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“The gates are closed, but the memories will remain. Until we meet again” was displayed on a sign at the entrance to the Expo 2020 Dubai site on April 1, 2022. After 182 days, 24.1 million total visits, and 35,000 events, the world expo in Dubai – the first held in the Middle East – closed its gates. Throughout history, world expositions have been centers of innovation, where architectural feats, such as the Eiffel Tower, and inventions, such as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, were first unveiled to the world. However, it has historically proved difficult for the host country of these global events to maintain the same degree of international attention and investment in development plans for the expo sites after the end of their run.
These mega-events happen every five years and are hosted by countries based on a bidding competition overseen by the Bureau of International Exposition. They require massive tracts of land and are often positioned outside of major cities. The site for Expo 2020, for example, is located outside of Dubai South – about a 45-minute drive from the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai – and became the last stop on the Dubai Metro as of June 2021. So far, the legacy of world expo sites has followed similar trends: The sites mainly become architectural landmarks, parks, performance venues, museums, or housing developments. Most of the buildings and pavilions are often torn down shortly after the expo based on contractual agreements between the host country and participating countries. In cases where the sites are actually developed after the expo, the process is often slow, as the political, economic, and media momentum during the expo wanes.
Dubai is striving to be different. Reem Al Hashimy, UAE minister of state for international cooperation and director general of Expo 2020, announced plans for Expo City Dubai in June. These plans entail a new district that the Bureau of International Exposition claimed will “provide a model for innovative urban districts geared towards collaboration, knowledge-sharing and talent creation for the benefit of future generations.”
“Most expos leave a building or a zone behind. For us, we are actually leaving a city,” said Ahmed Al Khateeb, the expo’s chief development and delivery officer. The legacy of Expo 2020 Dubai has always been an integral factor in its development and execution as part of the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan. This plan sets the stage for Expo City to become an “economic and growth hotspot supported by the activities of exhibition, global events and integrated logistics services.”
An Economic Hub and Sustainable City of the Future
Expo City is near the Jebel Ali Free Zone, the world’s largest free trade zone, which contributes 21% to Dubai’s overall gross domestic product and houses the Port of Jebel Ali, the world’s ninth-busiest port. Additionally, it is near Al Maktoum International Airport. By connecting Expo City with the established industrial free zones as well as transportation and logistics hubs of the emirate, Dubai is positioning Expo City into the Dubai 2030 Industrial Strategy, announced in 2016.
Not only will Expo City be close to the Jebel Ali Free Zone, it is planned to become its own economic freezone and commercial hub, set to host headquarters of companies including DP World, Siemens, and Terminus Group, as well as startups and small and medium enterprises. The early appeal of Expo City to giants in the tech sector and pioneers in the field of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, combined with the recent announcement of the Dubai Metaverse Strategy, means that Expo City could fit into the emirate’s efforts to capitalize on the metaverse. Emirates Airlines recently announced that the company’s pavilion, which exhibited a virtual reality journey of “the future of commercial aviation” during the expo, will be repurposed for Expo City as a center for innovation focused on the metaverse, NFTs or nonfungible tokens, and Web3.
Expo City incorporates sustainable and human-centered urban planning. This follows the popular regional trends in developing sustainable and smart cities, such as Saudi Arabia’s Neom, and reflects the three themes of Expo 2020: opportunity, mobility, and sustainability. Cars will not be allowed across the site; instead residents and visitors will be able to use “soft mobility” methods, including scooters, buggies, and bicycles. Single-use plastics will similarly not be allowed. More than 120 buildings awarded Leadership in Energy and Environment certifications by the U.S. Green Building Council will remain on the site.
Among these buildings, the Sustainability Pavilion is itself a feat of sustainable technology and architecture. The building can generate up to 4 gigawatt hours of electricity per year collected from over 1,000 solar panels. It harvests rainwater and dew for cooling, and purifies, filters, and recycles wastewater. It stays cool even in the summer desert heat because of shade provided by a recycled steel canopy modeled after the United Arab Emirates’ national tree – the desert ghaf tree. Siemens’ MindSphere smart metering technology, featured during the expo, will continue to be used “to monitor energy consumption and efficiency to power, light, water, and climate conditioning systems” throughout the sprawling site.
Expo City is additionally planned to be built according to the WELL Community Standard, which prioritizes health and well-being of inhabitants. Plans for Expo City demonstrate a focus on individual and community mental and physical health: including bicycling and running paths, parks and gardens, healthy food and beverage options, social and cultural attractions, and low-rise buildings for shared residential and commercial purposes. According to plans, Expo City will also be the largest city in the world to be covered by a 5G-enabled network. With a focus on sustainability, clean energy, and a people-first approach to urban design, Expo City fits within the 2015 Dubai Clean Energy Strategy.
Many of the most popular pavilions and attractions of Expo 2020 will remain in Expo City. Al Wasl Plaza, the dome towering over 221 feet high that served as the centerpiece of the site and became the world’s largest 360-degree projection theater, will continue to captivate audiences as a permanent event space. The gravity-defying Surreal water feature as well as the Garden in the Sky observation tower will also remain open to visitors and residents of Expo City as will the Women’s Pavilion and the Vision Pavilion, which celebrates the vision of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and the transformation of Dubai under his leadership. The Opportunity Pavilion will become the world’s second Expo Museum, the first of which is in Shanghai. The UAE’s falcon-shaped pavilion and Saudi Arabia’s gold award-winning pavilion for best architecture and landscape will also remain.
Negotiations are ongoing for many country pavilions to continue operations as tourist attractions, diplomatic or business centers for their respective countries, or facilities repurposed for other uses. In the case of India, which had one of the largest and most popular pavilions at the expo, the building could be used as a hub to facilitate the recently signed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which is projected to increase trade and investment between the two countries. For other countries that have subsequently signed CEPA agreements with the UAE, such as Israel, Indonesia, and Colombia, participation in the expo was a manifestation of growing economic ties.
The legacy of Expo City will also reflect the UAE’s initiatives to be a leader on the international stage in sustainability, technology, and business. The Dubai Exhibition Center, the main conference venue, which hosted global leadership and business summits during the expo, will host the upcoming session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties.
Maintaining Momentum in the Face of Challenges
While many other world expos have failed to maintain momentum for the post-expo site development, Dubai Expo City is capitalizing on social media and the expo leadership for its transition into a new city. On June 20, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, announced the plans for Dubai Expo City in a series of tweets. On the same day, Hashimy announced in her final report to the General Assembly of the Bureau of International Exposition that the new district will have a phased reopening beginning in October – only seven months after the close of the event. Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum was appointed as chairman and Hashimy as chief executive officer of the Expo City Dubai Authority. By nationalizing the company overseeing Expo City, Dubai seems better positioned than other host cities to capitalize on media attention, leadership continuity, and business and investment attraction for a relatively quick post-event transition.
In 2017, expo organizers in Dubai asserted that Expo City Dubai wouldn’t turn into a “white elephant,” as has happened in many other cities that hosted megaevents. In efforts to protect its image, the UAE has been accused of silencing critical journalists and human rights researchers and barring U.N. officials from entering and reporting the event. Shortly before the beginning of the expo, Human Rights Watch Deputy Middle East Director Michael Page called on countries to boycott the expo as did the European Parliament. These calls were largely not heeded as the expo featured pavilions for 192 countries and hosted diplomatic visits by world leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, the United Kingdom’s Prince William, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Actions such as blocking U.N. and other human rights researchers looking into workers’ deaths that occurred during construction of the site from entering the country as well as the government’s use of social media surveillance to identify and arrest individuals making critical comments on these issues certainly brought negative attention to Dubai during the event and will likely continue to challenge the execution of post-expo plans.
Additionally, with such emphasis on marketing the expo and its legacy, critics have expressed skepticism that the event and, subsequently, the city would live up to the hype created during the bidding and planning phase. In 2018, AGSIW scholar Yasser Elsheshtawy posed the question: “Are there any era-defining architectures or structures, suggestive of innovative modes of habitation? The trophy pavilions, while interesting in their own right, do not reach the level of excellence that is comparable to the Eiffel Tower or Crystal Palace, structures that expressed the spirit of their respective age.” Expo 2020 and the early-stage plans for Expo City seemed like another big dream in Dubai’s somewhat disconnected urban development. However, only time will tell if the impressive centerpiece of Expo Dubai – Al Wasl Plaza – will go down in history as an architectural and technological feat. There is still much untapped potential for Expo City to continue to make use of the structure to revolutionize public gatherings, for mass events or casual, public use – as it did during the Expo. Additionally, according to the plans for sustainability and human centrism, if done right, the whole city certainly has the potential to be an “innovative mode of habitation.”
Legacy as Part of a Vision
Tim Van Vrijaldenhoven – a scholar known for researching the tendency of mega-events to turn into “white elephants” – has said he is impressed with Dubai’s legacy planning. Vrijaldenhoven told CNN in April that while he has some concerns about sites disconnected from the rest of a city becoming “end of the line” locations, he believes Dubai will be a different story and a model for future host countries: “I think that this is finally a right answer to how to deal with the legacy of expos.”
Expo City Dubai has certainly made progress on its ambitious plans by securing support from international and domestic businesses partners and focusing leadership and dedicating resources toward the transition process. The coming months will reveal what hurdles persist further into the development of the new city and whether skeptics have exaggerated relatively minor flaws and temporary hurdles or identified longer-term, more intractable issues. If Dubai can accomplish an efficient post-expo transition into a sustainable and profitable city of the future, then the first world exposition held in the Middle East could become the new international standard in legacy planning.
is an associate director at the U.S.-UAE Business Council and former intern at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. She worked as a youth ambassador at the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai and received her BA in international studies from American University.
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