When it comes to transformation, Dubai is a master. It’s hard to imagine this cosmopolitan city, the fourth-mist visited in the world, once tied its livelihood to fishing, trading and pearl diving. The discovery of oil in 1966 marked the beginning of a new era. But even with that good fortune, Dubai was not content to be a one-trick pony and in the 1970s started diversifying its economy. Today oil represents less than 1 percent of its gross domestic product, whereas at one time it embodied more than 50 percent.
Dubai thrives on reinvention and innovation. The bulk of its varied economy relies on a mix of trade, logistics, financial services, hospitality and tourism, construction, real estate and manufacturing. In 2004 the Dubai International Finance Centre became part of the landscape, establishing the city as a go-to place for service industries like IT and finance. Dubai boasts an Internet City — home to the likes of Microsoft, Dell, Oracle and IBM, among others — as well as Media City, with the BBC, CNN, Reuters and other news operations. Dubai remains one of the world’s leading aviation and automotive export hubs. (You’ve never seen so many Ferrari, Maserati, Bentley and exotic car dealerships in one place.) Its port, Jebel Ali, is the ninth-busiest in the world and the heart of export trade in the Middle East. It’s not surprising Dubai is the second-wealthiest emirate, behind Abu Dhabi.
The powers that be in Dubai grasped the concept of “If you build it, they will come,” a paraphrase of the much-quoted line in the movie Field of Dreams. While the city’s first high-rise, the World Trade Centre, appeared in 1979, the building boom didn’t explode until the 1990s. The city longed to become a top tourist destination, but back then it didn’t offer much in the way of hotels. The answer was the Burj Project (Burj Al Arab hotel). That kickstarted the building of fantastic hotels and skyscrapers that are now the city’s hallmark.
Dubai built, and people came, reaching an all-time high of 16.73 million international overnight visitors in 2019. That number may increase exponentially when Dubai hosts Expo 2020 next year. Originally scheduled to open this October, the six-month, multibillion-dollar global innovation fair was postponed until Oct. 1, 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic. This will be the largest event ever held in the Arab world, with some 25 million visitors expected. According to the Bureau International des Expositions, “Expo 2020 Dubai is gearing up to help shape a post-pandemic world and create a better future for all,” focusing on “a collective desire for new thinking to identify solutions to some of the greatest challenges of our time.”
The benefits of the Expo will linger long after the final day of events. District 2020 will emerge at the Expo site, with more than 80 percent of the Expo-built structures retained and repurposed. Expo 2020’s Sustainability Pavilion will become a Children and Science Centre. Many other major structures, including Al Wasl Plaza and the Mobility Pavilion, will remain as permanent fixtures. The ecosystem will comprise commercial and residential space; parks and gardens incorporating water elements; world-class social and cultural platforms; education facilities; and diverse hospitality, retail and food and beverage offerings. It will also become a focal point for the region’s meetings and events industry as the home of Dubai Exhibition Centre, furthering the U.A.E.’s reputation as a destination for major conferences and driving business growth. The goal is to create a meaningful legacy that will benefit generations to come.
CHECKING IN WITH SUMATHI RAMANATHAN
Director, destination marketing, Expo 2020 Dubai
How was Dubai chosen for Expo 2020? The host city for each World Expo is chosen by the member states of the governing body, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE). In November 2013 Dubai won a record number of votes to be granted the right to host the 2020 World Expo. We competed against Turkey’s İzmir, Brazil’s São Paolo and Russia’s Yekaterinburg.
What will Dubai do differently from other World Expos? Expo 2020 Dubai will bring the world together for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help create a better future for all. Highlights include 60-plus live shows daily; a record 192 participating countries showcasing the world’s best architecture, culture, design, heritage, music and innovation; and 200-plus food and beverage outlets offering more than 50 cuisines.
Each country will have its own pavilion — for the first time in World Expo history — providing a platform for nations to showcase the best of their achievements, culture and aspirations as well as host their own events and networking opportunities. Country Pavilions will be in one of three Thematic Districts — Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability — which will facilitate greater connection and collaboration between countries facing similar challenges.
Youth will play a central role in Expo 2020 from the Expo School Program, through which 1 million school students are expected to participate. Youth have designed some of the Country Pavilions, and a high proportion of young people will work at Expo 2020, including in managerial roles.
What return on investment do you expect? Expo 2020’s budgeted capital expenditure is AED 25 billion ($6.8 billion). A global report published by global consultancy EY revealed Expo is expected to contribute AED 122.6 billion ($33.4 billion) to the U.A.E. economy through 2031. This economic activity is expected to support approximately 905,200 jobs in the U.A.E. across this period. The economic impact will benefit a wide range of sectors including transportation, retail, food and beverage, hospitality, construction and business services.
Simply put, there is no place on the planet quite like Dubai. On the one hand, Dubai is a mega-city, high-tech, modern and off the charts with wow factor. Yet there is Old Dubai, rich in Emirati culture. Visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Settle in for lunch and sample traditional dishes like chicken biryani, veal machboos, salad, white rice, vegetable and chicken saloona, and lugaimat (a crunchy, sweet dumpling) for dessert. You’ll get a bit of history and a wide-ranging discussion about the culture and customs. Individuals representing more than 200 nationalities call this intriguing city home. While in Old Dubai pop into the Dubai Museum; it’s a great way to glimpse Dubai’s past. Do make your way through the souks to marvel at the gold, spices, textiles and everything in between.
Quite frankly, there’s so much to do and see, you’ll need to prioritize. For family fun, take your pick of aquariums, waterparks and theme parks, like IMG Worlds of Adventure or Motiongate Dubai (reopening Sept. 23). If you’re a shopper, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. But even if you aren’t, the malls of Dubai are something to see, as they’re not only stuffed with designer shops but also cafés, restaurants, movie theaters, ice skating rinks and more.
You probably won’t have time for all the museums. For history go to Dubai Museum, Etihad Museum and the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House. The Coffee Museum and the Hatta Heritage Village living history museum also prove popular. But to get a glimpse of the emerging arts and culture scene, spend time on Alserkal Avenue for interesting art galleries, yoga studios and hip food spots.
If you like adventure, you’ll want to experience the Heritage Desert Safari in a 1950s Land Rover. Play “I spy” Arabian oryx in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The Ghaf tree forest in the dunes gives new meaning to the perfect Instagram moment. Check out the falcon show. Hang out at a Bedouin camp. Enjoy demonstrations of Arabic coffee and breadmaking, henna painting, camel rides and traditional performances . If you prefer your adventure on water, there’s Kite Beach — kitesurf, wakeboard or stand-up paddle board.
Another iconic Dubai experience is the La Perle by Dragone show. You know they play hard or go home in Dubai: Expect stunts and special effects you’ve never seen before. No trip to Dubai is complete without a visit to Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 2,717 feet. At the base you’ll find the much-photographed Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system.
When you’ve tuckered yourself out, pamper yourself at a spa. The city is legendary for its hammams that incorporate ancient healing techniques with locally sourced natural ingredients. Follow that up with a decadent meal. Gastronomy, like much else in Dubai, is over the top, be it celebrity-backed restaurants like Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen & Bar or Ossiano at Atlantis Dubai, an underwater bar and restaurant where you can enjoy live music.
Avani Ibn Battuta Hotel
Next to Ibn Battuta Mall and convenient to Dubai Marina, Mall of the Emirates and JBR Beach, the chic new 4-star hotel offers 24/7 dining. Liquid Pool Bar serves tapas, drinks and shisha.
Sheikh Zayed Road, Ibn Battuta Mall
Burj Al Arab Jumeirah
The eye-catching, sail-shaped building on an island features over-the-top suites, nine restaurants, four pools, a private beach and a luxurious spa and lies close to Wild Wadi Waterpark, Dubai Hills Golf Club, Ski Dubai and Mall of the Emirates.
The Oberoi, Dubai
Rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of Burj Khalifa, the cityscape or pool. Enjoy all-day fine dining with Arabic, Asian and Western cuisine. Indulge in spa aromatherapy and Eastern, Western and signature Oberoi massages. The late-night lounge has live music.
The Oberoi Centre, Business Bay
Feast on Emirati street-style food. In addition to burgers and creative pizzas, try the specialty Baby Camel Salad with mixed leaves, watermelon and camel meat topped with sesame seeds and homemade plum dressing.
The Dubai Mall, Financial Center Road
Mexican cuisine presents a contemporary twist with savory chilies, sauces, spices and herbs. The restaurant’s two floors feature vibrant décor reminiscent of the ancient Aztecs with glass piñata chandeliers and 300 hanging hummingbird alebrijes (Mexican folk-art sculptures).
The Pointe at Palm Jumeirah, Block B
Savor royal Thai cuisine and Bangkok-style seafood at an outdoor waterfront restaurant with views of the Dubai Fountain, Burj Khalifa and water shows. They call it Thiptara (“magic at the water”) for good reason.
Palace Downtown, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashed Blvd.
JUST THE FACTS
Time zone: GMT +4
Phone code: Country code: 971
City code: 04
Currency: Arab Emirate dirham
Key industries: Trade, logistics, financial services, hospitality and tourism, construction, real estate and manufacturing
COMING AND GOING
U.S. citizens can visit visa-free but must have a passport valid for at least six months beyond the date of entry plus a return ticket or other proof they will be leaving the U.A.E. within 30 days. The U.A.E. now welcomes U.S. travelers with safety measures such as temperature checks, mandatory masks and COVID-19 testing in place.
INFO TO GO
Fly into Dubai International Airport or Al Maktoum International (Dubai World Central). Before some flights were suspended during the pandemic, Dubai served more than 7,000 weekly flights operated by 125 airlines from 260 destinations on every continent (except Antarctica). Once you arrive, getting to your hotel is easy via taxi or apps like Uber or Careem; the cheapest option is to hop on the Metro. You can ride all day for about $6.
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