Dubai to see if Expo 2020 delayed by the pandemic is paying off

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – A computer graphics-saturated ad starring Australian actor and Hollywood crush Chris Hemsworth draws the world to the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai, promising a “world of pure fantasy” when kids without face masks through a futuristic one Carnival lawn scene.

However, reality crashes into the frame in all capital letters at the bottom of the screen and says, “This commercial was shot in 2019.”

Postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Dubai’s Expo 2020 opens on Friday, pushing this city-state to bet billions of dollars that the World’s Fair will boost its economy. The sheikdom has built what felt like a whole city out of the once rolling sand dunes on its southern edges to support the fair. An outpost that will largely be dismantled after the six-month event ends in March.

But even before the pandemic, questions began to arise about the appeal of the expo in modern times. It will be one of the first global events in the world after an Olympics this summer that split the host nation Japan and was held without spectators. Although Dubai has opened its doors to tourists from all over the world and has not required vaccinations, it remains unclear how many guests will come to this extravaganza.

For some, Expo 2020 has become a $ 7 billion metaphor for the United Arab Emirates – a futuristic site that attracts the world’s wealthy, built by low-paid foreign workers to celebrate a federation of sheikdoms, in which speech and gathering remain tightly controlled.

Expo 2020 declined to make an official available to talk to The Associated Press before opening. The organizers also did not respond to a series of questions from the AP about the event, instead emailing a brief explanation back.

“We have built an innovative, people-centered community that meets the demands of a new global economy, supported by the latest technological advances and people-centered design,” the statement said.

It is modern wonders that have made the Expos shine since their creation in the 1850s. At the 1889 fair, Paris unveiled its Eiffel Tower. Chicago became the “White City” in 1893 when the world’s fairgrounds, which also housed the first Ferris wheel, were bathed in electric light. Telephones, television broadcasts, and x-rays also wowed the crowd.

In the past few decades, however, many Expos have not received the same amount of attention – or at least not in the positive way. The 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair went bankrupt and required a state bailout. Expo 2000 in Germany attracted 18 million visitors, far below the 40 million expected. At the Expo 2015 in Milan there were riots over allegations of corruption.

Dubai, which won the rights to host the Expo in the years after FIFA awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup, will be the first in the Arab world. It had counted on the Expo to give its economy a necessary boost after its real estate market collapsed during the Great Recession.

EY auditors estimated in 2019 that Dubai alone would spend $ 7 billion on construction projects for the expo. Based on a forecast of 25 million visitors, EY estimates an increase of $ 6 billion during the event. EY told the AP that it hadn’t updated any of its 2019 numbers for the expo.

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic forced Dubai’s long-haul airline Emirates to ground its fleet of jumbo jets as lockdowns and quarantines hit the world. As the airline resumes flights and hires thousands of cabin crew, global travel is still on the brink.

The UAE, which has grown closer to China in recent years, can count on Chinese Expo visitors. The Shanghai Expo 2010 attracted over 73 million visitors, a record. But betting on China doesn’t seem out of the question right now, as those returning to the country are under quarantine and testing for weeks that may include anal swabs.

In the past few weeks, Expo officials have begun referring to an expected “25 million visits” to the website, including those viewing events online.

“It’s about ‘How do we host the biggest and best expo the world has ever seen in the Middle East’ to ‘How do we host an expo for a whole different world?'” Said Robert C. Mogielnicki, Senior Resident Scholar at Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Reaching 25 million visitors under the current circumstances seems like a pretty difficult goal.”

The Emirates were also planning lively announcements around the Expo, perhaps no greater than diplomatic recognition of Israel. After the expo was postponed, the UAE continued the recognition last year.

But the event also got entangled in politics.

Activists raised workers’ rights concerns as low-wage workers from South Asia have long been subject to abuse and work long hours in intense heat and humidity in the Emirates and the rest of the oil-rich Arab states. In October 2019, an Expo official admitted that two workers had been killed on the premises and that there had been 43 other “serious incidents” leading to injuries.

It also remains unclear how many workers have contracted the corona virus. In an abrupt change, Expo officials also announced in the past few days that visitors will have to prove they have been vaccinated or are taking a coronavirus test prior to admission. The UAE even has one of the highest per capita vaccination rates in the world.

Meanwhile, this month the European Parliament urged nations not to attend the expo, citing human rights abuses, the detention of activists and the use of spyware by the autocratic government to target critics.

“In the United Arab Emirates, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and teachers are systematically persecuted for speaking out on political and human rights issues,” the European Parliament said.

While the Emirati Foreign Ministry described the parliamentary statement as “factually incorrect”, even press officials at the Expo repeatedly tried to force visiting journalists to sign forms suggesting that they could be prosecuted if they did not follow their instructions on the spot.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.


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