A region that boasts the self-proclaimed eighth wonder of the world in the form of a 7,000,000sqm man-made island must be a force to be reckoned with. When it then adds two similar islands just for fun, the rest of the tourism world checks its marketing budgets.
Projects such as the awe-inspiring Palm Islands on the coastline of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have contributed to the Middle East's reputation for luxury and extravagance. Behind the scenes, however, the area is also undergoing continued industrial redevelopment that expands far beyond tourism.
In Dubai particularly, where government investment is looking to establish revenue beyond the diminishing crude oil reserves, you'll find one of the most rapidly expanding cityscapes.
At the World Economic Forum in Jordan recently, the Corporate Office in Dubai presented the emirate as a role model for growth and economic prosperity in the Middle East. Its latest expansion includes the ambitious 140sqkm Jebel Ali Airport City (JAAC) which will incorporate Dubai Aviation City, Commercial City, Golf Resort and International Airport.
And the exhibition world is not going to miss out. As part of the JAAC project, plans for a new 3,000,000sqm Exhibition City were revealed at the end of May. The complex is scheduled for completion in 2020 following a number of developmental stages. The first phase will be completed in 2009 and will host the Dubai Airshow. The organiser, Fairs & Exhibitions (F&E), collaborates with the Government of Dubai Department of Civil Aviation and Dubai International Airport on the event, alongside the UAE armed forces.
F&E chief executive Clive Richardson says: "This is a huge facility and for the airshow in particular it is very exciting. It means once again the event will be located within the grounds of an international airport in what will be a perfect purpose built facility. The venue will be user-friendly with space to expand and we have even been consulted by the developers to ensure the facility will meet our demands."
Reed Exhibitions is another organiser with extensive experience of the Middle East market. Its projects include the Arabian Travel Market which took place in Dubai in May.
"Dubai is a great place for the exhibition industry and this project is very exciting for us," says Reed Exhibitions chief executive Alastair Gornall. "The area is both visionary and innovative and they are determined to make the project happen. It could be an international threat to both the European market and the Far East. We're excited as the project presents an opportunity which companies with the right vision can exploit."
The Dh8bn (£1.09bn) Exhibition City will provide an exclusive 500,000sqm exhibition facility with 19 halls as well as additional hotels, offices and residential apartments.
Although almost 5.5m visitors travelled to Dubai in 2004, the emirate aims to attract 15m by 2010, therefore marketing to the rest of the world is a priority. Recently the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) held a UK roadshow called 'Invest In Your Future' which visited Manchester, Glasgow and London to promote the region as a business and leisure destination.
A similar roadshow organised by the Dubai Summer Surprises office visited the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Dammam and Riyadh and was assisted by the DTCM office in Saudi Arabia. It was attended by more than 470 travel agents and at least 55 media professionals.
While Dubai has a head start, the Middle East as a whole is expanding its offering and building on its basis as an attractive business tourism destination.
In May, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry (UFI) met with representatives from Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE to familiarise themselves with the regional and national exhibition markets and meet decision-makers in the area. The UFI delegation met with numerous venues and organisers in the region including the Qatar International Exhibition Centre, the Dubai World Trade Centre, Bahrain's AEM and the UAE's GEC. A decision to open a UFI Middle East office is likely to be made by the end of this year but would certainly signify a commitment to the region by the trade body.
"The investments being made in our sector in each of these cities are impressive," says UFI president Ruud van Ingen. "Our clear conclusion from this mission is that there is a strong potential for the development of trade fairs and exhibitions in this region. We have no doubt that UFI members around the globe would find the business opportunities in this region of interest to them as well."
Outside of Dubai, Qatar is progressing with its Education City complex, comprising a 30,000sqm conference and exhibition centre scheduled for completion in 2008. Similarly, last year the Bahrain International Exhibition Centre added a multi-purpose convention centre to its offering. All of which means that investment in the Middle East appears to be continuing in earnest.