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Dubai unveils plan to transform Expo 2020 site into free zone

Expo 2020 Dubai site
The expo site will reopen as Expo City Dubai on October 1
  • Expo City Dubai to house offices, retail, sport and leisure venues 
  • Free zone has already received ‘considerable interest’ from startups
  • ‘Magical place’ to strengthen UAE’s reputation as a host of major events

The Expo 2020 Dubai site is to be transformed into the emirate’s newest business free zone – and is being lined up as a possible venue for more of the world’s biggest events, executives have told AGBI.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, unveiled the plan for Expo City Dubai, part of the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan, on Monday.

“After the historical success of Expo 2020 Dubai, which was visited by more than 24 million visitors and which left an indelible mark in the 170-year history of world expositions, today we announce the transformation of the exhibition site into Expo City Dubai, a city that represents the most beautiful ambitions of Dubai,” the sheikh said.

Set to open on October 1 this year, the city will include offices, leisure facilities, food and entertainment venues, sports facilities and a mall. 

The Dubai Exhibition Centre, which hosted global summits, conferences and concerts during the six months of the expo, will continue to host a range of business and entertainment events.

The city will be accessible only by pedestrians, with no cars or heavy vehicles, and free of single-use plastic, carrying forward the sustainability legacy of Expo 2020.

“Expo City Dubai will be an independent free zone and it will have its own authority,” Ahmed Al Khatib, chief development and delivery officer of Expo 2020 Dubai, said at a press conference on Monday. 

“We are in the review stage now with the relevant authorities to ensure that the offering we have is competitive with the other free zones.

“What’s most important is that it has to be aligned with the vision of this future city and with the changes in the world. It needs to be flexible and extremely attractive to businesses.”

Expo City Dubai’s launch video

Al Khatib added that the free zone’s structure and regulations would plug gaps in the nation’s business set-up processes.

“We have studied all those businesses’ needs and we are working carefully with authorities to establish the regulations for the free zone, to ensure that all those missing gaps and all those [features] for new businesses and startups will be in line with the vision of Expo City, as well as their dreams to establish in Expo City,” Al Khatib said.

“For businesses, Expo City Dubai will be the perfect place to call home.

“[We are] committed to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, which are key to the future prosperity of the UAE and the region.

“We are especially keen to welcome any tenants focused on innovation, technology, education and healthcare.”

The free zone has received “considerable interest” from startups, Al Khatib said. “Expo City Dubai is already a space in demand [from] a range of commercial tenants. 

“We are in the midst of careful selection process to ensure that all tenants, our partners and Expo City Dubai are aligned with the values promoted throughout Expo 2020.

“We are delighted that Expo 2020 partners, including Siemens and DP World, are committed to relocating to Expo City and are already in the midst of fitting out their spaces.”

Sholto Douglas-Home, chief marketing, communications and sales officer at Expo 2020 Dubai, told AGBI that interest from businesses was also driven by the event’s brand legacy.

“We believe any organisation [and] any business will find the association with the expo venue to be incredibly attractive. 

“Everything around the creation of the site has been predicated on long term. [Expo City Dubai] is a city for the future.

“This is a city that will be a landmark in Dubai. So, we have great interest from organisations large and small wanting to know more.”

Dubai’s free zone business model, which provides private enterprises with infrastructure, zero taxes and 100 percent ownership, has been successful over the years, attracting a larger share of trade and foreign direct investment than any other comparable programme in the world.

The emirate is home to more than 30 free zones targeting sectors such as transport and logistics, healthcare, media and technology.

In 2021, Sheikh Mohammed established the Dubai Integrated Economic Zones (DIEZ) Authority, an independent legal entity that governs Dubai Airport Free Zone, Dubai Silicon Oasis and Dubai Commerce City.

Today, the DIEZ accounts for more than 5 percent of Dubai’s GDP with more than 5,000 firms covering 20 key economic sectors and employing 30,000 employees.

About 80 percent of the Expo 2020 site will be retained and repurposed for the city.

This includes three of its most visited attractions – the Al Wasl Plaza, the Garden in the Sky observation tower and the Surreal water feature – which the city is “banking on for the future” to lure major events, according to Douglas-Home.

“The event world is constantly looking for innovation, exciting new venues and things done differently,” he said. 

“In terms of other destinations in Dubai and within the UAE, the location of the UAE post-pandemic is very fortuitous because it genuinely can now position itself as a possible destination for some of the biggest global events.”

He added: “In terms of how flexible Expo can be as a venue, the size of it, the different components of it – I think that means that people naturally want to consult us as a possible destination.

“[The venue is] twice the size of Monaco, [which] does give a lot of flexibility in space, and [the site] also has some landmarks which have captured people’s imaginations.

“People understand what a magical place this can be for entertainment.”

Earlier this month, Dubai was named the world’s No 1 destination for meetings in 2021, having been one of the first cities to resume in-person business events after the global Covid-19 shutdown. 

A report published by the International Congress and Convention Association listed the emirate as the place to be both in terms of the number of meetings and number of participants.

Douglas-Home added: “In the same way there’s lots of fantastic restaurants in Dubai, there’s lots of fantastic venues for hosting events and I think that will only make UAE’s reputation as a destination for hospitality and major events even stronger.”