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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
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Travel to Dubai


The City Rising

26 September 2017

As the three-year countdown to Expo 2020 begins, we examine how the world’s fair will allow the passion, industry and endeavour of Dubai to connect minds and power amazing ideas around the globe.

Every minute a new truck enters the Expo 2020 site in Dubai South. All are scanned in with QR codes and driven into what looks like any other construction zone. Yet, within the space of three years, this site will become home to the most anticipated event to ever be held in Dubai.

Right now, however, there are only two buildings: the Expo 2020 headquarters and a half-sized mock-up of a country pavilion. Everything else is construction related. There’s an on-site batching plant for concrete, three 132kb substations, 12 tower cranes, a number of air-conditioned rest huts, and a handy colour-coded signage system. Here and there the early signs of structures are beginning to emerge.

An extension to the existing Metro system, which will connect both the Expo 2020 site and Al Maktoum International Airport, is also making headway, while the importance of sustainability is evident throughout the extensive, dust-blown site. All excavated earth is being re-used, on-site lights are solar powered, and the steel from previous buildings is being repurposed.

“This is literally a 24-hour job,” says Ahmed Al Khatib, senior vice-president for real estate at Expo 2020. He has two mobile phones, neither of which leave his side. Ever. And for good reason. Al Khatib is responsible for the overall construction of the Expo 2020 site, which, in three years’ time, will host the first World Expo to ever be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. With 25 million visitors expected to attend and the UAE to receive an estimated economic boost of US$34.5 billion, there’s no pressure.

“Absolutely, there’s no pressure,” says Al Khatib with a laugh. “I don’t think the team sleeps. We have consultants and contractors from all over the world, so if it is night over here, it’s morning in Chicago, so working around the clock is very, very necessary.

“But it’s exciting and it’s literally a one-of-a-kind experience. I don’t know if I’m ever going to have the privilege to be part of a similar project again. It’s a university on its own. You think you know everything but actually when it comes to the amount of logistics, the amount of challenges, the different calibre of consultants and contractors, you’re constantly learning. But everybody’s working towards one goal: to make an exceptional experience for the visitors and for the country, and to make sure that it lives long in the memory.”

The figures involved give you a sense of the scale. A total of 4.7 million square metres of earth had to be moved before construction could begin at the 438-hectare site, which is situated not far from Al Maktoum International Airport. With 5,000 cubic metres of concrete currently being poured every week and an additional 500 tonnes of steel being brought in every seven days, foundations for the site’s three themed districts are already complete.

These districts will be integral to the site, converging at its centrepiece – the 150-metre wide, 69-metre tall domed Al Wasl Plaza – and housing more than 180 individual country pavilions. There will also be separate themed pavilions, including the Santiago Calatrava-designed UAE pavilion, modelled on the wings of a falcon; London-based Foster + Partners’ tiered trefoil-shaped Mobility pavilion; and Grimshaw Architects’ Sustainability pavilion. The latter, for which main basement construction is to begin shortly, will be able to capture energy from the sun and fresh water from humid air.

“This is a very complex project,” admits Al Khatib. “We are building a city. Right now we are at around 7,000 workers on site and we are expecting to reach around 37,000. Then there’s the equipment, the laydown areas, the access roads, the food (how to feed everybody on site), the waste management. It will become more and more challenging as the countries start coming in. But we are taking all measures to make sure this is a very smooth and easy experience. The infrastructure and the power in any development are the most critical items and we are actually finishing them ahead of time.”

In total, two square kilometres of the site will form the Expo event area while the remaining land will be dedicated to support facilities such as the Expo 2020 Village, warehousing, logistics, transport, hotels and a public park. The goal is to complete all construction work a full year before the event is due to take place.

All of this comes at a price of course. This year US$3.1 billion in Expo contracts will be awarded, including the US$600 million contract won by Dubai-based Al-Futtaim Carillion earlier this year.

“Our sustainability KPIs (key performance indicators) are very high and very challenging,” says Al Khatib. “The Sustainability Pavilion, for example, defines the model from all perspectives. From power generation, to water generation, to harvesting humidity from the air… it will be a benchmark for future sustainability practices.

“The challenge was also how to create buildings that suit the future real estate market. So we looked at maximising efficiency, we looked at how to make our designs as modular as possible so we can expand the buildings based on market demand. More than 80 per cent of whatever we construct for the expo will remain as a legacy.”

What happens after the event is important to Expo 2020. So much so that it intends to leave an economic, physical, social and reputational legacy.

“Sounds very boring doesn’t it,” says Marjan Faraidooni, senior vice-president for legacy development at Expo 2020, with a chuckle. She is relaxed, articulate and composed.

“The first question I get from everybody, whether I’m presenting to a businesswoman or a seven-year-old, is ‘what’s going to happen after Expo?’ And that’s related a lot to the site,” says Faraidooni. “So right now we’re building structures and I work very closely with Ahmed [Al Khatib]. When we first started out he managed the whole design process, but my role was ‘how is this going to be transitioned or repurposed for future use?’ My team and I spent a lot of time trying to build a vision for the city after Expo, and we did that. We have a strategy, we know the type of industries we want to bring in, we know that we need to bring technology companies because that’s how the world is progressing, but we also know that there’s something special about the site, that it did host a mega event that was important for the history of our nation, so we also wanted to retain some of the elements that made it special.”

The Sustainability Pavilion, for example, will become a science exploratorium; the Conference and Exhibition Campus will become a major event and exhibition space; and the Mobility pavilion will be transformed into high-end office space.

All will form part of what will be known as District 2020, a multi-purpose development designed to contribute to the UAE’s drive towards a knowledge-based economy. When transitioned to District 2020 (which will take an estimated six months after the event), the Expo site will include 65,000 square metres of residential space, 135,000 square metres of commercial space, and world-class innovation, educational, cultural and entertainment facilities, all with the idea of creating a destination to ‘connect, create and innovate’.

“The market is going to know that we’re not going to die after the expo, that the city’s going to continue to live,” says Faraidooni. “That’s one of the biggest portions of the legacy.

“Our leadership, and it starts from Sheikh Mohammed, was very clear,” she adds. “That you guys are planning for an event that can’t be short of amazing. But he also said you need to make sure that it has a good legacy. With that he meant the social legacy is there, meaning the inclusion of people, getting them to feel that they’re part of it. The element of pride was very big. But also that the Expo is a vehicle for us to get people learning about things that are important for the future of the world. To inspire them, particularly the youth, and to make them feel that they have a part to play in this world.

“We want people to remember their experiences here as one of the best experiences they’ve had in their life. And I give the example of people I’ve met on this journey, who, for example, visited the Montreal ’67 expo and as a result of it became architects. That’s legacy. For me, to meet a person who made a career out of being inspired by architecture that he saw at an expo, that’s the sort of legacy we want to leave behind. It’s very social, it’s very inspirational, and it’s tangible.”

Over the course of the next three years, however, one of the primary challenges will be to explain to the public what a World Expo actually is. Although there was widespread celebration when Dubai won the bid to host Expo 2020 in 2013, very few people will probably be able to tell you what it involves.

They won’t necessarily know, for example, that each themed district will include performance spaces, innovation galleries, art installations and outdoor gardens. That there will be a children’s park and a full events programme for families. That the Expo’s theme is ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, or that it aims to be a six-month celebration of creativity, innovation, humanity and world cultures.

“We realise and we acknowledge that after we won the bid people were like ‘what is an expo?’ and there was this misconception that it’s just another really big exhibition that happens over a period of six months for the business community,” says Faraidooni. “But we’re changing that narrative. The way we describe it right now is as a festival of innovation, where we as an expo are providing a platform where nations come together, corporations come together, and they tell us what they’re doing to address challenges we all face as humanity.

“I think we’re pretty good in the business community, they have a pretty good understanding of what it is. Now we need to go to the regular visitor. People like yourself, your family. ‘Would I take my family to the Expo?’”

So far more than 120 countries have committed to take part, with seventy per cent of attendees expected to be international visitors, the highest proportion in Expo history. Running from 20 October 2020 to 10 April 2021 and coinciding with the UAE’s 50th anniversary later that year, those visitors will be looked after by an army of 30,000 volunteers.

Considering the scale and scope of the challenge ahead and the grandness of Expo 2020’s vision, Faraidooni is remarkably relaxed. After all, it’s an organisation that grows by the day. “We have an average of 30 people joining the team every month,” she says.

“You know why I’m relaxed?” she asks. “Because what’s the point of me panicking? We’re all in this together, everybody’s under pressure, I can’t say ‘oh my God I’ve got so much to do’. It’s not only me, everybody has to do it.

“Success for me would be if people said [near the end of Expo 2020] ‘I can’t believe it’s going to be over, can we have it forever’. If people feel that it was an amazing experience, and that was truly, truly something that they’d like to experience again, that would be a huge testament of success for all of us.

“But the work will continue. Our doors will close in 2021 and we will start the transition process into the next phase of this city, which will be District 2020. So we’re going to continue to work.”

She adds: “When we [bid to host Expo 2020 we] went in as the underdog. A lot of people don’t understand that. So, by virtue of taking on this challenge we were sending a message to the world that we are an ambitious nation, and we believe that size does not matter but it’s really vision and intent to deliver that matters. “If I look 10 years after the event, I want to be standing in District 2020 and somebody on a bike whizzes by me, just to indicate that people are living in this city, they’re actually working, they’re having lunch in cafes, their children are enjoying the exploratorium, people are on the bike paths and enjoying events in Al Wasl. That for me… I think I would cry then.”

Words: Iain Akerman