. In addition, most of the blueprints for the construction that needs to take place are complete, and it shouldn’t take too long to hand out the contracts. Still, Doha has nine years to go until the World Cup, while Dubai has just seven.
Perhaps the biggest concern for Dubai’s economy over the next few years is ensuring that growth doesn’t get out of hand. Even before the win, that was already a very real issue; the National Bank of Kuwait estimates that projects worth a colossal $705bn will be built in the city over the next ten years. By comparison to that sum, the government’s investment of $8.1bn in Expo-related infrastructure looks pretty manageable.
Inflation, property and credit bubbles and housing oversupply were all hallmarks of Dubai’s last boom, but the signs are there that the government is using a variety of measures to prevent overheating. The mortgage cap may help to quell the city’s surging property market, as should the Land Department’s move to double the fee paid on new houses. In addition, RERA’s rental calculator should still help to prevent landlords from pushing up rents at an exorbitant rates.
But for me, one of the most encouraging things about Dubai’s bid has been the way in which the process has galvanised the local community. Not only has the bid been heavily backed by the Dubai government, but there’s been a huge push from Abu Dhabi and the other emirates as well, not to mention wider regional support. In his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan has been travelling the world promoting the bid, and was present – clearly elated – at last week’s vote in Paris. In a year that has seen a mega merger between Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s aluminium production firms, and moves towards a unified bourse, the Expo is truly a win, not just for Dubai, but for the UAE as a whole.