* Decision on Expo 2020 bids expected in late November
* Dubai seen by many as the front-runner
* Event could attract millions of visitors
* But some worry projects could overheat property market
* Problem of using capacity once event is over
By Martin Dokoupil and Praveen Menon
DUBAI, Oct 21 An international meeting in Paris
next month may trigger billions of dollars of fresh investment
in Dubai - and, if plans are not handled carefully, contribute
to the kind of boom-and-bust cycle which nearly bankrupted the
emirate four years ago.
Dubai is competing with Izmir in Turkey, Sao Paulo in Brazil
and Yekaterinburg in Russia for the right to host the 2020 World
Expo. A vote of the 167 member states of the Paris-based Bureau
International des Expositions is expected to choose between them
at an assembly on Nov. 26-27.
Holding the world's fair would be a defining moment for
Dubai, marking the transformation of the emirate of 2.2 million
people into a top global centre for tourism, trade and finance.
But it would carry a risk. Anticipation of a spike in demand
due to the World Expo could cause property developers to build
too many residential and commercial projects, and investors to
pour too much money into them, inflating a speculative bubble
that would eventually burst.
Such a bubble popped in 2008-2010, when the global financial
crisis caused Dubai property prices to crash by more than 50
percent, shaking financial markets around the world.
"If Dubai wins the World Expo 2020 bid, we will witness
another boom in the property market," said Khalid Kalban, chief
executive of Dubai-listed property developer Union Properties
, whose share price is up 142 percent so far this year.
"Hopefully this will be a planned boom rather than a
speculative one, which we saw before," he said.
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Thanks to its status as an international business hub, as
well as a slick public relations campaign, Dubai may be the
front-runner in the competition to host the Expo - although it
could face stiff competition from Izmir, which lost its bid for
Expo 2015 to Milan by 86 votes to 65. Signalling Dubai's
determination, the logo for its Expo bid adorns government
vehicles, buildings and emails.
Because of Dubai's small population, the Expo could have
more of an impact on its economy than most host locations. The
government cites a report by consultancy Oxford Economics which
estimates the event would attract 25 million visitors over six
months and create about 277,000 jobs.
Many property developers have expressed interest in projects
around the proposed 438-hectare Expo site in Jebel Ali, near
Dubai's new airport and the third busiest port in the world.
"Dubai's real estate growth will be in this area," said
Craig Plumb, regional head of research at consultants Jones Lang
LaSalle. In particular, "there's a need for more hotels close to
the Expo site."
Some 45,000 new hotel rooms would need to be added, based on
the government's calculation that 70 percent of the visitors
would come from outside the United Arab Emirates, HSBC analysts
Patrick Gaffney and Aybek Islamov said.
A huge exhibition centre would need to be built. Dubai's
transport authority said in June that it would expedite plans
for a 5 billion dirham ($1.4 billion) extension to its metro
rail line if the emirate won the Expo.
As a result, total spending related to the Expo, including
private sector projects, could reach $18.3 billion, HSBC
estimated. That would still be dwarfed by China's spending on
the 2010 Shanghai Expo, which totalled some $58 billion
according to Chinese media reports.
The Dubai government is expected to provide a total of about
$6.8 billion of capital spending for the Expo, while the fair
would cost around $1.6 billion to operate, Bank of America
Merrill Lynch said in a report.
Such figures, spread over seven years, look manageable for
Dubai's $90 billion economy, even though it is still recovering
from the last crisis; the International Monetary Fund estimates
that about $64 billion of debt held by the government and
related enterprises will come due between 2014 and 2016.
Direct economic benefits from hosting the Expo might be
modest. The government estimates it would generate an additional
$23 billion in spending by the hosts, participants and visitors
between 2015 and 2021. Many of the jobs created would be for
relatively low-paid construction workers from abroad, who remit
much of their earnings back to their home countries.
Bank of America predicted the Expo could lift Dubai's gross
domestic product growth by around 0.5 percentage point annually
in 2016-2019 and about 2 percentage points in 2020/21.
It is not certain that a Dubai Expo would make a profit;
Shanghai's event enjoyed an operating profit of over 1 billion
yuan ($164 million), but Germany's 2000 Expo in Hanover lost $1
billion or more after attendance fell short of forecasts.
For proponents of the project, however, the immediate
economic impact is secondary to the benefits of burnishing
Dubai's reputation and introducing it to millions more visitors
from around the world. Much of the emirate's success has been
built on distinguishing itself through aggressive marketing from
competing centres such as Qatar and Bahrain.
"I can tell you now, the benefit will outweigh the cost of
hosting the event," Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, head of
Dubai's supreme fiscal council and its Expo committee, told
reporters last month.
Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum,
described his approach in a book which he published last month:
"To take a risk and fail is not a failure. The real failure is
the fear of taking any risk...If we had waited for regional
stability to be restored before launching our large projects,
where would we stand today?"
One risk for Dubai lies in the fact that its Expo bid is
being made at a time when the property market is already
rebounding strongly from the crash and developers have already
announced tens of billions of dollars of projects this year.
Apartment prices have jumped over 20 percent in the past 12
months; the stock market is up 79 percent this year. In
this climate, winning the Expo could attract a fresh surge of
money that overheats the property sector, some analysts worry.
"We think that the property market dynamics are increasingly
being driven by investor demand rather than end-user demand,"
said Farouk Soussa, Citigroup's chief economist for the region.
"The implementation of large-scale projects risks
exacerbating existing supply overhang issues and could fuel a
future boom-bust property cycle in the emirate."
The IMF issued a similar warning in July, saying Dubai might
need to intervene in its property market to prevent another
bubble from forming.
There are many signs that authorities are aware of the risk
and are taking steps to counter it. This month Dubai doubled, to
4 percent, the registration fee charged on land transactions;
the UAE central bank plans rules to restrict mortgage lending
and limit banks' lending exposure to big state firms.
But such steps cannot guarantee stability in the real estate
market - especially if Dubai cannot find new occupants for its
projects once the Expo crowds have gone home.
"The main downside risks include project funding given the
existing elevated leverage in the system, as well as the
likelihood of subsequent overcapacity in the hospitality sector,
in our view," Bank of America said.
South Africa saw its hotel occupancy jump to 84 percent for
its 2010 soccer World Cup tournament, but the rate plunged to
just over 55 percent in the following year because of fewer
visitors and greater supply, HSBC said.
"Dubai's toughest challenge isn't generating growth, it's
managing its pace," said Simon Williams, chief economist for the
Middle East and North Africa at HSBC.
"The decisions it takes in the months ahead will show us
what lessons it has learnt from the boom-and-bust cycle of