The rapid spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19 has caused alarm worldwide. The prospect of a global pandemic has generated economic dislocation and travel disruption as governments scramble to contain and combat it. Major sporting events, such as the Chinese Grand Prix, and trade fairs, such as the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona as well as Facebook’s annual software developer conference in San Jose, have been postponed or cancelled. A senior member of the International Olympic Committee has warned that the Summer Olympics in Tokyo may be at risk if measures to bring the virus under control prove unsuccessful. Euro 2020, the European soccer championships in June are an additional cause for concern given that they are set to occur across cities in twelve countries from Dublin to Baku and Rome to St. Petersburgh, rather than a single host nation.
While most attention has focused initially on Asia, with the outbreak in China followed by significant clusters in Japan and South Korea, concern has now spread to the Middle East, with large numbers of new cases in Iran and their spread to Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia’s suspension of entry for Umrah pilgrims as a precautionary measure. The role of Saudi Arabia and Iran as religious crossroads makes the region especially vulnerable to transmission risks from large-scale gatherings and flows of people, and it is unsurprising that nervous public authorities have responded by imposing temporary travel bans and other restrictions such as the closure of schools. UAE Tour’s sudden abandonment in midrace on February 27 after two of the participants contracted the coronavirus, highlighted how quickly public health considerations could impact sporting and other events.
One ‘mega-event’ that has so far flown under the radar is the World Expo scheduled to open in Dubai on October 20, 2020 and run for six months until April 2021. Envisaged as one of the centerpieces of the UAE’s celebration of its fifty years as an independent state, Expo 2020 is also intended to symbolize the global rise and international soft power of the UAE despite concerns over its regional activities in Yemen and Libya. In addition, with neighboring Saudi Arabia holding the G-20 presidency throughout the year and hosting the annual G-20 Summit in Riyadh in November, there is a strong geopolitical angle to showcasing the UAE and Saudi Arabia – and their close political and security partnership – to the world.
Although World Expos are often seen as a relic of the past whose legacy lives on in iconic structures such as the Eiffel Tower, constructed for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, or the Space Needle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, more recent iterations have become powerful branding tools; thus, Shanghai spent more on hosting Expo 2010 than Beijing had on the Summer Olympics two years previously. The Shanghai Expo attracted a record 73 million visitors and was as much a success as the following Expo 2015 in Milan was perceived to be a failure, dogged as it was by anti-austerity protests, cost overruns, and allegations of corruption.
In Dubai’s case, the award of the expo in November 2013 was seen, at the time, as a sign of its successful rebound from the financial crash of 2008 which had shaken international and investor confidence in the city-emirate. Britain’s then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, who had lobbied heavily for Dubai’s selection, proclaimed that “This is Dubai’s moment,” while the UAE’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, hailed the award as “a new addition to our great achievements which will place the UAE under the world focus for the next decade.” Dubai officials have set themselves a target of 25 million visits to the expo over the six months, of which 14 million were to be accounted for by international visitors, boosting a tourism and hospitality sector that was starting to show signs of reaching saturation point.
The UAE’s partial recalibration of its approach to regional affairs following the attacks on maritime and energy targets in 2019 illustrated its leadership’s sensitivity to the blowback from geopolitical uncertainty. Moreover, with Dubai struggling economically once again, the expo was going to take place under more of a cloud than was anticipated back in 2013, even as the first tickets went on sale on January 23, just as international concern about COVID-19 was beginning to intensify. Already, one global ratings agency has warned that Dubai and the expo could be hardest hit by virtue of the emirate’s position as an international hub for travel and trade, which included one million visitors from China to Dubai in 2019. Officials in Dubai are aware that most of the 13 initial cases of coronavirus in the emirate were related to recent travel to China, despite one local newspaper claiming instead that they were all linked to Iran.
A lot can happen before Expo 2020 opens, and a six-month long exhibition in which most participants are the traveling public rather than elite sportspeople means there is greater scope for flexibility in altering logistical arrangements than at the Olympic Games or the Euro soccer championships. However, in a region and an economic sector that more than most is vulnerable to external volatilities, the new uncertainties caused by COVID-19 mean that question marks now hang over the expo, at least in its current timeframe. Of course, when compared to the public health implications of a potential global pandemic, such considerations as the fate of a glorified trade fair are trivial, but to a country that has invested so heavily in branding itself to the world, on its own terms and often in disregard for accepted norms, the prospects for marking 2020 as the global breakout of the UAE (and Saudi Arabia) have dimmed.