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Expo 2020 Dubai looks to Future with Spectacular

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The world’s fair in Dubai, a tech-saturated site teeming with talking robots and solar canopies, sought to be the future.

Now, it’s history.

The pandemic-delayed Expo 2020 in the United Arab Emirates closes on Thursday after eight years of anticipation, over $7 billion in investment, 240 million hours of labor and six months of festivities.

The fate of the fairgrounds is clear. Some national pavilions will be demolished. A few will remain, like an enormous lacework dome and the UAE’s soaring falcon-shaped pavilion. Other buildings will be rebranded for a new business district soon to rise 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 real-estate crash in the Great Recession, rescued by a $20 billion bailout from oil-rich Abu Dhabi.

As property prices roared back, the Expo — the first world’s fair in the Middle East — appeared to signal Dubai’s troubles were behind it. Officials offered bright predictions. The “world’s greatest show” would draw 25 million visitors. It would generate $33.4 billion in investment until 2031. It would help Dubai push into the top tier of global financial centers.

But, in the end, the billions of dollars, frenzy of fantastical construction projects and barrage of publicity proved powerless against the coronavirus pandemic, which forced Dubai to postpone the event a year.

“It definitely fell short of what officials would have wanted,” said James Swanston, an economist at Capital Economics. “There were extremely optimistic assessments about Expo driving the next five to 10 years of growth in real estate and business, and COVID disrupted that.”

Dubai raced to widespread vaccination so it could open its borders and relax virus restrictions — earning it a reputation as a party haven for tourists escaping lockdowns back home.

The fair since has logged a staggering, albeit murky, total of 23 million visits — fueled by repeated visits of those already living in the city. Public sector employees got six days paid leave to visit. Schoolchildren regularly descended on Expo for field trips.

While concert lineups included just a few starry names, such as Coldplay and Alicia Keys, culturally specific crowd-pleasers succeeded in drawing diverse and rabid fan bases. K-pop stars, Bollywood singers and a beloved Iranian pop diva lured thousands.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us,” said 37-year-old Samiya Awan, a Pakistani resident of Dubai and Expo fanatic who volunteered at three national pavilions. “I am coming here every day, even if I’m not volunteering, I’m coming with my kids.”

But the event brought scrutiny as well.

As the FIFA World Cup has for host Qatar, Expo has shined a light on the troubles of migrant laborers. Many low-paid Expo workers have told of plunging into debt to cover recruitment fees, having their passports confiscated and struggling to afford food while toiling at the multibillion-dollar fair.

However, no companies or countries ultimately heeded calls by the European Parliament to withdraw their involvement in Expo over human rights concerns. Dubai has counted on the event to raise its international profile and offer a jolt to its economy as it bounces back from the pandemic.

“Bringing the world to Dubai and showcasing Dubai to the world has been one of the successes of this event,” said Tarek Fadlallah, chief executive at Nomura Asset Management Middle East.

Other analysts note that while Dubai increasingly has elbowed its way onto the world stage in recent months, that may have less to do with Expo’s allure than the government’s pandemic response and major reforms.

The UAE has changed its weekend to align with the West, allowed unmarried couples to legally live together and eased visa restrictions and foreign investment rules. Gambling appears to be next. As hordes of well-heeled foreigners flock to the emirate, the prices of luxury properties and villas have surged.

“I wouldn’t give Expo all the credit for residential property price increases,” said Sapna Jagtiani, a director at S&P Global Ratings. “It was mostly driven by how the UAE managed the pandemic and high net-worth individuals moving to the country.”

Dubai may no longer have a major global event but observers say the city’s business-friendly rules and absence of sanctions and politics will buoy the emirate in its Expo comedown. That’s especially true as Russia’s war on Ukraine has pushed oil prices to multi-year highs and stirred economic turmoil in the region.

“We have a lot of oil money that finds its way to Dubai real estate,” Jagtiani added. “It’s considered a safe haven where investment flows whenever there’s conflict.”

However, concerns linger that the end of Expo could aggravate Dubai’s debt and oversupply problems if demand fails to materialize for the expected flood of new hotel and housing construction. Rising interest rates loom as well.

“It may not blow up in the same way as 2009, but it could raise concerns about debt repayments where Abu Dhabi has to step in again,” Swanston said.

But while uncompleted white elephant projects still litter Dubai, others more successful have propelled growth and transformed swaths of its vast deserts into gleaming new developments.

Whether the Expo site has a lasting impact remains to be seen, even as crowds rushed in for the final few hours of the party.

“I’ve heard a lot of mixed feedback about how good or how bad the Expo was, how it didn’t meet certain expectations,” said Khaled Iskandar, a Palestinian architect visiting the site for the fourth time this week. “Personally … I was in awe.”

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