By building on the legacy of Expo 2020 Dubai, the city’s latest hub is set to compete with other business districts already established in the area

Set to be launched in phases from September 2022, Expo City Dubai is slated to become the torchbearer of the megaevent’s principles of sustainability and innovation.

“Dubai is already home to the vast majority of Fortune 500 companies and, as occupiers intensify their focus on best-in-class Grade A office space, the city is rapidly running out of options for expanding businesses looking for top-tier offices,” says Faisal Durrani, partner – head of Middle East research at Knight Frank.

Durrani sees Expo City’s green factor as a significant point of differentiation in the market, along with the site’s reputation as the host of Expo 2020. 

“One of the lasting legacies of the Dubai World Expo is the next-generation architecture and constant thread of sustainable construction,” he says. “The type of buildings delivered on the Expo site are ground-breaking and inspirational, and stand in sharp contrast to the emirate’s skyscraper-studded landscape, most of which is yet to embrace the green agenda meaningfully.”

Expo City is expected to serve as a “much-needed pressure release valve” for Dubai, according to Durrani, not only because of the office space it will offer, but also due to the high-quality, environmental, social and governance (ESG)-centric offices planned. 

“The emirate has cemented its place on the world stage as a leading global financial hub and to sustain this position and grow further, new high-quality developments such as ECD are very much needed,” he says.

Attracting tenants

Expo City Dubai is positioned as a hub for all kinds of businesses, from startups to Fortune 500s. Expo partners including Siemens and DP World have already confirmed plans to set up headquarters, while country pavilions staying intact are expected to turn their buildings into commercial, educational or cultural spaces.

The city is especially keen to attract businesses in the fields of innovation, technology, healthcare and education. However, specific selection criteria for tenants have not been released, and spokespeople state that they remain open to onboarding all partners aligned with Expo’s vision of a smart future.

“As a technology company in the construction and real estate sector, we value high technical standards in our offices and a working environment that provides networking opportunities with business partners and other companies, as well as a pleasant atmosphere and accessibility for our employees,” says Ibrahim Imam, co-founder, group co-CEO, CEO Mena and Apac at PlanRadar, a digital solutions provider. 

“The announcement by Siemens and DP World supports my impression that Expo City will provide an excellent environment for businesses of all sizes.”

But while the city strives to promote business inclusivity, it remains to be seen how it can emerge as a strong contender compared to existing freezones.

“I own a few businesses and would most definitely be curious to see how I can position at least one of my businesses within Expo City,” says Bianca Gracias, managing partner at Dubai-based law firm Crimson Legal.

“There would, however, have to be a better incentive from several perspectives to enable me to relocate my small and medium-sized enterprise (SME), since relocation comes at a steep cost for SMEs, especially from a compliance, regulatory and legal perspective. It will also be interesting to review the regulations compared to other freezones.”

Gracias sees further benefit if a sandbox approach is deployed, licensing innovative activities. 

“We also need to consider the legal implications of SME relocation to a new freezone, including de-registration and re-registration at various regulatory levels, signing new employment contracts, compliance with Expo City regulations, and visa and medical insurance re-registrations for employees.”

Synergic workspaces

For those limited to occupying singular office space due to budget, co-working could be a potential solution.

“Businesspeople prefer to be in a hub that serves their business, helping them to connect with like-minded people in a creative and inspiring environment and form a strong base for their businesses and customer attraction,” says Abdulla bin Lahej, chairman and founder of Ayana Holding and Wrkbay, the latter a co-working space in Dubai. “Expo City will attract businesses for sure, but for those who do not have enough budget to allocate for separate office space, there needs to be a base.”

“The presence of co-working spaces such as WrkBay can help SMEs and entrepreneurs commence their businesses by tapping into more cost-effective rents, network with other SMEs, scale their business and readapt their angle.” 

It is also crucial for small business owners to have access to large corporations, and Lahej sees Expo City as an enabler for such interactions.

“Certain SMEs may complement the corporations or vice versa so they can partner to sell products or services as well. I think there is so much untapped potential instead of competition.”

Ultimately, it is not about the space but the reach. Lahej argues that a business could be set up in Expo City but have its reach extend far beyond those walls.

“The idea of having SMEs or startups within Expo City is actually to enrich the space and also to export services outside the place itself,” he says. “There is even more to come, so the bigger picture looks more promising.”

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