INTERVIEW: The greatest Arab show on earth — and its legacy

Illustration by Luis Grañena
Updated 25 August 2019

INTERVIEW: The greatest Arab show on earth — and its legacy

  • Marjan Faraidooni explains key role Expo 2020 Dubai will play for the UAE — and Saudi Arabia’s crucial participation

DUBAI: Any skeptics about Expo 2020 Dubai — and there are a few who still have reservations about the extravaganza that will open to exuberant fanfare next year in the UAE — should spend an hour or two with Marjan Faraidooni.

She is the executive in charge of the pavilions and exhibitions on the huge site in south Dubai, and crucially, she has responsibility for “legacy” — what will remain after the show packs up in April 2021. She is calmly confident that the event will be a big success.

“It’s a challenge, but we have the mechanisms in place to make sure we meet that challenge,” she said amid the bustle of the Expo headquarters. It was August, and the holiday season, but there was no sign of any slackening in activity in the administrative hub, nor on the site itself. The clock is ticking down to the opening on Oct. 20 next year.

The scale of the event is mind-boggling. Over six months, the site will be visited some 25 million times, triple the population of the UAE. A previous Expo executive described it as the biggest ever gathering of people in the Arab world. It is expected to give a significant boost to the regional economy, and leave a permanent new city on the southern borders of Dubai.

But the doubters have been nagging away ever since Dubai won the right to stage the world fair in 2013. Would it be ready on time? Would it justify the financial outlay by boosting the UAE economy? Would it leave a lasting legacy or risk becoming a multibillion-dollar white elephant in the desert?

Faraidooni is convinced on all counts. On delivery, she said: “Yes, we are on track and although it’s not my direct remit, as part of the senior management team we are all responsible for doing whatever it takes to get this Expo delivered on time.”

Construction is progressing well. Earlier this year, Expo announced that the three “thematic districts” — reflecting its key themes of sustainability, mobility and opportunity — were complete, with more than 100 million working hours clocked on the site.

Faraidooni said that many of the 192 individual units built by the participating countries or organizations had already broken ground — including the big pavilion housing the Saudi presence — and that key infrastructure and transport around the site was well under way. An extension to the Dubai metro system and new roadways are under construction, as is apparent from the hectic construction activity around the site.


BIO

BORN: Dubai

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s in human physiology and master’s in public health, Boston University, US

CAREER

• Instructor, Sharjah Women’s College

• Special projects analyst, executive office of Dubai ruler

• Senior manager, Dubai Healthcare City

• Portfolio strategy director, Dubai Holding

• Chief pavilions and exhibitions officer, Expo 2020 Dubai


On the economic benefits of the project, Faraidooni pointed to a recent study by consultants EY which projected a big boost to the Dubai economy and a permanent increase in jobs.

“This Expo is happening in a location that is critical to the development of Dubai as a city and close to a new airport. A lot of infrastructure has been developed not only to service the Expo but for this whole area of Dubai,” she said.

Some economists have talked about the “Expo effect” as a factor that will boost the economy, especially the real estate market, which has been in the doldrums for several years.

That economic development is part of the legacy Faraidooni believes Expo will deliver. “The future is something we think about on a daily basis,” she said. The site will become a new addition to the Dubai urban scene, a mixed-use development called District 2020: A mixture of a business park, an exhibition center and a residential area with retail, leisure and cultural features, based around the Al-Wasl centerpiece.

Two big international corporations — Siemens, the German engineer, and Accenture, the international consulting firm — have already said they will base significant operations on the Expo site once the event ends, and Faraidooni hinted that other big global businesses are interested.

“We think of it as the place that happened to hold the Expo for six months. It will hold all the cultural and educational assets that played a fundamental role in the project,” she said.

We will have thousands of people coming through the doors on a daily basis.

Her infectious enthusiasm for the Expo project — she has been involved in it since the very beginning — is most obvious when it comes to discussing the actual content of the thematic pavilions that form the core of the experience.

She admitted the three key themes of sustainability, mobility and opportunity are “heavy themes, traditionally discussed in the UN and other political environments,” so the challenge has been how to make those accessible and enjoyable as well as informative.

“We will have thousands of people coming through the doors on a daily basis, so how do we quickly send them the Expo message in a way that inspires them and educates them? That’s what I do on a daily basis. It’s one of the best parts of my job,” she said.

As Faraidooni describes it, the sustainability pavilion, called Terra, will be quite an attraction in its own right. Designed by the renowned British firm Grimshaw Architects, the pavilion has a diameter of 130 meters and its roof consists of solar panels that will make it self-sustaining in energy use. “You won’t miss the sustainability pavilion — it’s like a spaceship has landed on the site,” she said.

The “theatrical approach” Faraidooni had adopted in the pavilions involves simulating different experiences that hammer home the sustainability message in Terra. “When you come through the entrance of the building you’ll be given two choices: Do you want to go through the forest, or under the ocean? We take you through chapters of experience that inspire you about the world you live in,” she explained, mentioning an encounter with a “giant fish with stacks of plastic in its belly” to highlight environmental threats.




An aerial view of the Expo 2020 site in Dubai. (Courtesy of Expo2020Dubai.com)

The two other thematic pavilions involve a similar mixture of entertainment and experience, but with a serious message and a flavor of Emirati and Arabic heritage.

In the mobility pavilion, visitors encounter famous Arabic navigators and travelers who led the way in exploration techniques, as well as modern examples from the ports company DP World and Dubai Smart City.

In the opportunity pavilion, visitors will view the world through the lens of the UN sustainable development goals, and what the implementation of those targets can mean for everyday experiences.

No detail is too small. Expo recently announced an international competition to design water fountains for the site — the Sabeel fountain project — which will invite designs for 40 locations around the site, highlighting the role that the communal provision of water has played in Arab and Islamic culture.

Saudi Arabia will be a key participant at Expo. The Kingdom’s pavilion — the second biggest on the site after the UAE’s — is themed on a gigantic mirror rising into the sky, but firmly attached to the ground, “reflecting a society deeply rooted in its culture but with unlimited ambitions,” according to the official statement.

“It’s very advanced, like something out of a sci-fi movie, and very interesting. The Saudi pavilion looks like it’s going to be one of the main attractions on the whole site. We’re very excited about it,” Faraidooni added. Expo rates Saudi Arabia as the second-largest source market for visitors next year, after India, accounting for a significant number of the 11 million anticipated foreign visitors.

Foreigners will make up 70 percent of the visitors to Expo, but the majority are expected from the UAE, who are being encouraged to come more than once, with a program to Emirati and regional schools to ensure youthful participation.

A big role will be played by Emirates Airline, one of the official partners of Expo, which is working on plans to persuade transit passengers to visit the site, as well as tourists on holiday in the UAE. So the goal of 25 million visits, labeled as overly ambitious by some critics, is eminently achievable. “Of course it’s feasible. Everything is feasible,” Faraidooni said.

She is acutely aware that the deadline is approaching. “We’re doing a lot, but there is so much more we could do, but we’re constrained by time. We know we have to open our doors and there is no question about that date whatsoever,” she said.

Faraidooni faces a personal challenge too: What to do once the Expo closes its doors on the last visitor in spring 2021? “This is a once-in-a-lifetime job. Anything I do after this is going to be boring,” she said.


INTERVIEW: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project to set ‘new global standards in sustainability’, says CEO

Updated 52 min 47 sec ago

INTERVIEW: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project to set ‘new global standards in sustainability’, says CEO

  • John Pagano tells of his plans to help save world’s corals by developing ‘amazing land’ on Saudi Arabia’s western shores
  • “What really caught my attention was the passion and enthusiasm of young Saudis for Vision 2030," says Red Sea Development Co's CEO

DUBAI: John Pagano has been involved in mega-projects around the world, but “none of them will have the impact this will have on Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“This” is the Red Sea Development Company, of which he is CEO. Along with the plan to build a futuristic metropolis at NEOM in the northwest of the Kingdom, and the Qiddiya leisure resort near Riyadh, it is one of the headline initiatives of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify away from oil dependency.

The Red Sea project is special, Pagano said. Not only because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fell in love with the area as a youth and was a frequent visitor, and not only because of the stunning natural beauty of the 28,000 square kilometer region of lagoons, archipelagos, canyons and volcanic geology between the two small towns of Al-Wajh and Umluj on the western coast.

Canadian-born Pagano told of how he was “sold” on the idea of running the Red Sea project when Saudi Arabia lured him out of a youthful retirement that mainly involved flying airplanes. “What really caught my attention was the passion and enthusiasm of young Saudis for Vision 2030. It was really quite intoxicating. I thought it could be quite a lot of fun to be part of the transformation of a country,” he said.

Opening up the tourism and leisure industries is a major part of the transformation. At the moment, the Kingdom derives between 3 and 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) from this sector, most of it religious tourism from Hajj and Umrah pilgrims. Globally, tourism represents 10 percent of GDP and accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s workforce.

The Red Sea project will eventually inject SR22 billion ($5.8 billion) into the Saudi Arabian economy and lead to the creation of 70,00 jobs directly and indirectly in the Kingdom’s workforce, Pagano said.

“You have this huge opportunity to contribute and help the diversification process by developing tourism and a tourism sector which to a large extent does not really exist,” he said.

The project is certainly tourism, but with a big difference. Definitely out are the package holidays and Costa-style beach frolics. It will not be “Club Med on the Red,” in the words of one of his aides. “We are not seeking to be Dubai,” Pagano said.


BIO

BORN - Toronto, 1959

EDUCATION - BSc in mechanical engineering, University of Toronto

CAREER

  • Managing director, Canary Wharf Contractors, London
  • President, Baha Mar Development Company, Bahamas
  • Managing director, Canary Wharf Group, London
  • Principal, Old Fort Capital Investments, London
  • CEO, Red Sea Development Company

“It will be a luxury tourism destination that sets new global standards in sustainability,” Pagano said. “The idea is not to build as much on it as possible, and make as much money as we can. The idea is to protect it for generations to come.”

Luxury tourism is the fastest-growing segment of the global market, and high-rolling tourists are willing to pay top dollar for one-of-a-kind experiences. Exclusivity will be set by limiting the number of visitors. Of the 90 islands in the region, only 22 are going to be developed, and annual visits will be capped at one million in 2030, when completion is scheduled.

Nine islands are deemed to be so crucial to the ecology that they will not be built on at all, and access will be carefully controlled. One, Al-Waqqadi island, looked like the perfect tourism destination, but was discovered to be the breeding ground for the rare hawksbill sea turtle. “In the end, we said we’re not going to develop it. It shows you can balance development and conservation,” Pagano said.

If you want to get him really excited, ask about coral. “The rest of the coral reef systems around the world are dying, but this one — the fourth largest in the world — is thriving. We’re trying to figure out why. We’re working very closely with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and experimenting with coral growing, trying to understand the unique DNA of coral found in this part of the world.

“If you look at it, the Red Sea has warmer sea temperatures and higher salinity values, yet the coral thrives. We’re trying to work out why, and to the extent we solve that mystery, the ambition would be to export that to the rest of the world — help save the Great Barrier Reef or severely damaged Caribbean coral,” he said.

The Red Sea project is home to a number of endangered species, including the hawksbill sea turtle. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)

Sustainability is being built into the project’s structure. It will be 100 per cent carbon neutral and powered by renewable energy via solar and wind power, and will make use of advanced technology to solve the storage problems that have so far proved to be obstacles to renewable energy. “The technology is available but nobody has ever done it on this scale before,” he said, pointing to plans to use solar power to make ice by day and use it for cooling at night. There are even plans for “artificial trees” to aid the carbon-capture process.

Pagano is working on another project with KAUST — “Brains for brine” — that seeks to address the problem of excess salination of sea water resulting from the desalination processes widely used in the Kingdom.

But building what will eventually be 8,000 hotel rooms, an airport, a small town for the 10,000 workers on the project, on the coast of one of the busiest maritime navigation channels in the world, presents its own environmental challenges.

He was speaking the week after an Iranian tanker had leaked oil into the Red Sea, but said that commercial sea lanes were far away from the project, and big vessels could not enter the shallow lagoon system anyway.

On-site construction will be kept to a minimum by the use of prefabricated units built elsewhere in the Kingdom and then shipped to the Red Sea for assembly and installation on the islands. He will have to have 3,000 hotel keys by 2022, when phase one of the project is complete and ready to welcome the first of 300,000 annual visitors.

The technology is available, but nobody has ever done it on this scale.

Those guests are estimated to come roughly 50 percent from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and 50 percent from the rest of the world, with a big proportion from Europe and the experience-seeking markets of Asia.

A big draw of the Red Sea region is that all-year temperatures and humidity are lower than other parts of the region, notably the Arabian Gulf. “It’s much more like a southern European climate,” he said, allowing for year-round business.

Pagano promises visitors “a constellation of experiences,” but what kind of resort will they arrive at? “We had plans for a special visa-on-arrival procedure just for us, but of course we don’t need that now that there is a Kingdom-wide tourist visa,” he said.

When the tourists get there, the resort will feel different from the rest of Saudi Arabia. It will be treated as other “special economic zones” in the Kingdom, with more relaxed social norms and an environment attractive to international visitors, he said.

“There are currently no plans to serve alcohol, but that is not our call, it’s a broader issue. But even without alcohol, there are a potential 1.5 billion tourists in the world Muslim demographic,” he said.

The Red Sea Project is designed to enhance the natural environment for future generations. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)

A transformational project of such ambition obviously does not come cheap, and Pagano admits to “many billions of dollars” in total construction and development costs. So far, the bills have been met by the Public Investment Fund, which has committed all the equity capital.

But Pagano is now in the market for “conventional senior debt” in a package that could reach SR10 billion ($2.6 billion). With the big infrastructure project — bridges, roads, a new airport — currently under way and contracts being announced at increasing pace — a fresh batch are promised during the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh later this month — those funds are needed, he said, and could be in place early next year.

“Plus, we are talking to a lot of investors and looking at the possibility of getting them into the project,” he said. French hotel group Accor is already involved, and he expects most of the leading global hospitality brands to play some part in it too. Contracts to build and operate the utilities on the development are currently out to tender to a number of consortia.

It is all part of the transformation under way in the Kingdom that appears to be unstoppable. By 2030, Saudi Arabia is aiming to attract 100 million visitors a year, with the elite heading to the Red Sea area to sample the “amazing piece of land” that Pagano is developing.

“It’s ambitious, but feasible. It’s starting from a low base and the vision is unprecedented,” he said.