UAE’s Expo win on eve of National Day highlights how far nation has grown

That the UAE's triumph comes on the eve of its 42nd national day shows the long way it has come in such a short time.

Emiratis and expatriates have said the celebrations over the decision for Dubai to host the World Expo in 2020 had brought the country together.  Courtesy Dubai Police
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Colin Simpson

DUBAI // The wave of jubilation that greeted the UAE’s Expo triumph was the climax of a two-year campaign that proved the country could take on global economic powerhouses and win.

The stunning victory over Russia, Brazil and Turkey in the race to host the world fair in 2020 marked a dramatic new chapter in the nation’s emergence on the world stage.

The fact this success came on the eve of the 42nd National Day was a reminder of how far the UAE had come in such a short time.

The win was also a reward for the immense amount of work put in by those involved in the bid.

The UAE left it late to name Dubai as a candidate, waiting until deadline day, November 2, 2011, to submit the application to the Paris-based organiser, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE).

Four other contenders had already thrown their hats into the ring – Yekaterinburg, Russia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Izmir, Turkey; and Ayutthaya, Thailand.

Russia and Brazil were particularly formidable rivals – one a former superpower turned energy exporting giant, the other one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies.

Izmir, meanwhile, had narrowly lost out to Milan in the bidding for Expo 2015.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announced the UAE’s participation on Twitter.

“The exhibition lasts for 6 months and hosts millions of visitors,” he tweeted.

Later that month, a high-powered team led by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, president of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and chairman of Emirates airline, travelled to the French capital to discuss Dubai’s bid with BIE officials.

The delegation included Reem Al Hashemi, Minister of State, and Helal Saeed Almarri, chief executive of Dubai World Trade Centre, who later emerged as key players in the campaign.

The following February, the Higher Committee for Hosting the World Expo 2020 was formed.

Sheikh Ahmed was appointed chairman, with Ms Al Hashemi named managing director.

Sheikh Ahmed later affirmed his belief in the bid with these words: “Dubai is fully committed to delivering an exceptional World Expo in 2020.”

Ms Al Hashemi stressed the importance of the bid theme, Connecting Minds, Creating the Future, when she said: “Connectivity and dialogue, between peoples and among nations, are so central to our shared future.”

Meanwhile, a massive campaign to gather support was being rolled out at home and abroad.

The internet was a key part of the strategy, which involved advertising, a newsletter and an initiative encouraging the people of the UAE to “Be Part Of It”.

An ability to demonstrate widespread backing from the public, institutions and Government was a key factor considered by the BIE when assessing the bids.

A significant step forward on this front came when some of the country’s largest businesses pledged their support. Premier partners were named as DP World, Dubai Airports, Etisalat, Emirates NBD, Jumeirah Hotel Group and Emirates airline.

Mohammed Sharaf, chief executive of DP World, said: “Dubai Expo 2020 would be an opportunity for young minds to be more open and come up with fresh ideas, to think outside of the box and blaze their own path.”

Saleh Al Abdooli, Etisalat’s chief executive, praised the theme: “We believe in the ability of the World Expo to gather minds to address the major global challenges we face today, and those we will face tomorrow.”

In October last year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced he was backing Dubai’s bid, and over the coming months other big-name supporters and well-wishers emerged.

They included former a former US president, Bill Clinton; the British prime minister, David Cameron; Britain’s Prince Harry and, perhaps more surprisingly, Hollywood actresses Lindsay Lohan and Pamela Anderson.

Lohan tweeted: “Help support Dubai to win the World Expo in 2020 & support @HHShkMohd’s vision @DubaiExpo2020. I do :-).”

The masterplan for the development of the proposed Expo site at Jebel Ali was unveiled in November last year.

The following month, the 623-page bid dossier – which covered everything from the budget to the theme, transport plans, entertainment and visitor numbers – was submitted to the BIE.

Inspectors from the organisation visited each candidate country to evaluate their Expo plans and assess levels of support. Dubai’s turn came in February this year.

The delegates met Sheikh Mohammed and other leaders, visited Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and flew over the Expo site by helicopter.

Steen Christensen, chairman of the mission, said at the end of the trip: “We have had a wonderful visit with well-organised meetings and serious reports and therefore our impression is good.”

It later emerged that the inspectors had been impressed by the theme, the degree of support from the public and the financing plans.

Their findings were presented to delegates from all the BIE member countries who gathered in Paris in June for the organisation’s general assembly. The teams from the five candidate countries knew that any bids that failed to meet the BIE’s criteria would be kicked out of the race.

On the first day of the assembly, word began to leak out from the closed session that Dubai’s plans had been approved along with those of Yekaterinburg, Sao Paulo and Izmir, but Ayutthaya’s had not. This was confirmed by the BIE the following day.

The four surviving teams made presentations designed to win over the assembled delegates.

Dubai provided a show-stopping surprise when Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, wife of Sheikh Mohammed, took to the stage and charmed delegates as she set out the merits of Dubai’s plans.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was spearheading a worldwide diplomatic charm offensive designed to gather support for the UAE.

Britain was the first country to commit publicly to backing Dubai, followed by others including Canada, Italy and Libya.

Last month, BIE delegates visited the UAE to find out more about the bid theme.

As this week’s vote neared, Expo mania gripped Dubai. The distinctive blue logo could be seen everywhere, and more than 99.41 per cent of Emiratis and 98.67 per cent of residents who took part in a Dubai Statistics Centre survey backed the bid.

Then came Wednesday’s dramatic events in Paris, with Dubai beating Yekaterinburg by 116 votes to 47 in the final round. Celebrations swept through the emirate and fireworks erupted from the Burj Khalifa.

The mood was summed up by Sheikh Mohammed when he tweeted: “To all people in the UAE: your support and enthusiasm fuelled our victory at Dubai #Expo2020. Today, you are all champions.”