The glitzy Gulf emirate of Dubai, chosen Wednesday to host the 2020 World Expo, transformed itself over 50 years from a sleepy port town to a regional travel, trade and financial services centre.
The city state, one of seven sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, is now home to more than two million people, mostly foreigners, compared with only 15,000 inhabitants in the 1950s.
Unlike Abu Dhabi, the leading member of the UAE that sits on a large wealth of petroleum, Dubai has dwindling oil resources and has worked to develop non-oil industries, diversifying into services.
It is home to the world’s third-largest international airport, handling nearly 58 million passengers in 2012, as it has become a travel hub linking the West with Asia and Australasia.
On top of that, it recently opened a new airport, touted to be the world’s largest when completed, with capacity planned to hit 160 million passengers annually.
The new airport is adjacent to Jebel Ali port, the largest harbour in the Middle East and one of the world’s top container terminals. It feeds a sprawling free zone that cements Dubai’s status as a major stop for transit trade.
Over the past decade, Dubai has also multiplied its tourism projects, many of which are larger than life. These included not just seaside resorts, but also an indoor ski slope defying the scorching desert heat.
Dubai also built Burj Khalifa, the world tallest tower standing 828-metres (2,717-feet) high.
The rise in tourism went hand-in-hand with a rapid growth in construction, including man-made palm-shaped islands and a cluster of islands taking the shape of the world’s map.
But the emirate was hit hard in 2009 by the global financial crisis, which dried up international finance available for the grandiose projects.
And a property sector that had grown at breakneck speed over five years ended up taking a free fall, shedding half of its value, and large groups linked to government faced mountains of debt.
The emirate’s economy was buoyed by Abu Dhabi, its deep-pocketed partner, which extended a multi-billion-dollar lifeline to the troubled neighbour.
But after a limited contraction, Dubai’s economy got back on its feet, banking on its strong fundamentals, embodied in tourism, trade and transport.
Dubai receives some 10 million visitors annually, and says it hopes to welcome 25 million during the six-month expo.