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April 18, 2014
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Middle East: A winning approach to Dubai Expo 2020


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On November 27, 2013, Dubai won the right to host World Expo 2020, the global showcase of innovation and ideas, by the widest winning margin in expo history. It was the clearest reinforcement of Dubai’s growing status as both an international city of standing and an important hub for major events and meetings. 

Winning the expo, though, wasn’t simply about the day of the vote or the compelling final presentation by HE Reem Al Hashimi. It was about a multi-level, public-private project that, over the course of 24 months, was able to convince 116 of the 167 voting nations that Dubai could provide the ideal platform to express, exchange and evolve ideas to confront the challenges of the modern world. 

During a seminar in February hosted by the Dubai Convention Bureau (DCB) for the International Congress & Convention Association’s (ICCA) Executive Committee, Hala Ghandour, Deputy Managing Director of Bid Committee, outlined the three key components to Dubai’s success during that often gruelling two-year process.

1. The strength of the project

The value Dubai and the UAE could bring to the project. This had six main pillars:

i. 50 years of the UAE
“In 1971, when the UAE was formed, there was limited infrastructure, 290,000 inhabitants, no roads and no civil society. Over the last 40 years, Dubai has transformed, focusing on economic development and diversification, on the empowerment of people, on sustainability, on culture and arts. In 2021, the nation will be celebrating its Golden Jubilee and 50 years of development. So, what better way to mark that occasion – and to reflect on the past – than to host the world?” 

ii. The theme
“A theme defines the very personality of an expo. It defines the content in the pavilions each nation builds, so it has to be appealing to a wide range of nations while addressing a global concern. The theme of the World Expo 2020 bid was ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, which means a lot to Dubai. Dubai’s previous name was ‘Al Wasl’ or the connecting point. It’s what happens here in Dubai every day: people from all over the world come together here and create something really very special. That’s what an expo is all about.” 

iii. The topics within the theme
“The topics we picked were: sustainability, which concerns lasting sources of water and energy; mobility, the smart systems for the movement of people, goods and ideas; and economic opportunity, the identification of new paths of development. We live in a world that is remarkably interconnected. What happens in Japan invariably affects what happens here in the UAE and the US. We don’t live in a world where we can solve the big challenges without working together.

“The topics also provide an opportunity for countries to showcase something they believe they are strong in. And as countries will build their pavilions based on corporate support, we needed to make sure that the private sector had the opportunity to help create and sponsor the stands.”

iv. Site selection
“Dubai World Central (DWC) is located between Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports and right next to the new Al Maktoum Airport. It is also 10 minutes from Jebel Ali Port. This maximises value for both participants, who need to bring in their people and goods, and also for the visitors who will be flying in.” 

v. Site design
“Usually, expos are arranged geographically, with European countries in one zone, Asian countries in another. Dubai’s site was designed like a flower with three distinct wings. Each of these wings represents one of the topics – sustainability, mobility and opportunity. 
“So countries will be grouped by areas of interest. This allows us to deliver on our promise of connecting minds, creating the future by placing countries interested in, say, sustainability next to each other. Big nations next to small nations, Europeans next to African, in a space that allows for discussion.”

vi. Geography
“This is the first expo in the MENASA region. This means that 2.9 billion people will have an expo close to their home for the first time. It also means the participants have a gateway to a region worth US$6 trillion in GDP. As more than 70 percent of all visitors will be international, this truly is a World Expo.” 

2. National support for the bid

The importance was for the whole of Dubai and the wider UAE to unite behind the bid.
“The scale of national support for the bid was remarkable. It started from the very top when Sheikh Mohammed placed the expo bid as a national priority. The importance was reflected in the Higher Committee, which had representation from the federal government, local government, the Municipality, the police, the Tourism Authority, the airlines and airports and the Supreme Council of Energy – all entities important to rolling out an expo. 

“By far the most powerful aspect was the corporate support. When 250 voting delegates visited Dubai, our premier partners made the delegates’ experience unique, from the time they checked into the flight to the dedicated immigration lines at the airport to the staff welcoming at the hotels. The delegates noticed the national excitement. It also showed that we were serious. Politically, the nation was committed to delivering a strong bid and was able to plan robustly for it from the very start.”

3. Lobbying process

The importance of ensuring the delegates were kept informed about Dubai’s bid. 

“Dubai was competing against Thailand, Turkey, Russia and Brazil. Thailand withdrew early, but we were still faced with three extremely large, historic countries, two of which had very strong mega-event experience. 

“Over 24 months, we engaged constantly with delegates from the 167 member states. We got to know them and made sure they knew us and understood the value proposition. But we also had to focus on their capitals: all of the delegates were reporting back to a regulatory or government body back in their home countries, most of the time the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So we also engaged at that level. 

“We also hosted the delegates on numerous occasions, including a 10-member team that came to Dubai to test the feasibility of the bid. Every six months, we stood before the voting nations and gave a presentation on our cababilities. As Sheikh Mohammed put it, the vote showed there were 116 nations on the planet that believed in the UAE. It was a wonderful moment. Now, the challenge of exceeding our promise lies before us.”

Bidding: It’s not only about infrastructure

“There are a number of important lessons for destinations seeking to attract associations business in Dubai’s successful bid for World Expo. Perhaps the main one is that it isn’t all about infrastructure. That’s a common misunderstanding.

“The rationale is often ‘build it and they will come’, but it should be about how the organsiation can grow by hosting an event in a destination – by raising awareness, changing government policy and practices and so on. The infrastructure might have enabled Dubai to hold an expo but it wasn’t the driving force of why it came.”


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