DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – A tech-saturated place filled with talking robots and solar rooftops, the Dubai World Expo aspired to be the future.
The pandemic-delayed Expo 2020 in the United Arab Emirates ended on Thursday after eight years of anticipation, investments of over $7 billion, 240 million hours of work and six months of celebrations.
The fate of the exhibition center is clear. Some country pavilions will be demolished. Some will remain, such as a huge spire dome and the UAE’s soaring falcon-shaped pavilion. Other buildings are being renamed for a new business district that will soon emerge on the site.
But the deeper legacy of the event is proving elusive.
When Dubai was awarded the contract to host Expo 2013, it felt like a rebirth. Just four years earlier, the glitzy city-state suffered a real estate crash during the Great Recession, bailed out by a $20 billion bailout from oil-rich Abu Dhabi.
As property prices soared again, the Expo — the Middle East’s first world fair — seemed to signal that Dubai’s troubles were behind it. Officials offered brilliant predictions. The “biggest show on earth” would attract 25 million visitors. It would generate $33.4 billion in investments by 2031. It would help Dubai enter the premier league of global financial centers.
But in the end, the billions of dollars, the madness of fantastic construction projects and the public barrage proved powerless against the coronavirus pandemic, which forced Dubai to postpone the event by a year.
“It definitely fell short of what officials would have wanted,” said James Swanston, an economist at Capital Economics. “There have been extremely optimistic estimates that Expo will drive real estate and business growth over the next five to 10 years, and COVID has disrupted that.”
Dubai rushed into widespread vaccination to open its borders and ease virus restrictions – earning it a reputation as a party haven for tourists escaping lockdowns at home.
The fair has since recorded a staggering, albeit dismal, total of 23 million visits – fueled by repeated stops by those already living in the city. Employees in the public sector received six days of paid visiting leave. School children regularly came to the Expo for excursions.
While concert lineups featured few prominent names like Coldplay and Alicia Keys, culture-specific crowd pleasers managed to attract a diverse and rabid fan base. K-Pop stars, Bollywood singers and a popular Iranian pop diva attracted thousands.
”This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us,” said Samiya Awan, 37, a Dubai-based Pakistani and expo fanatic who has volunteered at three national pavilions. “I come here every day, even if I’m not doing volunteer work, I come with my children.”
But the event also brought with it a test.
Like the FIFA World Cup for hosts Qatar, the expo shed a light on the problems faced by migrant workers. Many low-paid Expo workers have said they have gone into debt to pay recruiting fees, had their passports confiscated and are struggling to afford food while toiling at the billionaire expo.
Ultimately, however, no companies or countries followed the European Parliament’s calls to withdraw their participation in the Expo over human rights concerns. Dubai has relied on the event to raise its international profile and give its economy a boost as it recovers from the pandemic.
“Bringing the world to Dubai and presenting Dubai to the world was one of the achievements of this event,” said Tarek Fadlallah, Chief Executive at Nomura Asset Management Middle East.
Other analysts note that while Dubai has increasingly pushed its way onto the world stage in recent months, this may have less to do with the expo’s appeal and more to do with the government’s response to the pandemic and major reforms.
“I wouldn’t give the Expo all credit for house price increases,” said Sapna Jagtiani, director at S&P Global Ratings. “It was mainly due to how the UAE was managing the pandemic and attracting high net worth individuals to the country.”
Dubai may no longer have a major global event, but observers say the city’s pro-business rules and lack of sanctions and politics will buoy the emirate’s crash at the Expo. This is especially true as Russia’s war against Ukraine has pushed oil prices to multi-year highs and unleashed economic turmoil in the region.
“We have a lot of oil money finding its way to real estate in Dubai,” Jagtiani added. “It’s seen as a safe haven where investments flow when there’s conflict.”
However, there are concerns that the end of the Expo could exacerbate Dubai’s debt and oversupply problems if demand for the expected spate of new hotel and residential developments fails to materialise. Rising interest rates are also a threat.
“It may not explode like it did in 2009, but it could raise concerns about debt repayments, which Abu Dhabi will have to step in again,” Swanston said.
But while Dubai is still littered with unfinished white elephant projects, other more successful ones have spurred growth, turning parts of the vast deserts into shiny new developments.
Whether the Expo site will have a lasting impact remains to be seen, even as crowds poured in in the final hours of the party.
“I’ve heard a lot of mixed feedback about how good or bad the expo was, how it fell short of certain expectations,” said Khaled Iskandar, a Palestinian architect who is visiting the site for the fourth time this week. “Personally . .. I was in awe.”
During a glittering closing ceremony, the Expo’s dome lit up in hypnotic scenes of swirling water and orange-yellow light.
“When the Expo ends and this site evolves… the enduring spirit of Expo 2020 Dubai will remain,” said Jai-chul Choi, President of the General Assembly of the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions, which oversees the Expos.
Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma played a slow and mournful solo. The dark sky lit up with fireworks.
Associated Press writer Malak Harb in Dubai contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.