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1With its interwoven themes of ‘opportunity’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘mobility’ the forthcoming Dubai World Exposition in 2020 highlights the ways in which tourism, mobilities and events come together in complex ways. The 21st century has often been deemed hypermobile and such mobilities – the multiple interconnections between different forms of mobility such as tourism, capital, migration, communication and so on - have had far reaching consequences for both socio-spatial lives and the transportation technologies that enable these (Hannam et al., 2006). Moreover, the expansion of events and ‘eventization’ - the transformation of leisure activities and spaces into corporatized spectacles and privatized spaces - has also challenged social understandings of place and how we make sense of temporalities (Spracklen et al., 2015). Urban events are often used as “tools of territorial governance” and “the control of temporal processes” through events arguably enables greater spatial control (Gravari-Barbas & Jacquot, 2007). Hall (2006, 63) emphasises that: “[i]maging a city through the organization of spectacular urban space by, for example, hosting a mega-event, is therefore a mechanism for attracting mobile capital and people (of the right sort) in a period of intense inter-urban competition and urban entrepreneurialism in which neoliberalism has become one of the major frameworks by which the experience of urban development is understood.”

2In this article it is contended that time and space appear to have been reconfigured through both mobilities and events such that we inhabit a new time-space regime of various speeds (Urry, 2016). This has had particular consequences for urban planning and development in cities such as Dubai – a destination constantly striving for visual and architectural excess and a hyper-real themed fantasy for the future (Davis, 2006; Schmid, 2009; Steiner, 2009). We will begin by outlining the conceptualisation of tourism mobilities and eventization before discussing how these processes have had significant effects on urban planning in the context of contemporary Dubai, with the Dubai Expo a key component in this. It is argued that what is significant in the contemporary context of Dubai is the assemblage of tourism mobilities and eventization with commercial business imperatives.

I. Mobilities and Eventization

3The mobilities paradigm arguably develops a more sophisticated interdisciplinary analysis of movement within societies compared with traditional sociological and geographical studies of places and planning (Hannam et al., 2006).In terms of planning, policy and politics, the mobilities paradigm also helps us to understand and think critically about some of the key tourism problems that face contemporary societies through the inter-related movement of people and things in everyday life (Hannam et al., 2014). The mobilities paradigm does not argue that mobilities are something new (although the global volume of mobilities has continually increased) but that studies of tourism are too static focusing on particular sites when in fact tourism can often be much more fluid: tourists and tourism are on the move literally and imaginatively (Urry, 2008). Salazar (2012, 576) notes however that “as a polymorphic concept, mobility invites us to renew our theorizing, especially regarding conventional themes such as culture, identity, and transnational relationships”.

4 The mobilities paradigm further develops such research through a critical approach to our understandings of the complex and dynamic integration of environmental impacts that have been the mainstay of much tourism management research (Hannam, 2018). Tourism research has, for example, considered its relationships with transport previously, however the mobilities paradigm allows us to develop a more critical perspective towards the political discourses and practices of ‘freedom’, for instance, that underpin contemporary tourism experiences (Sager, 2006, Hannam, 2016).

5 Tourism mobilities then are analysed not as an ephemeral aspect of social life that is practised outside normal, everyday life but is seen as integral to wider processes of economic and political development and even constitutive of everyday life (Coles and Hall, 2006; Hannam, 2009; Hannam et al., 2014). It is not just that tourism is a form of mobility like other forms of mobility such as commuting or migration but that different mobilities inform and are informed by tourism (Sheller and Urry, 2004). In any situation, mobilities involve the movement of people, the movement of a whole range of material things, and the movement of more intangible thoughts and imaginaries. Mobilities also involve the use of a range of new and old technologies. As tourists assimilate mobile technologies into their daily practices and expand these practices into digital spaces, they often reconfigure their own performativities and sociabilities, using their smartphones to quite literally perform by taking photos of themselves and socialising by reaching out to new friends on social media platforms. Tourism can be viewed as a complex assemblage of portable technologies, infrastructure, virtual and networked spaces, and bodies that flow through various mobilities (Germann Molz and Paris, 2016).

6In short proponents of the mobilities paradigm argue that the concept of mobilities is concerned with mapping and understanding the large-scale movements of people, objects, capital, and information across the world, as well as the more local processes of daily transportation, movement through public space as assemblages (Hannam et al., 2006). As Rickly et al. (2016, 1-2) argue: “When mobility is thought of as constellations of movement, representation, and practice, we can think through a more finely developed politics of mobility, one that works with mobilities and immobilities so as to deduce particular facets, such as motive force, speed, rhythm, route, experience and friction”. The mobilities paradigm thus proposes to reconfigure social science research, integrating the study of complex systems, notions of transition and analyses of how mobilities inform various social and technological practices including tourism (Sheller and Urry, 2016).

7Moreover, as has been argued previously, “[n]ot only does a mobilities perspective lead us to discard our usual notions of spatiality and scale, but it also undermines existing linear assumptions about temporality and timing, which often assume that actors are able to do only one thing at a time, and that events follow each other in a linear order” (Hannam, 2009, 109). Thus, conceptualising contemporary urban transformations also needs to pay attention to the significance of events as well as mobilities.

8Žižek (2014, 5) has argued that an event is “the effect that seems to exceed its causes — and the space of an event is that which opens up by the gap that separates an effect from its causes.”Events then are more than the sum of their parts and have ongoing effects or ‘legacies’ whether planned for or not. Events serve as contexts that provide meanings and purpose for a distinct action such as attending a music festival. But events are also how mobilities become articulated as meaningful activities within different systems of practice. For example, Julie Cidell (2014) has examined how “bringing together hundreds or thousands of runners at a time via an event known as a road race enables a different, transgressive occupation of space that no one runner could accomplish on his or her own.” This allows new understandings of urban space for the road running participants (see also Cook et al., 2016). Indeed, place identities, as well as personal identities, are frequently communicated in terms of narratives of events – moments in time-space through which they become linked (Hannam et al., 2016). ‘Event mobilities’ are more than simply travelling to participate in an event but involve the assemblage of complex mobilities and materialities.

9The hosting and creation of events has become one of the key tools for urban planners as they seek to regenerate older industrial sites such that this had led to a process of ‘eventization’. Karl Spracklen et al., (2013, 167) argue that eventization, “is the transformation, of (free or cheap) communicative leisure activities and spaces into (expensive) corporatized spectacles and privatized spaces.” Spracklen et al (2013, 167) contend that there is a crisis of thinking in urban planning and politics: “blind obedience to the belief in events as transformative, the desire to turn public spaces over to private events corporations and the wishful thinking about legacies that leads to cynicism from a public struggling to pay bills.” Spracklen et al., (2013) go on to detail how eventization has transformed the city centre of Leeds in the UK and how resistance to eventization and commodification has been performed by various local actors.

10Linking eventization and mobilities, Giulianotti et al. (2015, 119) identified “six main themes of mobility politics which were evident at [the] London 2012 [Olympics],relating to social context, event construction, event mobility systems, commercial mobilities, the mobile politics of exclusion, and contested modes of mobility.” Many local residents in Stratford, east London were forced to move to make way for the event whilst others found themselves subject to mobility restrictions as roads were closed during the event. Giulianotti et al. (2015, 137) argue that the “Olympic mobility system … inaugurated a three-speed city which, in tandem with a mobility panic, facilitated the relatively free movement of ‘Games globals’ [elite international athletes, IOC officials and world media etc], the corporate kettling of Olympic tourists and visitors, and the restricted mobilities of local people". Here they emphasise the connected empirical politics of mobilities with eventization and highlight the ways in which the uses of everyday transport become embedded within wider aspects of urban transformation.

11The relationships between contemporary media systems and eventization, meanwhile, have been highlighted by Hall (2006, 60) who noted how: “the relative significance of mega-events is related to globalization of the media along with space-time compression associated with technological developments in transport and communication which have provided increased commercial impact for sports events.” Crucially, Hall links this to the mobility of capital with mega-events being used to attract capital investment and the right sort of people with the right lifestyles to fit with the image of a particular urban transformation. This also demonstrates the importance of capital mobilities in eventization processes and their effects on urban planning systems (Hiller, 2000; Hall, 2006; Salazar et al., 2016). Contemporary events are ‘framed’ through complex global neoliberal media systems and these have significant effects on urban imaging and subsequent urban planning (Tzanelli, 2015).

12Rodanthi Tzanelli (2015) has developed a mobilities informed analysis of the ethics and aesthetics of the football World Cup held in Brazil in 2014. She noted that “[t]he 2014 mega-event’s opening ceremony and the Brazilian mourning of football defeat become chrono-spatial windows to the Brazilian culture’s emotional and material movements in the world. Performed Brazilian-style, these movements are recorded in music, rhythm, theatrical performance and (un)choreographed protest in equally important ways…” (Tzanelli, 2015, 6). She further notes that the British football commentators’ presentations “were framed around discourses of travel and mobility: the slum and Carnival capital for Rio; the coastal artistic metropolis for Recife; the country’s power base for Brasilia; the Amazonian beautiful but progressively industrialised Manaus; the home of African capoeira for Salvador; and the industrious, concrete but cosmopolitan São Paulo” (Tzanelli, 2015, 17). Thus, particular urban destinations in Brazil became eventized through global media framing and subsequently re-imaged and re-planned for the cosmopolitan elite rather than for other social classes.

13Although Brazil is clearly of a different scale, cities such as Dubai have also choreographed significant global media coverage through the building of spectacular architecture, the hosting of events, expensive media campaigns and event sponsorship such that the city takes on a hyper-real character (Schmid, 2009; Steiner, 2009). Moreover, Dubai has also physically built media spaces such as Dubai Media City to attract global media companies (Coombe and Melki, 2012). We can see this in more detail in the following section which discusses the ongoing relations between mobilities and eventization in Dubai in terms of speed.

14II. Dubai as a City of Speed

  • 1 The concept of hyper-reality refers to the ways in which we begin to fail to distinguish between th (...)

15In his book What is the Future? John Urry (2016) demonstrated that futures are often contested and saturated with different interests, especially in relation to future generations. He also describes the ‘fast mobility city’ such as Dubai where people experience more intensive mobile lives and which are networked primarily for elites to move into and through quickly. Architecturally, Dubai has become synonymous with iconic construction projects. Nadkarni and Heyes (2016, 214) argue that: “Dubai’s strategic plan … has sought to differentiate itself from many of its global peers by a sustained focus on grandeur. A queer combination of large and luxurious in superlatives is what has now come to define Dubai’s growth DNA. Dubai has prided itself in being the home to the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa), the largest artificial island (the Palm Islands), the tallest hotel [and] the world’s most luxurious hotel (Jumeirah’s Burj al Arab).” Drawing upon Baudrillard’s concept of hyper-reality1, Steiner (2009, 8) has further noted that facilities such as Ski Dubai in the shopping Mall of the Emirates, “resemble materialised paradoxes of hyperrealities, bringing snow and skiing to a society in the desert.” He argues that in Dubai “we observe the design of a new hyperreal Orient, one that is clean, calculable, reliable and streamlined. The hyperreal Orient is completely commodified and easy to consume for tourism purposes” (Steiner, 2009, 8).

16The Dubai ruling family’s ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy quickly led to Dubai becoming a global destination. The fairy tale version of Dubai traces its development from a small fishing village and trading hub back in the 1950s to the fourth most visited city in the world in 2017 with over 16 million International visitors (Millington, 2018). However, the first income from oil in 1960s was initially used to dredge the waterway or the creek in order to facilitate larger container ships coming into the port. This resulted in increased cargo handling in Dubai further strengthening Dubai’s position as the leading trading and re-export hub in the Arabian Peninsula (, 2018). Thus Dubai’s second wealth generation came from the mobility of goods, while its third has come from tourism and real estate development: the mobilities of capital and people. Dubai is clearly a tourism hub as well as a luxury destination in its own right. In 2017, over 88 million international passengers passed through Dubai International Airport which has retained its status as the world busiest airport for international arrivals (Coffey, 2018). But it is not just the volume, but the speed at which Dubai works, in terms of development as well mobilities. Although there are various ‘booming cities’ in the USA and in China (Wegmann and Jiao, 2017), the Dubai model of development involves fast track construction that takes place day and night.

17Firstly, then, the speed of development needs to be recognised - Dubai is a fast mobile city in terms of the pace of development – thirty years ago Dubai was all but desert (Krane, 2009). As Sampler and Eigner (2003, 24) point out, "[t]he notion of speed is pervasive, from racehorses to fast-track building construction." The speed of development was the outcome of conscious policies of the Dubai ruling family in order to ‘catch up’ with the developed world (Sampler and Eigner, 2003; Hvidt, 2009). In contrast to many western countries, it is the Government rather than the private sector that takes the lead in the development of Dubai. Dubai’s private entrepreneurs are financially strong but politically weak. The apparent obsession with speed originates from the Dubai ruling family who are known to be fast decision maker’s eager to see results, but Dubai’s development also resonates with the wider project of autocratic neoliberalism where the state remains largely in service to wider capitalist interests (see Buckley, 2013). Matly and Dillon (2007, 6) note that “Sheikh Mohammed … has taken projects away from prominent families because of delays; in fact, one requirement to invest in the free-zones, development must begin within 24 months.” Indeed, the government is frequently viewed as moving faster than even the private sector and the local population would like – with a hierarchical decision making system rather than lengthy board discussions, decisions can come quickly. Hvidt (2009, 400) argues that this may be a consequence of the ongoing neoliberal interurban competition for economic hegemony in the Gulf region. Moreover, with such fast decision making, planning – particularly long term planning – has largely been bypassed as new economic zones are thought up and almost instantly created – Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City and so on.

18Secondly, we need to recognise the speed of tourism mobilities in Dubai. This speed is evident on arrival by plane into Dubai’s main DXB airport, where the pace of processing is evidently much faster than at other international borders for the business elite. In 2018, first and business class travellers could exit the country without showing their passports. “What travellers have to do is simply walk through a smart tunnel and look at the camera, equipped with biometric recognition technology. Once cleared, passengers can board the flight without waiting to get their passports stamped. The whole process takes just seconds” (Zakaria, 2018, n.p.). Such “elite mobilities” continue as business class travellers on Dubai’s signature airline, Emirates, are “entitled” to a free chauffeur driven ride to their hotel in Dubai marina or the Palm Jumeirah along the fast moving Sheikh Zayed expressway. Seven or eight lanes wide in each direction, this superhighway runs parallel to the coastline from the old centre of Dubai to the area of Jebel Ali where Dubai’s second airport DWC is currently being completed. Alongside the road, for those that do not own a car, the metro line runs at a slightly slower speed catering for all the service industry expatriate workers as well as the odd tourist on a ride. It is estimated that in just the first few days of opening in January 2010, over 10,000 people paid a significant fee to visit the observation deck located on the 124th floor of the world’s tallest building (Roy, 2011).

19Thirdly, underpinning the speed of tourism mobilities, is of course the speed of capital mobilities: “Dubai capital circulates and travels. It reshapes urban landscapes across a wide swath of territory, from Cairo to Delhi” (Roy, 2011, 320). Indeed, what happens economically in Dubai underpins the Middle East and North African region as was shown by the neoliberal financial crisis in 2008-9:

Foreign investors’ interest in real estate was declining markedly and hotel occupancy rates began to falter as tourists turned to cheaper destinations. Most seriously, Dubai’s banks and mortgage lenders were struggling to find credit on the international market. Loans dried up, speculators began to disappear, and the first major wave of resale properties began to hit the classifieds as nervous expatriates sought to cut their losses and run.… (Davidson, 2009, 11).

20As visually stunning as the architecture of Dubai are the images of the abandoned cars on forecourts, garages and by the side of the airport demonstrating the speed of flight of capital from a place that was once heralded as the Monte Carlo of the Middle East. Clearly, this can be seen as part of wider neoliberal economics – Dubai as a city-corporation where its ‘flexible citizens’ appropriate neoliberal discourses in order to negotiate and make sense of local ambiguities (Kanna, 2011).

21Fourthly, we need to consider the mobile workers that construct and work in the tourism industry in Dubai. The preferred image of Dubai favoured by the government is of Dubai as a multi-cultural utopia, a super-diverse city of the future. In fact, in terms of population, Dubai has about 3 Million residents, the vast majority (around 90%) being highly mobile expatriates (Dubai-online, 2018). Nearly 85% of the expatriate population is South Asian, primarily from India (accounting for 51%), while British expatriates make up the largest population of Western expatriates (World Population Review, 2018). Both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been criticized as ‘divided cities’, consisting of, on the one hand, wealthy Western expatriates secluded within gated communities with exclusive spaces of consumption, and, on the other hand, the low-wage, low-skill service, and construction workers, primarily of South Asian origin (Davis, 2006; Buckley, 2013). Furthermore, Ewers and Dicce (2016, 2453) point out that: “’[w]hile the division between poor and wealthy migrants demonstrates a stark contrast, further and more prominent divisions exist between highly skilled expatriate workers and the region’s citizens.” Different expatriates, migrants and citizens in Dubai all move at different speeds and have different ‘frictions’ in the sense of the physical and imaginary barriers between spaces that they can enter.

22Expatriate enclaves are a notable feature of many global cities and have been identified variously as “bubbles” or “safety zones” which have the power to “shelter” or “hide” Western expatriates from the myriad sensations of the host society (Hannam and Paris, 2018). Furthermore, Stephenson and Ali-Knight (2010, 284) have argued that in Dubai: “The social distinctions within the ethnic strata of expatriate communities are indeed conspicuous when it comes to issues of urban residency. European communities generally occupy more salubrious surroundings near to the tourist locations, hotels and restaurants, and sport and recreational complexes. The tourism environment has, in many ways, cemented the ethnic distinctions within the expatriate communities…” In Dubai, the status distinction between various nationalities of migrants is frequently taken for granted and leads to variable mobility speeds as well as frictions (Walsh, 2011).

23Fifthly, we need to consider the way in which Dubai has engaged with the mobile temporalities of eventization. The development of Expo 2020 signifies the pinnacle of Dubai’s shift towards eventization and its place in the regional interurban competition to host mega-events. Dubai’s Expo is supposed to be “a festival of human ingenuity … Expo 2020 Dubai will showcase and explore what is possible when new ideas and people connect” (Expo2020Dubai, 2019). It is the first World Expo to take place in the Middle East, Africa or South Asia (MEASA) supra-region. Of course, the histories of such Expos or World’s Fairs’ have long been considered as having elements of social control. Indeed, Ley and Olds (1988, 198) have discussed how “the modern fair has a nineteenth-century origin and has invariably been the project of social elites.” The aim of Expos was to consolidate "ideologically coherent ‘symbolic universes’ confirming and extending the authority of the country’s corporate, political, and scientific leadership" (Rydell, 1984, 2) and the Dubai Expo is no exception.

24The Dubai Expo is designed with three themes in mind – opportunity, mobility and sustainability. Opportunity, asks the question “what will money look like in the future?” and refers to education, employment, industrial diversification and achieving governmental and financial efficiencies. Mobility asks the question “who will design your driverless experience?” and focuses on travel and transport infrastructure, improving ‘smart’ logistics and digital connectivity and also technological solutions for people with disabilities. Sustainability, meanwhile, asks the question “can you engineer the weather?” and considers issues such as biodiversity management, resource management, urban development, climate change and fostering the ‘green economy’. Throughout there is an emphasis on developing the “Expo 2020 Dubai Brand” and inviting commercial partners to gain “valuable rights” while “other entities related to the Expo, including suppliers, do not have such rights or benefits” (Expo2020Dubai, 2019). Dubai’s Expo is firmly tied to the UAE’s wider technologically focused autocratic neoliberalism.

25The economic, physical, social and reputational legacy of the Dubai Expo is also firmly tied to real estate and tourism with the post-expo site being reimagined as a new urban community using 80% of the physical assets of the Expo. Called District 2020, this new large urban district aims to have a mix of office space, attractions, parks, amenities and residences to encourage “original thinkers, innovators and pioneers” to move there (District2020, 2019). How this will happen exactly remains to be seen.

26With the construction of the Ain Dubai we also have an architectural and symbolic extension of Dubai’s Expo – billed as “a gift from history” back to the heritage of the original Ferris wheel that was built in 1893 for the Chicago Expo. Indeed, the opening page of the website for the Dubai expo shows a photo of the original Chicago Ferris wheel. This wheel was built as a display of American engineering superiority over the French 1888 Expo and its Tour Eiffel (Ho, 2016). Dubai’s Ferris wheel, though, is an attempt to control temporal processes but is firmly anchored to a massive tourism and real estate project – the Bluewaters man-made island off the coast of Dubai marina.


27This paper has argued that in cities such as Dubai time and space appear to have been reconfigured through both mobilities and events such that we inhabit a new time-space regime of various speeds (Urry, 2016). This has had particular consequences for urban planning and development in cities such as Dubai – a destination constantly striving for visual and architectural excess. Firstly, Dubai’s development has proceeded at an extremely fast pace, with projects fast tracked in various ‘free zones’ led by the government of Dubai and backed by corporations keen to be part of the construction boom and related to the image of Dubai as a city on the move. Secondly, Dubai’s tourism mobilities demonstrate the ways in which the city caters to speeding up elite movements through the city – through its airports, along its roads and into its attractions. Thirdly, and unpinning this, despite the financial crisis of 2008, Dubai is about attracting mobile capital and trying to keep it. Fourthly, Dubai’s speed is also dependent upon the mobilities of various workers who move at different speeds depending on their status and nationalities. Finally, Dubai’s Expo and the temporal eventization add a further dimension to its mobilities, extending the social and spatial control of the corporate and political elites.

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1 The concept of hyper-reality refers to the ways in which we begin to fail to distinguish between the real and simulations of reality, such that the simulation becomes synonymous with or even better than the real. See Baudrillard (1994).

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Kevin Hannam

Professor Kevin Hannam is currently Dean of the Faculty of International Tourism at City University Macau and a research associate at the University of Johannesburg. He is a founding co-editor of the journals Mobilities and Applied Mobilities (Routledge) and has published over 100 research articles and book chapters. He has a PhD in geography from the University of Portsmouth and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS).

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