An anchor of the Dubai-based television program Emirates News started her daily run through of the headlines one recent evening by reporting that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, was on his way to Paris. That the state-affirming Dubai One TV cites Sheikh Mohammed’s activity at the top of its program is nothing out of the ordinary. But this particular newscast piqued my interest because the trip was linked to Dubai’s bid to host the World Expo 2020 fair.
Dubai is one of four cities competing to host the event, and the contenders last month made their penultimate presentations at the annual convention of the Paris-headquartered Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), an intergovernmental organization of 167 member countries. The final vote of BIE members, including Lebanon, is due in November after another round of symposiums in candidate cities Yekaterinburg, Russia in July; Sao Paulo, Brazil in September; Izmir, Turkey in early October; and Dubai on October 22-24.
One can trust the United Arab Emirates to carry good pecuniary messages, and its high-powered delegation announced a 250 million euro ($328 million) gift package, 150 million euros ($197 million) of aid to support the participation of emerging economies in Expo 2020 and 100 million euros ($131 million) for a multi-year, international brainstorming project on critical global issues, called Expo Live. Another unsurprisingly cash-rich announcement in the UAE presentation was that if awarded the fair, Dubai would fast-track the AED 5 billion ($1.36 billion) infrastructure investment to extend the city’s Metro to the expo site in the area of Al Maktoum Airport.
Dubai has been drumming up its campaign to host Expo 2020 with a steadily increasing beat since first submitting its bid in November 2011. The event has a planned duration of six months, with 25 million expected visitors, 70 percent of them regional and international. According to an Oxford Economics study commissioned for the bid, the event will create some 280,000 jobs, a third of them on a regional level. The opportunities are many, and members of Dubai’s marketing communications industry, most of whom are Lebanese, all had the hots for the business that the Expo would bring when I interviewed them in January.
But the vote for Dubai is not a no-brainer for Lebanon. Izmir is a city with a large trade and exhibition industry, and Turkey can appeal to many commercial interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. A Turkish government minister polished door handles in Amman and Beirut this spring on a tour to promote Izmir. Strong links and shared interests exist also between Beirut and Brazil’s largest city. Note that the mayor of Sao Paulo is Fernando Haddad: he is one of Lebanon’s own. And while Dubai is where the Lebanese commute to work, there is the thorny issue of the UAE’s travel warnings that have punished Lebanon’s economy.
Viewing Lebanon’s Expo 2020 voting decision from the perspective of economic self-interest and emotional appeal, strong entreaties thus beckon from three of the four candidates. To get an edge, Dubai would be well advised to show more understanding of Lebanon’s vital tourism needs and to take the coming weeks and months to elaborate on what Sheikh Mohammed said last month that one of the three core reasons for inviting Expo 2020 to Jebel Ali Trade Center is to show the world that “the Middle East is not a region of conflict, war and tension” and that the expo’s motto of connecting minds also means “to communicate and interact positively within our region.”
Another vantage point is the one of “building the future”, as the second half of Dubai’s expo motto says. London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, often hailed as the first world fair, was a pivotal step in the United States’ ascension as a global manufacturing leader. The year 2020, when China is forecast to surpass the US in headline gross domestic product, could be recorded in history as a similar hallmark in the transition from the American century to a human capital-driven global economy of increasingly interdependent co-creators of wealth beyond nations.
The protests for social justice and dignity that swept the two contender countries Turkey and Brazil so very recently are a reminder that all nations have much to ponder in order to manage the international socioeconomic balance sheet in the 21st century. Dubai, whose corporate environment leads the world in internalizing the human capital success formula of building United Nations within your enterprise, appeals to me as suitable to host a world fair that takes a shot at connecting minds.
Thomas Schellen is Executive’s business editor