The World’s Fair of 1889 brought us the Eiffel Tower. The 1939 fair bequeathed us a New York subway line. 1962’s gave us the Seattle Space Needle.
Last week, the world learned that Dubai would join this venerable club. The 2020 World Expo will unfold in the Middle East for the first time in its 150-year history. What will Dubai’s “legacy structure” be?
Given the city’s penchant for the grandiose, it will undoubtedly be something that makes us say, “Are you kidding me?”
Dubai was practically born to host this sort of party. This Persian Gulf boomtown, which I spent four years chronicling, is as imaginative as a city can get. And Dubai will do just about anything to get your attention.
In normal times, Dubai’s government gets behind projects that would be laughed out of Las Vegas. Remember the artificial islands shaped like palm trees, covered in five-star resorts? How about the stupendously tall skyscraper, nearly twice as tall as the Empire State Building? What about Ferrari police cars? The cocktail lounge made of ice? The ski dome in the desert? Brothels within earshot of the Muslim call to prayer? A weight-loss program that rewards results with free gold? Camel racing? You get the idea.
Admittedly, the World Expo, as it is now known, isn’t the big deal it was in 1889. Recent iterations have taken us to the dazzling heights of Knoxville and Spokane. Who even knew there was a World Expo last year in Yeosu, South Korea?
Dubai is just the place to revive the World Expo as a world-class event. But there are other good reasons to take notice. Dubai is different. It’s not your father’s sort of Middle Eastern city-state. It has no oil — at least, not anymore. Its economy seems to run on brainpower and financial risk. City planners cook up dicey schemes — like launching an airline, digging a gargantuan port from the coastline, or attracting a World Expo — and they simply make them happen. Unlike the Middle East we know from the media, Dubai was never the kind of place that attracted coup-plotters, terrorists or radicals. Politics, in fact, is mostly illegal in Dubai and in the rest of the United Arab Emirates, the Maine-sized country where Dubai is located.
Not so long ago, Dubai was a poor smuggling village. Until the 1960s it had no electricity, no running water and no paved roads. At night, Dubai was so dark that passengers flying overhead would never even know it existed. Some of the people responsible for Dubai’s winning World Expo bid grew up in shacks made of palm fronds.
The audacity of choosing a city that was so poor so recently to host a World Expo provides a great opportunity to improve our understanding of the Middle East, so often written off as a war zone. You can’t run a World’s Fair in a war zone. You need political stability, and that’s why Dubai makes a great choice.
Dubai also has the more mundane attributes that Expo organizers crave. It has one of the world’s largest airlines, Emirates, and one of its busiest airports. It can handle huge numbers of visitors, and it tends to treat them well. It has a vast trove of luxury hotel rooms, many overlooking its 40 miles of beaches. And it has a sleek new metro rail system that whisks you to the sights.
What Dubai lacks is more pressing. The city, like the rest of the region, has almost no legal protection or minimum wage for its workers. It is also one of the world’s most unpleasant places to be outdoors during the summer, and that is the season when the underpaid men building the city so often pay for that opportunity with their health, sometimes their lives. The Expo organizers must be careful not to perpetuate these injustices by securing better pay and living and working conditions for the people who build and operate the World Expo.
After all, these are the folks who will carry out the work required to make us say, “Are you kidding me?”
Jim Krane is the Baker Institute’s Wallace S. Wilson Fellow for Energy Studies. He is a longtime journalist who worked in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, and is author of the book “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism.”