World Expo Holds Dubai’s Fate

Will Covid-19 derail Dubai's long-awaited Expo 2020?

A decade in the making and with the labor of 230,000 workers, Dubai’s Expo 2020 finally kicks off on October 1 after a yearlong delay. The emirate hopes to attract up to 25 million visitors to the event, which will last 182 days.

Expo 2020 is crucial to Dubai’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought the economy of the heavily indebted gulf nation to its knees.

Pre-pandemic estimates by EY suggested that Expo 2020 Dubai and its ripple effects could contribute around $33 billion to the UAE economy from 2013–2031 and support up to 905,200 job-years during the same period.

But visitor numbers and the estimated economic windfall could fall short of expectations, with international travel struggling to gain momentum; an expat exodus, which saw Dubai’s population decline by 8.4%; and an economy that contracted more than 10%, according to S&P Global. Concerns over the state of Dubai’s finances have resurfaced amid the downturn and moves by government-related entities (GREs) to reschedule some debt repayments.

Research firms estimate that when GRE borrowing is taken into consideration, Dubai’s debt levels exceed 100% of its gross domestic product. London-based Capital Economics forecasts that approximately $38 billion of government-related debt is due for repayment before the end of 2024, with a significant chunk falling due in 2023. Earlier this year, the Dubai government made a $3.1 billion cash injection into mission-critical Emirates airline.

Still, more than 80% of the Expo’s infrastructure will be the basis of a city aptly named District 2020, which the organizers say will ultimately become a global community based on state-of-the-art technology, science and sustainability principles.

Meanwhile, Oxford Business Group notes that Dubai’s efforts to contain and combat Covid-19, combined with efforts to keep the economy open, are expected to give Dubai an advantage as activities normalize around the world.

Expo 2020 is the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia region and coincides with the UAE’s golden jubilee. The event’s theme is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.”