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"The tension is real" Dubai Tourism CEO on Expo 2020

Words by Rob Chilton

Dubai Tourism chief Issam Kazim speaks to EDGAR on the eve of Expo 2020 about his emotion and pride at presenting Dubai to the world

It’s three weeks before the start of Expo 2020 and Issam Kazim should be a bag of nerves. As CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DCTCM), Expo is – to say the least – a big deal for the Emirati. Ever since Dubai won the bid to host the cultural festival on November 27, 2013, the clock has been ticking down for Kazim and his team.

EDGAR is surprised, therefore, to see Kazim looking remarkably relaxed about the mind-boggling, six-month event that will put Dubai on the global stage like never before.

He shrugs and laughs, “It’s just the way that I live I guess. I’m the same with work as I am at home with my kids. Of course, the tension is there, the tension is real. The challenge is not going to change. But if you can just bring that positive attitude to the table and make sure everyone else feels that positivity as well, I think that enables us to take on anything that is thrown at us. I truly believe that’s the only way you should go.”

Supplied An aerial shot of the sustainability pavilion

Supplied Dubai Tourism CEO, Issam Kazim

One in a million

Perhaps Kazim’s confidence surrounding Expo 2020 stems from his belief that, for Dubai, greeting tourists from around the world is in the city’s DNA. “What’s unique about Dubai is that we put on a world Expo on a daily basis,” he explains. “Everyone is so proud of the city, we’re all natural ambassadors. Expo gives us this massive platform for six months to showcase what people are doing here. For us, it’s a proud moment, we must take ownership of it. It will truly be magnificent.”

A charismatic speaker, Kazim has been in the top seat at DCTCM for seven years, overseeing an extraordinary and non-stop transformation of Dubai’s tourism landscape. As Expo 2020 edges closer, has he noticed an acceleration in his working life?

“To be honest, it’s been intense all the way, the whole seven years,” he chuckles. “This is Dubai. You’re working with leadership that never rests. Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai] always says there’s a peak we’re trying to reach, but just as we reach it there’s another peak we want to conquer. That’s the way Dubai is and it’s been ingrained in all of us. We never ever say, ‘We’re there, we’ve made it.’ We’re always looking to the next big thing that’s going to be thrown at us. We wait in anticipation of what that is going to be.”

If you build it...

The Frame, Dubai Water Canal, Museum of the Future, Dubai Safari Park, Dubai Opera, Etihad Museum… Kazim has rarely had a quiet day in the office during his tenure at DCTCM. For some, this relentless forward motion would be mentally draining, but Kazim finds it energising.

“Maybe it’s not for everyone,” he smiles. “I can tell you this, in this organisation there is something for everyone. If you want to be the Formula One driver sitting in the cockpit, attacking every turn that comes at you, there’s something for you. Or if you’d rather be the engineer sitting in the garage making sure the engine works, there’s something for you, too. That’s what makes Dubai work.”

Born in Dubai, Kazim cannot wait to show off his home city to the world during Expo 2020. He highlights the pavilions from the UAE and Saudi Arabia as ones to seek out. “The UK has a Stephen Hawking project,” he adds, “and the ones from the African nations are fascinating.”

Food, he says, will be a major attraction for visitors. “The gastronomy scene is on another level,” says Kazim. “If you are a foodie, this is definitely the place to go. They’re bringing things that don’t exist in Dubai and elevating things that are already here. Food is being intertwined with different experiences that have more to do with than just taste.”

Supplied The observation tower, Garden in the Sky, stands 55 metres above the ground

Positive vibes only

Crucially for Kazim, Expo 2020 will also provide an opportunity to smash some of the stereotypes that plague Dubai. “There are times when it frustrates you, when you read reports in the media from people who have never been here,” he says. “Now is the time to see the positive noise and positive energy coming from this place – and that means a lot.”

It’s been a long journey to this moment, which was of course delayed for a year due to the Covid crisis. Will he be emotional on Expo 2020’s opening night?

“Let me tell you something, when we were bidding for Expo it might not have hit me that much,” admits Kazim. “I’ll be honest, back then, I didn’t know that much about Expo, I knew a little bit about the World Fair, the Eiffel Tower, Crystal Palace in London, I knew ketchup was introduced there, and so on, but that was it. But the moment we won Expo… the feeling when I saw people in the streets, screaming in celebration, I felt so proud. We competed against two other finalists who had been there and done that so many times. So, for us to win, our young nation, it was such a proud moment. Saying this to you now… I’m getting emotional. Now it’s finally here, I’m able to say we are welcoming the world to come here and showcase their dreams for the future.”

After the trials and tribulations of putting on Expo 2020, Kazim must surely be planning a holiday for next April. “Haha, I don’t know. Let’s see if I have any energy left to travel!”

Dubai Expo 2020 is open now

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