February 23, 2018

After the Vanity Fair: Trials and Tribulations of Dubai Expo 2020

Dubai Expo 2020 stand
People visit the Dubai Expo 2020 stand at the Cityscape Global exhibition, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

On November 27, 2013 the Bureau International des Expositions elected Dubai as the host for World Expo 2020. By any measure a remarkable achievement, Dubai’s selection capped an astonishing rise for the city from obscure trading post to world-class status. Dubai is the first city in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia to host such a world event, which according to noted UAE commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is indicative of a “momentum” that has “left everyone behind.” He further notes that “no other Middle Eastern and North African city is as global and glamorous as Dubai.” In 2020, when all eyes of the world are directed at this urban miracle, the city’s global credentials will thus be finally cemented.

What was formerly a desolate stretch of highway, traversed by trucks and buses filled with aspiring laborers, punctuated by isolated warehouses, dreary housing camps, and the occasional residential tower rising out of what seemed like nowhere, would become a thriving community where an expo official envisioned an “Emirati guy wearing a backpack and Skechers trainers cycling to work on his bike.” She was describing District 2020 – a residential, commercial, and business hub imagined in this animated video.

Such narratives sidestep serious reservations directed at these events in general and Dubai in particular. Indeed there is an ongoing debate whether global fairs have any value besides boasting. Are they simply a vanity project that justifies the associated cost, in terms of money, environment, and resources? Are they a showcase for upcoming and emerging nations seeking to “elbow their way” into global significance? And, is the selection of Dubai an affirmation of what one critic described as a form of “autocratic ambition” taking place in the “global capital of architectural hubris”? What does Dubai Expo 2020 offer to counter such critical narratives? The answer to these queries is neither clear cut nor straightforward.

Expos can have many intangible effects such as city branding, as was the case with Seattle in 1962. Seattle saw such benefits in part because “planners conceived it as an engine of urban renewal, not an end in itself.” An indicator of how well the site integrated with the city is that many people to this day do not realize a fair was held there. Aside from a few structures such as the space needle and a monorail, nothing remains from the expo. The focus here was not the event itself but how it could be used to revitalize the city and upgrade its downtown. This was a long-term objective that evolved organically, taking decades to reach fruition.

A more troubling aspect of expos relates to their legacy. Such events can easily turn into white elephants draining cities of valuable resources, leaving behind empty sites and shells of exposition buildings. In other instances, they cause the displacement of residents.

Some recent events have had a mixed record. The Expo Milan 2015 site was previously a disused industrial and warehousing zone and is now being turned into an innovation hub following a worldwide architecture competition. Organizers were much criticized however for failing to provide an adequate urban plan following the expo’s completion. After the 2010 expo in Shanghai the site remained empty, but it has recently been reimagined as Shanghai Expo Cultural Park. It will reportedly be turned into a green area with free access to local residents, whose input is being sought for the park’s design.

How does Dubai fare in relation to these precedents?

Dubai’s initial vision was presented during its bid in 2013. Based on a masterplan by U.S. consultancy HOK, it was an awe-inspiring spectacle of a three-pronged ribbon-like roof structure snaking its way across the exhibition ground, gently rising while covering various pavilions and coming together at Wasl Plaza, a dynamic open space that would bring all participants together into one joyous gathering. The design expressed a celebration of humanity, a true spatial representation of the expo’s theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” with its three subthemes: opportunity, mobility, and sustainability.

After the selection of Dubai as the host city this vision was further refined. Three main pavilions were unveiled, all designed by some of the most recognizable names in architecture, and all dynamic and inspirational buildings. Yet something seemed to be afoot when the much-anticipated UAE pavilion was announced. The architect Santiago Calatrava is one of the most prolific practitioners today, and has an impressive track record including the design of New York City’s soaring World Trade Center hub. This proposal however references clichéd visions of a falcon eagle with the building comprised of various elongated frames within an overall form that is static and symmetrical. In its latest incarnation, following modifications, it resembles a generic and utilitarian building. With regard to the expo’s overall layout, its free-flowing ribbon-like roof structure was simplified and is now a rigid, flat surface intersecting with a giant enclosed dome more befitting an office park or university campus.

Architecture aside, quite a lot of planning went into the event’s actual execution to ensure timely delivery. Accordingly, all the right boxes were ticked: International experts were brought in as consultants; stakeholder concerns were addressed through meetings held under the “connecting” theme addressing business leaders and architectural offices among many others; and an extensive media campaign was in full swing through flashy videos displaying the expo vision and masterplan. Unlike previous events, planners have assured, this time the expo’s legacy has been carefully considered; nothing has been left to chance. This will be the expo that will trump all other expos. Yet the UAE pavilion may have been a premonition, a harbinger of substantive changes that would challenge these rosy predictions.

During the 2017 Cityscape event in Dubai – an exhibition dedicated to real estate companies and developers with the aim of enticing potential buyers and investors – Dubai’s Expo 2020 revealed what is in store for the site after the event’s completion. District 2020 would take its place incorporated as part of a larger development in the area called Dubai South (previously known as World Central – Dubai’s version of an Aerotropolis or Airport City – linked to Al Maktoum International Airport). This “district” is envisioned as a mixed-use space incorporating residences and retail. According to the design, some of the original pavilions would be retained; the inspiring Wasl Plaza has evolved into a giant spherical structure with office buildings attached – similar to many exclusive shopping malls dotting the city. Of particular interest is the involvement of Meraas, a Dubai-based developer, which will be in charge of developing Wasl Plaza. The company has a track record of gentrifying historical areas in Dubai, which often uprooted communities. Among Meraas’ accomplishments is City Walk, a high-end, urban development situated near Satwa, a ramshackle district of modified houses containing a largely impoverished South Asian population. The development caused the demolition of a traditional neighborhood, Shabiyat Al Shorta. Another project is Marsa Al Seef, a massive Creekside development abutting the city’s famed Bastakiyya (or Fahidi) district. It has taken over a public corniche serving a largely lower to middle class population from the surrounding area replacing it with a high-end mix of retail spaces, residences, and traditional markets.

Dubai’s legacy for the expo site thus seems to rely on a real estate-driven ambition. Indeed, a United Arab Emirates-based English language publication whets investors’ appetite by declaring “Dubai South prices set to rise as more developments take shape.” It goes further to entice potential customers by suggesting: “The area encompassing EXPO 2020 has seen a surge in off-plan sales.”

Surely any city has the right to capitalize on its assets – in this case empty desert land. Yet the question here is whether the post-expo landscape matches the lofty rhetoric promised by the organizers. Are there any era-defining architectures or structures, suggestions of innovative modes of habitation? The trophy pavilions, while interesting in their own right, do not reach the level of excellence that is comparable to the Eiffel Tower or Crystal Palace, structures that expressed the spirit of their respective age. As for the planning of the expo site and its aftermath, it seems that no consideration was given for any original and long-lasting vision. Contrast this real estate-driven approach with Milan and Shanghai where architectural competitions were held to attract the best minds in the profession in order to redevelop their sites. These are serious matters and should not be left to the discretion of developers and real estate speculators who are primarily interested in parceling out land and selling to investors.

Furthermore, District 2020 and Dubai South in general highlight one of the main issues in Dubai’s urban planning paradigm – the focus on self-contained isolated enclaves, disconnected from the city. In that way Dubai South follows countless other areas in Dubai such as Downtown, Jumeirah Beach Residence, Jumeirah Lake Towers, and Palm Jumeirah, further accentuating the city’s fractured urbanity.

Arguably, the rush to tick all the right boxes, the eagerness of consultants to jump at lucrative commissions, and the attraction of selling real estate led to the current state of affairs. Yet, as a consequence, stereotypes about the city are affirmed, prompting some critics to dismissively declare that in Dubai the “world expo movement has finally found its spiritual home,” where “for the good of other cities around the world, may it be its final resting place.” But perhaps not all is lost. The expo event is only temporary, and the site can still be constructively modified if developers listen to various stakeholders, including residents and local constituents, which would turn the event’s legacy into a truly inspiring vision. The city has a lot riding on this project. Indeed, the whole world is watching. And while this event may be another exercise in spectacular futility, as some past expos have been, it can also be transformative in many ways yet to be imagined.

Yasser Elsheshtawy is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.