Four cities remain in the race for the right to host the 2020 World Expo: Izmir in Turkey, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Ekaterinburg in Russia, and Dubai. As the finalists prepare their last push, the frontrunners are beginning to emerge.

The New York Times just declared Dubai the likely winner based on the exhibition bureau’s praise for its clear vision, robust infrastructure and the high level of national support. Dubai enjoys strong backing from the UK and individuals such as Bill Gates, while Izmir, the other favorite, is endorsed by the World Health Organisation for its health theme. Chances are the host, to be announced on November 27, will come from the Middle East – a first in World Expo’s long history.

A Dubai win of the World Expo hosting rights would showcase the city’s enormous success story to a global audience. It would also prove that infrastructure investment is an investment in the sustained wealth of an economy.

Oxford Economics estimates the total output across the Dubai economy at 28.8 billion euros, with over 270,000 new jobs created between 2013 and 2021. Thanks to its high level of connectivity, the emirate could look forward to receiving 25 million visitors, giving an entire new meaning to the old Dubai mantra ‘build it and they will come’.

Dubai already announced several high profile developments in recent months, including Mohammad Bin Rashid City - District One. A win would accelerate spending and set off an even greater building boom across the emirate.

Dubai of course is not alone with its ambitions. As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup, the Gulf state plans to spend roughly 10 per cent of its annual GDP on building infrastructure. A whopping $200 billion is earmarked for infrastructure projects between now and then, including a new seaport and the new Hamad International Airport, slated to open later this year.

Saudi Arabia announced in 2010 that it would spend $384 billion over five years in upgrading the infrastructure including the construction of four new economic and industrial cities and 3,900 kilometers of railways.

Bahrain has earmarked more than $2.5 billion on infrastructure projects over the next decade and major road works and sanitation upgrades are well underway.

According to one report, total government spending on infrastructure across the GCC is set to reach $960 billion by 2022, covering over 1,638 infrastructure projects.

It goes without saying: the transformation of entire region at such scale comes with high levels of disruption. Those living in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh or Manama know all about the dust, the noise, and the ever longer traffic jams. Municipalities and governments are facing new challenges on their long journey to that extreme urban makeover: how to keep their subjects happy while even more roads are being dug up and entire neighbourhoods reshaped.

The answer is simple. Put yourself in their shoes.

Communities directly affected by months and years of road works, sanitary upgrades and daily traffic back-ups have a much higher information need, underscoring the importance of open and proactive communications.

The best way to address this is by investing in communications planning, community consultation and education, and stakeholder engagement programmes. The commitment to listen, consult and educate should go hand-in-hand with technology that handles increasing numbers of enquiries without compromising the quality of information.

Some municipal call centres in the region have installed new software that links all projects to the respective time-bound permit, allowing the call centre operator to tell the caller what progress has been made and exactly when that hole in the road right in front of their house will be filled up again.

Of course it is not just residents who matter. Given the scope of projects underway in the region, governments need to reach out to a variety of groups. This includes investors, analysts, interest groups and businesses, but also visitors.

And it is not just the municipalities who are in charge. Engineering and construction firms, architects and designers, urban planning councils, consulting firms and transportation boards, all are called upon to explain better what they are doing.

The keywords are relevance, speed and proactiveness. Information needs can be anticipated and communications strategies drafted in advance and with each audience in mind. If the purpose is to create public goodwill and support it makes sense not adding to their inconvenience or even hardship.

Whether it is the outlook of better transportation, reduced commute times, cleaner air, greener and quieter neighbourhoods, or lower energy bills: the bigger picture can seem distant and hard to grasp.

But everyone will appreciate to hear what is being done to minimise disruption while work is underway that enhances the quality of life for all. It is ultimately the responsibility of cities, governments and their commercial partners to win the hearts and minds of the people in whose names the cities in the Gulf are being rebuilt.

The key to that is proactive, open and transparent communications.


The author is Head of Strategic Consulting at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.