What Will Sheikh Mohammed Do?

Expo2020Dubai is in trouble.

This is, arguably, Dubai’s last shot at credibility in the world of Destination and Themed Entertainment. Globally and historically, Dubai is known as much for the “biggest” and the “newest” and the “most”-est as it is for Grand Announcement followed by Failure to Deliver.

Massive projects have been announced and launched, grand models photographed, hands shaken and press released; then these projects often disappear. Grand Openings are announced, the original published Opening Dates arrive and pass without reference and, more often than not, if the projects do actually open, they often open weeks, months and even years late; often still unfinished and incomplete.

The world knows this.

In private, non-public conversations between professionals, worldwide, about the prospects for Expo2020Dubai, conversations are as much along the lines of, “…let’s see what Dubai does with Expo…” as they are voicing the question, “…do you think that Dubai will be actually be able to pull this off?”

And this is a legitimate question. The world is skeptical, and rightfully so.

As of this writing, much of the same dysfunctional dynamics are in place at Expo2020Dubai that prevailed at Meraas / Dubai Parks as far back as 2012 and 2013. These dynamics have very publicly resulted in extremely late openings of projects that are still incomplete when they open. Despite repeated recommendation on the part of consulting experts in these fields, warnings were ignored and advice dismissed, systems were not streamlined, input was not embraced at the appropriate times and result is that the parks have opened late, incomplete and over-budget.

Motiongate in particular has opened…late and incomplete…to reviews that range from lackluster to downright scathing, and appropriately so. This writer visited the park as it opened to discover only a fraction of the rides and shows operating at all, and those in operation fall far short of anything approaching World Class.

The two rides experienced, “Ghostbusters” and “Hotel Transylvania,” are straight-out embarrassing. Vast open and empty spaces between disconnected vignettes drain the energy from one scene to the next; creating an energy- and intrigue-free experience of what amounts to a showcase of some pretty cool scenery…but the absence of continuity renders the entire experience lackluster and boring.

What is sad about this is that some exceptionally talented and skilled professionals designed and built these attractions. Hampered by inexperienced Corporate officers who lack an understanding or failed to give priority to the importance of Story and the critical quality of seamless immersion in creating Experience and seem, instead, to be focused on shaving budgets to the detriment of actual Experience; these creative and technical professionals found themselves handcuffed to unrealistic expectations, uninformed timelines and deadlines and a critical absence of understanding of the craft of Creating Experience.

And, to be completely frank, many of the “experts” – mostly white guys of a certain age with “pedigrees” from the School of Disney and Universal who are on the verge of retirement – seem to come to the UAE more interested in a well-paid “last hurrah” than the integrity or ultimate success of the project for which they are responsible. Caving to the unrealistic expectations and unmeetable deadlines levied by clients who have no understanding of the business does not support a finished product of which one might be proud…nor one that will be profitable.

IMHO, it is the responsibility of these individuals to hold the line on unrealistic expectation and educate the client rather than kowtow. This responsibility seems not to have been fully embraced.

That being said; another critical facet that impedes success in large-scale projects in the UAE is a deeply-ingrained fear in the Emirati culture of Losing Face. These are in many cases exceptionally intelligent people who are handicapped by a fear of not being seen as knowing everything about the project(s) for which they are responsible.  Somehow, the value and honor of taking advice and being willing to hear facts that may not fit with original expectation is absent in many an executive suite.

Note: It’s okay to not know; it’s okay to change one’s mind when presented with facts and experienced advice that contradicts original decisions. It is even honorable to acknowledge having learned something.

Insistence on things such as unrealistically short deadlines, an ignorance of the importance of the soft-edged creative in the hard-edged design and architecture, across-the-board budget cutting without a sense of how such action affects the substance of the project – all things that came into play in the shortfall and negative experience offered by the Motiongate project – is what undermines the best of project intentions.

Thus, the money that has been spent on such projects has been effectively wasted, as the unfinished spaces, the gaps in individual Experiences, Rides and Shows seriously undermine and diminish the quality of the product.

IMG World is it’s own example. In April of 2014, IMG announced in the local and worldwide press that IMG World was going to open in November of that year, and was going to “rival Disney” (a preposterous projected rivalry, in and of itself). The boastful announcement was met with worldwide cynicism; as one photograph of the unfinished structure was all anyone needed in order to know that the park would not open in 2014, at all.

This continued; with successive announcements of opening dates that came and went without comment followed with several announcements for an Opening that never took place…and the doors finally, quietly opened in mid-2016 to a vastly underpopulated cavern. The destination hasn’t yet been host to a crowd anywhere near capacity; yet they’ve just announced a second gate.

Ferrari World, too, is a prime example. Opening late, incomplete, over budget; it has taken six years for that park to begin to show fiscal health…and they’re not out of the woods, yet.

The world sees and remembers these things.

The world is watching Expo2020Dubai.

Expo2020Dubai must open on time and complete.

The world will arrive on 20 October 2020 and expect the promised perfection. The Expo cannot open a month, a week, not even a day or an hour late.

Sheikh Mohammed has decreed that the Expo site must be audience-ready six month’s out; by 20 April 2020. As of this writing, there is virtually no chance of this happening; not if the vision of a cutting-edge, lush, never before seen, exciting new paradigm and evolution of the Expo Experience is to be realized.

The absence of experienced and knowledgeable leadership at senior level is impeding the work of the Department responsible for all the live components of Expo2020 and affects the reputation of that department throughout the UAE and in the industry, worldwide.

This knowledge and experience gap is such that it affects not only the ability to accomplish key tasks and run the department efficiently and effectively; but it adversely affects the national and global reputation with respect to credibility and, more critically with respect to valuable human resources, appeal as a place to work.

World class designers, producers, entertainment professionals will not want to work in an unsupportive environment.

The agency and vendor community in the UAE, while anxious to partner, collaborate with or work for Expo2020, is as a community vocally trepidatious about engaging with EXPO as the process is cumbersome, confused and amateur.


Information is of greatest value when it is shared.

Seeing to it that the Architects and Builders, Operators, Designers and Experience Designers share the same meeting table, creating and engaging in a dynamic, ongoing conversation, discussing and exploring thoughts, concepts and options as spaces and venues are developed and prior to projected “finalization” of a Master Plan will inevitably save massive amounts of time and money.

It is key to remember, too, that such a Master Plan is only “successively final;” as many things can, must and will evolve and change as new creative ideas come to light and new technologies become available or are developed specifically for the Experiences envisioned at Expo.

The fact is, as well, that the architects and designers, builders and planners generally want to know what’s being envisioned as the actual experience in the places being designed as they are being designed. These professionals want to design and build toward vision…thus, they need to know what is being envisioned.

The architects and the Creatives should be Friends!

Collaboration is Key

Design being undertaken in a vacuum of actual creative concepts envisioned for given spaces and places will result in either;

  1. decisions made as to power, space, utilization and flexibility that will limit the possible experiences and productions that can be effectively mounted in those spaces, or
  2. when and as cutting-edge and groundbreaking creative ideas for Experience and Show are presented, accepted and embraced; expensive and time-consuming post-construction retrofitting of spaces and infrastructure may be incurred in order to accommodate the Better Idea.

Possible Resolution:

  • Casual, conversational information sharing should be encouraged at all levels between departments; sowing seeds of inspiration and inspiring collaboration throughout.
  • Inter-departmental lines of communication should be open and supported such that when any of these principals has an idea or question, s/he can contact any of the others, directly.
  • Regular, inter-departmental “touch-base” meetings on design and what is envisioned to take place in that design, with the site map on the table and all parties standing around it, are critical. In-depth, ad hoc follow-up conversations can be scheduled from this meeting between the immediately-involved principals that will likely result in evolution of design and the breaking of new ground in Experience.

Free, inter-departmental communications at all levels will enhance and speed the momentum of the entire project and empower all teams to embrace responsibility for achievement and meeting the goals of Expo.

Most Important

My admiration and respect for Sheikh Mohammed is no secret to the readers of this site. I embrace his vision for Dubai and want to see it materialize and prevail. It is my fervent hope that Expo2020Dubai is a spectacular success; that it opens on time, breaks new ground in the context of World Expos, shows the world that Dubai can, in fact, deliver on this most grand of plans and realize His Majesty’s vision.

It’s going to take a brutally realistic realization of the inherent cultural dynamics of the UAE that directly impede the path to envisioned success. Simple things such as relentless commitment to deadlines, clear and open communication throughout organizations, the taking of sometimes bitter-truth advice and the seeking of solutions that work will be the core of a successful initiative.

With that, there must be resistance on all fronts to the inclination to placate Power and acquiesce to the un-doable.

Embrace the lesson so publicly offered by the failure of projects such as Motiongate to deliver on promises of Guest Experience and Opening Dates. Bring close those who tell the truth in the face of potential wrath, those who stand for quality, those who can teach while collaborating with the brilliant-yet-inexperienced.

DubaiEXPO2020, as described in the vision statements, has the potential to be a spectacular showcase for Dubai and the UAE and to change the way Expo’s are created and presented; challenging, changing and evolving the form and format of the Expo phenomenon.

To accomplish this; eschew those who acquiesce to Power when Power asks what is not possible…find and gather those who love what they do, who know how to accomplish what is envisioned, share what they learn and know, are committed to quality and nimble collaborators.

Listen to them. Take good advice and put distance between the project and the Yes Men.

And with that, I’ll probably never be allowed in the UAE again.

[As it happens, “IMHO : Creating Compelling Experience” is still a free download from the Apple bookstore and iTunes. Free. Read it. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/imho/id555219645?mt=11 ]