Why Expo 2020 Dubai matters

31 August 2021
Still in the grip of Covid-19 and the climate crisis, why should the world pay attention to Expo 2020 Dubai?

On the Agenda
Mehak Srivastava
Expo editor

Since their inception in London in 1851, world expos have remained remarkably consistent in their underlying purpose – that of bringing together nations to promote innovation.

But in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and the growing climate crisis, is there a place for more of the same? Should we expect something bigger from Expo 2020 Dubai?

“I think the concept of a world expo is a dated idea of globalisation, but there is certainly interest and relevance for states to promote their industrialisation policies and their ideas for growth,” says Karen Young, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI), who notes that the UAE is masterful at “image-building and attracting attention”.

The UAE has risen as an economic hub and geopolitical player by nurturing ties with its counterparts both in the East and West. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the nation’s niche diplomacy in facilitating medical aid and trialling and distributing vaccines has contributed to the global recovery. 

“The UAE does have the advantage of shifting norms and policy ideation within the region,” says Young. “This is a strength and tool of foreign policy influence. Expo 2020 might be a spotlight for those ideas.”

This package also includes:
> Expo 2020 voices: Expo's six-month Programme for People and Planet
> Expo 2020 solutions: A blueprint for intelligent cities
> ShowtimeRead the September 2021 MEED Business Review

Relationship building

The event will amplify the UAE’s push for economic diversification, opening avenues for bilateral trade. It offers the opportunity to collaborate in areas where the UAE wants to build its strengths, such as food security and renewable energy.

“The general promotion of Expo 2020 is an idea of governance for innovation and economic growth,” says Young. “In this sense, the UAE excels next to its peers.”

The event could also serve to emphasise one of the standout political moments of 2020: the normalisation of relations between the UAE and Israel. Since last September, the two nations have established embassies and signed multimillion-dollar business and technology deals. 

“In a world where great power competition is resurgent, Expo 2020 can serve as a public commitment to – and show of strength of – Emirati-Israeli ties,” says Varsha Kodavayur, an analyst at US-based research and analysis firm Valens Global. 

Global platform

Climate change will be the dominant theme at Expo 2020, and the event will provide the UAE with an opportunity to present itself as an enabler of global change.

In September 2020, under its ongoing global best practice programme, expo organisers called for short- and long-term solutions to the challenges arising from the pandemic. These are solutions that can be replicated, adapted and scaled for greater impact.

With dedicated events, high-level discussions and innovative, grassroots solutions, Expo 2020 will make a tangible contribution to global issues.

The event will also be one of the first global gatherings since January 2020 that invites physical participation.

“We are witnessing a new era of growth emerging from the repercussions of Covid-19,” says Severi Keinala, commissioner general of Finland at Expo 2020 Dubai. 

“We will see digital innovations revolutionise entire industries and, more importantly, those who can enact meaningful and sustainable development in areas of global concern will come together to guide the positive changes we need to see. For this to take place in the UAE marks a significant moment in local and regional history.”

As one of the first major international events to open to the public since the start of the pandemic, Expo 2020 could serve as a benchmark for events of its scale in the years to come. 

“[In the past,] world exhibitions helped identify and showcase inventions and state-of-the-art technologies,” says Richard Bandera, commercial counsellor at the Austrian embassy in Abu Dhabi. 

“We live in a [more] transparent world, and much can be found on the internet and bought online, but this cannot replace a personal experience,”

Transformative opportunity

Since the previous world expo in 2015, host city Milan has been transformed. According to a January 2020 report by property consultant JLL, much of this development is attributed to investments made in infrastructure, business hubs and its digital economy.

Critically, this was before the trade and travel insecurities introduced by the pandemic. 

Concerns about visitor numbers remain as a result of the ongoing travel restrictions and the resurgence in Covid-19 cases globally. Expo’s previous estimate of 25 million visitors has been scaled back to 25 million visits.

“The silver lining of delaying Expo 2020 is that now people, companies and governments are more appreciative of an opportunity to gather, network, share ideas and promote national growth agendas,” says MEI’s Young. 

“There is more value and ‘newness’ in the convening now, and this is an opportunity for the UAE to demonstrate how to gather and promote national innovation in a safe way.”

Main image: Inauguration of the Al-Wasl Plaza in January 2020. Credit: Dubai Media Office

Expo 2020 voices: Through 10 themed weeks, Dubai will use the six-month expo to promote discussion on global challenges and opportunities

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