As much as Expo 2020 has economic as well as political importance for the UAE, it also carries important benefits for the region. The organization of such a huge event for the first time in the Middle East is likely to give countries of the region an opportunity to to present an image that is different from the one that has prevailed in recent years as a result of the region’s political crises and conflicts. Moreover, the exhibition provides an opportunity for countries of the region to boost their economies and recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Expectations for huge numbers of attendees at the exhibition mean, in one way or another, the revitalization of the tourism sector, not only in the UAE, but in the region at large. The UAE’s hosting of Expo 2020 calls for a more comprehensive perspective that takes into account the effects and repercussions of this event on the Middle East.
Expo 2020 is likely to realize several key gains for countries of the region, which can be examined through the following:
1. Consolidating the inspirational model: The UAE’s success in hosting Expo 2020 could establish an inspirational model for other countries in the region as they try to replicate the UAE experience. This is especially so given the increasing importance of ‘mega-events diplomacy’ in global interactions, as it indicates the efforts of countries to promote their presence on the global stage by hosting mega-events—defined as ‘ambulatory occasions of a fixed duration that attract a large number of visitors, have a large mediated reach, come with large costs, and have large impacts’ on the host country and its citizens. In such a context, hosting mega-events, such as the Expo, is no longer just an economic event, but has become a tool for building a country’s national brand, as well as its public diplomacy.
Kelly Vibber and Alessandro Lovari believe that "mega-events pose a unique and substantial opportunity to develop and promote a nation’s brand and competitive identity, as well as their soft power. This is due in part to key outputs of mega-events like visitor attractiveness and mediated reach. The increase in tourism both during and after a mega-event has potential for diplomatic and economic impacts….In addition, the increased global visibility from the media attention on mega-events can also magnify messages a nation wants to send." Accordingly, Expo 2020 could lead to an increased interest in the countries of the region in the fields of "low politics," such as trade, tourism, immigration, and other forms by which a positive image of the country can be formulated abroad.
2. Rebranding the region: Hosting the Expo 2020 for the first time in the Middle East will reformulate the region’s image and replace, albeit partially, the negative perception that have been ascribed to the region in recent years, i.e., as a region suffering from severe political, economic, and humanitarian crises. Thus, Expo 2020 can play a role in the recovery of the countries of the region from the dilemma of "insecurity branding" and its disastrous repercussions on their ability to exploit their resources. The portrayal of a country as a dangerous place that lacks security and stability and is institutionally bereft will harm this country’s economic system and its ability to attract investors and tourism and market its products.
3. Return of major organizational activities: This is an important issue both within the UAE and at the region. Holding the exhibition means moving the Middle East region away—albeit partially—from the repercussions of COVID-19 and enabling intensive, new interactions apart from the state of closure and lockdown imposed by the virus, especially since this is the first time the exhibition is being held in the Middle East. The exhibition will also include the exchange of views between global leaders and institutions in a way that may reflect positively on the region. For example, Dubai Chamber’s activities at Expo 2020 Dubai include organizing and hosting several global business forums, including Global Business Forum Africa, Global Business Forum ASEAN, and Global Business Forum on Latin America, in addition to hosting the 12th World Chambers Congress.
At the UAE level, organizational success is an important mechanism for recovery from the repercussions of COVID-19, which had negative effects on all economies of the region, including the UAE’s. According to many estimates, the exhibition is expected to attract more than 25 million visitors during its course, with 70% of them coming from outside the UAE. Furthermore, hosting the exhibition will give the UAE more influence at the regional level as a driver to revive major activities in the region.
4. Promoting innovation and progress: In his study of the relationship between international exhibitions and public diplomacy, Vicente Gonzalez posits that "international exhibitions provide platforms for innovation, development, and cultural advancement through the exchange of ideas between countries, organizations, and participating audiences." This proposition manifests at Expo 2020, which is entitled, "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future." In past years, the exhibition has launched various programs in support of projects, including those in the Middle East, that provide innovative solutions to the biggest global challenges. Among these programs is the international innovation and partnership program known as Expo Live, which has an allocation of about $100 million and includes the Innovation Impact Grant Program and the University Innovation Program. Expo Live aims to support projects that provide innovative solutions to pressing challenges in order to help improve people’s lives or protect the planet.
5. Enhancing available economic opportunities: Expo 2020 will likely have significant economic impacts on the region through two main tracks. The first track provides a platform for countries in the region to showcase the economic opportunities they provide. Perhaps this was confirmed by Vincent Gonzalez Loscertales, former Secretary-General of the International Bureau of Exhibitions, in a discussion with Al Bayan economic website in September 2019, when he noted, "With Dubai’s geographical proximity to Africa and South Asia, Expo 2020 will present unique opportunities for emerging economies across the countries of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, allowing them to showcase their role in the world and then work to attract more foreign investments."
Meanwhile, the second track relates to the extended impact of the UAE’s economic returns on the countries of the region. Ernst & Young estimates indicate that Expo 2020 may contribute up to AED 122.6 billion to the UAE economy from 2013 to 2031. During the same period, Expo 2020 Dubai is expected to support the economy with up to 905,000 job opportunities, a large proportion of which are concentrated in the tourism, travel, and entertainment sector. Expo 2020 will also contribute 1.5% to the projected annual GDP of the UAE during the six months of the exhibition.
Expo 2020 will help achieve the national agenda of UAE’s Vision 2021 by increasing tourism and developing innovative businesses. Expo 2020 focuses particularly on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as a key to future growth and job creation in the UAE. According to some official reports, at the end of July 2020, Expo granted nearly AED 5 billion to SMEs, and more than 45,000 organizations from more than 180 countries have registered to do commercial business with Expo 2020. SMEs represent about 54% of all companies registered at Expo 2020.
Furthermore, the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan aims to make the city of District 2020 (the Expo site) a key development destination for economic growth. Official data indicate that the Dubai government will establish a smart and sustainable city in District 2020. After the end of the exhibition, the city will retain 80% of the Expo environment to build an integrated mixed-use community to continue to attract companies and individuals to work, visit, and live in the country. In addition, it will provide a business system based on innovation that embraces technology and digital innovation to support growth of industry.
It cannot be overlooked that these inputs reflect positively on countries of the region, considering the economic interdependence among them. The special nature of the UAE that intertwines it with the economies of many countries in the region, whether through investments in these countries, or even through attracting the workforce required for its development programs further underlines economic interdependence. For example, Dubai provides a model for cosmopolitan cities where many of the forces and signs of globalization identified by Arjun Appadurai come to the fore, such as immigrants of many national origins, technology, the movement and institutions of capital, ideas and global media, and modern global services.
These scenes have produced great cultural, societal, economic, and even urban transformations within Dubai, making it a different model in the Gulf and the Arab world. This character of Dubai, and the UAE in general, will not decline in the post-Expo 2020 phase, which means increased interdependence between the UAE and countries of the region and, by extension, a new window of economic opportunity for countries of the region that will help them, one way or another, to recover from the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.