Expo 2020 Dubai calls itself 'the world's greatest show': So what can you expect?

There's less than 12 months to go before the 2020 World Expo in Dubai opens its doors.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor

Dubai won the right to host the 2020 World Expo back in 2013, beating competing bids from Yekaterinburg in Russia, Sao Paulo in Brazil, and Izmir in Turkey. Now, six years on, it's just around the corner. 

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Today, less than 5% of Dubai's revenue comes from oil. So, as the Persian Gulf emirate continues to reposition itself as a high-tech business hub, how are plans shaping up for the October 2020 event that calls itself 'the world's greatest show'? 

Why did this result matter to Dubai? 

It's easy to forget now, but 2013's decision – coming just a few years after the global economic downtown had badly hit the Emirate – was an indication that Dubai had got its mojo back. 

Perhaps more notably, Dubai's victory also signified the first time that the event – whose origins can be traced back to 1851's Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London – would be held in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia region. 

"Dubai Expo 2020 will breathe new life into the ancient role of the Middle East as a melting pot for cultures and creativity," said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.  

What is the World Expo?

As the BBC explains, "held every five years, expos see hundreds of countries using pavilions to show off the latest in architecture and technology".

The Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), which was established in 1928, oversees and regulates all international exhibitions that last more than three weeks and are of a non-commercial nature. The Dubai expo will last six months. 

Previous events have showcased new technologies such as the telephone in Philadelphia in 1876, X-Ray machines in Buffalo, 1901, commercial broadcast television in New York in 1939, IMAX in Osaka, 1970, and touchscreens in Knoxville, 1982. 

Modern-day icons, ranging from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, 1889, to the Ferris wheel in Chicago, 1893, Seattle's Space Needle in 1962, and even the walkaway ice cream cone in St Louis, 1904, also debuted at previous events. 

Expo 2020 will run for 173 days and promises to offer visitors over 15 hours of daily entertainment, 190 country pavilions, more than 200 restaurants and 60 daily live shows.

According to the organizers projections, Expo 2020 is expected to attract 25 million visits, with 70% of visitors coming from outside the UAE, "the largest proportion of international visitors in the 168-year history of World Expos".

How has Dubai prepared for the event?

To deliver Expo 2020, the organizers are building a large dedicated event space, supported by 40,000 site workers close to Dubai's new Al Maktoum International Airport, which is also known as Dubai World Central, and extending the city's metro system.
Financial services company Standard Chartered has estimated that about 300,000 direct jobs and around a million indirect jobs will be created in the UAE by Expo 2020. 

Emirati nationals are being encouraged to get involved through initiatives such as the Expo 2020 Academy, which will offer 350 of  them a fast-track management and leadership skills program, before taking up pivotal roles in the Expo 2020 team.

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At the other end of the spectrum, a new partnership between Accenture and Expo 2020 will result in 2,020 hours of coding tutorials given to UAE-based primary school students at the Expo 2020 Dubai Visitor Centre, between now and the opening of the event.

Alongside this, 190 nations from across the world – including Israel with whom the UAE does not have a diplomatic relationship – have confirmed their participation at Expo 2020.

An Ernst & Young (EY) study from April 2019 found that the lead-up to the event could deliver AED37.7bn ($10.3bn) to UAE's economy, with construction, event planning and transport being among the biggest beneficiaries. 

Small and medium-sized enterprises are also expected to receive AED4.7bn ($1.8bn) in investment during this period, as part of Expo 2020's commitment to foster innovation and support small businesses.


Ernst & Young estimates that the lead-up to the event could deliver AED37.7bn ($10.3bn) to UAE's economy.  

Image: Ernst & Young

How is tech being used? 

Technology looks set to lie at the heart of much of the operational and visitor experience. 

A huge dome in the center of the event space – 65m (213ft) tall with a diameter of 150m (492ft) and the capacity to hold an estimated 10,000 visitors – is expected to also operate as 360-degree screen at night.   

Siemens, which is spending $500m in the region, through investment in two Internet of Things centers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, will deploy smart-city technologies across the site, as Expo 2020's 'Infrastructure Digitalization Partner'.

These efforts include: 

  • Use of MindSphere, Siemens' cloud-based operating system, to connect, monitor and control buildings. 
  • Connection of 137 separate buildings, via their cloud-based energy analytics platform, Siemens Navigator.
  • Buildings in three thematic districts using Siemens' smart building-management system, Desigo CC. 
  • "A world-record installation" of Siemens' video management system Siveillance VMS300.

Use of these multiple Siemens platforms is designed to harness energy efficiency and security across the Expo site, with sensors and analytics monitoring and controlling building functions, such as air conditioning, energy consumption, lighting, elevators, air quality, and fire alarm systems.

What tech can visitors expect to be able to try? 

The Expo site covers 4.38 square kilometers (1.7 square miles) and has four main entrances. "The Dubai Metro Route 2020 will take 46,000 passengers per hour to and from the Expo site in under 16 minutes from Dubai Marina," reports The National, an English-language newspaper published in Abu Dhabi. 

Last year UAE-based telecoms provider Etisalat revealed that the Expo 2020 site is equipped with a 5G network offering, for those with the right handsets, speeds of 1.3gbps and latency levels of one millisecond. 

Saeed Zarouni, Etisalat's senior vice president of mobile networks, has stated that the site will have 2,000 5G indoor antennas, 2,000 4G antennas and 8,000 Wi-Fi access points, underpinned by more than 200km (124 miles) of fiber. 

"By the time Expo 2020 arrives, the site will be the smartest, fastest and most connected site on Earth," he said.

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Meanwhile, individual nations and sponsors are announcing plans for their pavilions, typically showcasing the culture, or economy, of each country. ICT will play a prominent role in many of them. 

Architectural Digest Middle East, observes that "state-of-the-art technologies like FSAT [electric vehicle startup FSAT, Changchun Fawsn Auto Tech], BEIDOU, 5G, and AI will be exhibited at the center of the China Pavilion together with CRH simulated driving and intelligent connected vehicles to highlight China's smart travel technology".

The US pavilion will include a hyperloop simulator, as well as an exploration of virtual reality and brain-connected technology, highlighting advances such as wearable exoskeletons and 3D-printed organs.

Emirates, a premier partner and the official airline of Expo 2020 Dubai, will have a dedicated pavilion focused on the future of commercial aviation.


The China Pavilion will highlight the country's smart-travel technology.  

Image: Expo 2020 Dubai

What will be the legacy of the event?

Aside from boosting Dubai's international profile, the Expo site is expected to be turned into an area known as 'District 2020', a large, mixed-use environment with a focus on business services and events. 

This area, in turn, is envisaged to be part of a new city, dubbed 'Dubai South', which is expected to eventually cover more than four million square meters (43 million square feet).

Over 80% of the Expo built environment is planned to be retained for District 2020, with both Siemens and Accenture already committed to taking space there. 

According to Najeeb Mohammed Al-Ali, executive director of the Dubai Expo 2020 Bureau: "Not only will the event encourage millions around the world to visit the UAE in 2020, it will also stimulate travel and tourism and support economic diversification for years after the Expo, leaving a sustainable economic legacy that will help to ensure the UAE remains a leading destination for business, leisure and investment." 

EY anticipates that Expo 2020 and its legacy will contribute AED122.6bn ($33.38bn) of gross value added to the UAE's economy between 2013 and 2031, including 49,700 FTE jobs per annum in the UAE during this period.

The hospitality, transportation, retail, banking, finance, and real-estate sectors are among the industries that UAE's Federal Authority of Human Resources expects to most benefit from Expo 2020, as the Emirate continues to ramp up its preparation for this once-in-a-lifetime event. 


After the six-month event, the Expo site is expected to be turned into an area known as 'District 2020'.

Image: Expo 2020 Dubai
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