The United Arab Emirates minister of state for international co-operation, who is also the director-general of Expo 2020 Dubai, assesses the potential of this mega-event to engineer an economic and business boost for the entire Middle East, Africa and south Asia region.
The opening of the World Expo 2020 Dubai on its purpose-built 438-hectare site in October 2020 will constitute a significant moment; the first World Exposition to be held in the Middle East. During the six-months the event is open, the United Arab Emirates will also celebrate its half-centenary as a nation.
In those 50 years, the UAE has emerged as a significant business center and a principal gateway to the entire Middle East, Africa and south Asia (Measa) region. Comprising 72 countries (54 of them in Africa) with a combined population of more than 3 billion people and a total gross domestic product (GDP) of $6500bn, Measa has become a 21st-century powerhouse.
Geographically positioned at the heart of Measa, the UAE forms the area’s leading aviation and logistics hub as well as a natural crossroads for trade, enterprise and cultural exchange; all things embedded deeply in the region’s commercial history and at the heart of the country today.
Several recent World Trade Organization (WTO) reports underline the UAE’s commitment to open international trade, as shown by its comparatively low tariff of 5% and steep increases in trade flows since it joined WTO in 1996.
This commitment was underlined in April 2016, when the UAE became the first WTO member from the Arab region to ratify the new Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), incidentally giving the agreement the two-thirds acceptance needed to come into force, expediting the movement and clearance of goods, along with more effective co-operation on trade facilitation and customs compliance.
The UAE has also taken a regional lead in transitioning to a post-carbon economy, with oil and gas now accounting for less than half of its export revenues. A crucial factor here has been the establishment of its free trade zones, within which traditional licensing, agency requirements and majority ownership laws and regulations are completely eliminated, creating growth-friendly dynamic business environments.
The patterns of trade are also revealing, with exports predominantly headed for Japan, India, South Korea, China and Singapore and imports largely sourced from India and the Far East, along with the US, Germany and the UK.
At a regional level, the UAE has bolstered its gateway role by promoting ever-closer co-operation with Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and Arab countries, cemented in the 2002 Economic Agreement signed between the GCC members, which also include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.
The UAE is also seeking to deepen mutually beneficial collaboration with Arab nations through the Greater Arab Free Trade Area Agreement and other bilateral free-trade arrangements, reaching out to countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Morocco and Jordan.
In all these respects of trade and collaboration, the UAE and Dubai have rediscovered and revived the ancient identity of 'al wasl', which translates from Arabic as ‘the meeting place’, where sailors, traders and travelers would cross paths on their journeys between Europe, Africa and Asia. It was also the centrality of a place for exchanging ideas, encountering and learning from different cultures that helped to inspire the Expo 2020 Dubai theme of ‘connecting minds; creating the future’.
The global need for greater understanding and a more co-operative approach to problem solving has never seemed so urgent. The world is facing fundamental tests that defy unilateral solutions and the UAE is offering Expo 2020 as a platform to forge new connections and form alternative consensuses. Only a mega-event such as Expo can do this: by acting as a springboard for fresh ideas and new initiatives, by enabling significant new investment and promoting business, and by showcasing world-class thinking, emblematic programs, scores of exciting innovations all within landmark structures that inspire more optimistic visions of the future. This has been the traditional role of Universal Expositions and World Fairs, ever since the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Sitting below the overarching theme, Expo 2020 Dubai has selected three sub-themes: 'opportunity', 'mobility' and 'sustainability'. Each is especially relevant to the times in which we live, each possessing particular significance for Measa and the distinctive challenges that face the region.
Among many others, 'opportunity' will focus on access to finance, investment for social and business projects, widespread education, a better utilization of human and natural capital, more transparent governance and broader life chances for young people.
'Mobility' is an equally broad theme, but with special relevance to Africa with its vast distances and underdeveloped links, both physical and electronic. Allowing faster and freer movement of people, goods and data could be a game changer on the continent.
In a resource-scarce and environmentally fragile region, 'sustainability' also provides some unique obstacles. Any technologies that can provide more robust and reliable access to water, food and energy, that help safeguard Africa’s unique habitats and eco-systems and that allow resources to be harvested on a long term basis can make all the difference between destructive cycles of boom and bust and continued long-term growth.
Expo 2020 Dubai’s offering of 'one country, one pavilion' is of particular appeal to one of the world’s fastest growing regions. Africa has harnessed its natural resource wealth to grow at higher than average global rates. However, its ability to sustain this trajectory will depend on its agility and gear change towards building modern economies focused on technology driven development. Indeed, innovation is emerging as a prime theme in the African Union’s agenda. A report produced by its high-level panel on science, technology and innovation – ‘On the wings of innovation: Africa 2024’ – makes key recommendations for exploiting emerging technologies, constructing basic infrastructures, investing in more technical training and promoting entrepreneurship.
With cross-pollination at its core, Expo 2020 Dubai will provide an opportunity for countries such as Cameroon, Vietnam and Germany to be physically and virtually proximate for a period of six months and therefore for new connections and markets to be created for innovative solutions that could apply globally. Additionally, unsung pioneers of innovation will be offered a virtual and physical platform to reach out to more than 180 countries and some 25 million visitors, 70% of whom will be international.
One of the most effective ways in which Expo 2020 Dubai can benefit Measa is to provide a showcase for investment opportunities, creating beneficial links across the region and the wider world for every level of enterprise. In this business-to-business realm, Expo 2020 Dubai will construct a highly potent networking platform, both physical – clustered around the 'al wasl' plaza at the heart of the site – as well as virtual, connecting with tens of millions of other viewers online.
Expo 2020 could well be the moment when Measa materializes as a powerful, world-recognized economic entity, with Africa playing a fundamental role within it. This is a chance for the 3 billion-strong region to market its huge investment opportunities; to promote its exciting resource story, rapidly expanding economies, superior debt-to-GDP levels (ahead of many developed areas), potent workforce, growing consumer base and relative low exposure to other equity markets.
Flexing the themes
One of the most urgent challenges across Africa and the wider Measa region relates to infrastructure, across energy, transport and telecommunications. This is both a 'mobility' and 'opportunity' challenge – finding new ways for people, goods and ideas to reach the market. Here, the innovation aspect of Expo comes into play, providing a platform and a showcase for new technologies and inventions that can make a genuine difference.
Just as previous World Fairs unveiled ground-breaking innovations such as the telephone, typewriter, television, X-rays and Braille writing, so Dubai will form a showcase for rapidly expanding developments in areas such as drone technologies, providing new ways to deliver medicines; utilizing enhanced technologies for remote medical testing and diagnosis, and in radio or satellite-based broadband technologies to monitor and master information delivered as ‘big data’.
Our region is a youthful one. One in five people in the Middle East and north Africa is aged between 15 and 24. More than 40% of Africans are aged under 18. Our hope is that through this process of connection and beneficial exchange, we will together inspire these new generations with visionary leadership, focused on collaborating to create the future.
The UAE intends a physical as well as intellectual legacy that harnesses global expertise, increases the regional skills base and further promotes and extends our knowledge-based economy to engage the enthusiasm and vigor of youth. Many of these benefits can be scaled up to apply across Measa as a whole, exerting a potentially transformative effect on this exciting region. The overall effects on the world and on our century could be profound indeed.
Reem Al Hashimy is the United Arab Emirates minister of state for international co-operation and the director-general of Expo 2020 Dubai.