The Gulf Special

Will the desert rose bloom again?

Dubai is banking top dollar on Expo 2020. Will the event transform its economic geography?

he United Arab Emirates (UAE), like other countries in the GCC, faces a very challenging inhospitable desert environment but has strategically transformed itself into an economic and financial platform for a wide region spanning Africa, west and central Asia. The UAE has dealt with the natural resource curse and high dependence on oil through economic diversification, liberal economic policies (notably on labour mobility and foreign investment in the free zones), good governance, investing the proceeds of oil revenue in sovereign wealth funds and undertaking reforms to lower the cost of doing business.

Dubai has demonstrated that in an increasingly global marketplace, countries can overcome locational disadvantages or maximise the benefits of location to enter global supply chains and achieve international economic integration through outward-looking institutional reforms and infrastructure investments. 

Dubai Expo 2020

The selection of Dubai to host the Expo in 2020 is an international confirmation of the UAE and Dubai’s achievements over the past three decades. But what does Expo 2020 add to Dubai and the UAE? What could be its legacy? Why is the UAE — the first Arab country to have been selected — venturing into these internationally challenging waters? The UAE has a distinct geographical comparative advantage, located as it is between Europe and the Americas on one side and the Indian subcontinent and east Asia on the other, opening doors to adjacent Africa in addition to its GCC counterparts and the Arab world. Some two-thirds of the world’s population lives within an eight-hour flight from Dubai and one-third — including India — within four hours.

This locational factor sets Dubai Expo 2020 apart from previous Expos: it is expected to attract 25 million visitors in the six months between October 2020 and April 2021 and, for the first time in Expo history, 71% of the traffic would originate from outside the host nation. By contrast, the Shanghai Expo attracted 73 million visitors, of whom only 5.8% were foreign. But geography without infrastructure and logistics is insufficient. It is the UAE’s roads, ports, airports, open-sky policies and airlines — notably Emirates, Etihad and Sky Dubai — that provide regional and international connectivity, while hotels and hospitality will help host visit


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