The geopolitical legacy of Expo 2020 Dubai
From the Iran issue to the Ukraine conflict
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“The show must go on”, even when the lights go out and the curtain falls. This is also the case with Expo 2020 Dubai, which will leave a double legacy - not only on the urban development front, with its venue being included in the comprehensive “Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan”, but also on the geopolitical one, with international agreements being made and balances weighed, both on historically open questions and on emerging ones, during the six months of the Universal Exposition.
At the World Government Summit, which was held during the last three days of the Expo, Anwar Gargash, advisor to the prince of Abu Dhabi, expressed the need to “talk to friends and adversaries and rebuild bridges”, adding the importance of finding “a way to work functionally with Iran, and to make sure that there is an agenda for stability and prosperity in the region, including Iran and others”. This declaration appeared to be particularly meaningful as it came just over three months after the historic meeting in Tehran, on 6 December 2021, between Iranian President Ebrahaim Raisi and Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, National Security Adviser and brother of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
In November 2019, less than a year before the Abraham accords, the UAE allowed Israeli passport holders to enter the country during Expo 2020. And at Al Wasl Plaza, at the heart of the Expo, Emirati Economy Minister Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri signed an agreement with his Syrian counterpart, Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, with the aim of boosting trade between the two nations. The event was attended by senior officials of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who visited the UAE in person on 18 March – the first such visit to an Arab state since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. In the light of the Arab League Summit in November this year, the UAE, together with Egypt, is currently considered as one of the most solid supporters of the ostracized Syrian President.
Also worth highlighting is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Abu Dhabi last February, for the first time since the start of the Arab Spring a decade ago. This followed a trip to Ankara by Emirati Prime Minister and Vice President Sheikh Mohammed, and the announcement of the UAE commitment to setup a US$10 billion investment fund for Turkey, with which total trade was already worth US$7.2 billion in the first six months of 2021.
However, last January, news of a missile falling about 60 kilometers from the Dubai event (the third high-tension attack in just three weeks) went viral, preceding by a few hours the historic visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was expected at the Exhibition for a press conference.
The end of the Expo also coincided with the UAE ending its month of presidency of the Security Council of the United Nations, of which the UAE has been a member since its foundation in 1971.
It was a Litmus test for the Emirates, which had launched its campaign for a site in 2020, obtained in the same month in which world order experienced one of the most disruptive events since World War II: the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. During that month full of twists and turns at the UN headquarters, Lana Nusseibeh, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the UN, achieved an important result with the designation of the Houthi as a terrorist group and a resolution renewing sanctions against them.
Then, with the beginning of Ramadan, the Saudi-led coalition agreed to two-month-long truce in Yemen. In the meantime, the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis – the cruelty and speed of which has unsettled many international analysts – took physical form in the Ukrainian Pavilion with thousands of solidarity cards stuck on the walls, showing that the echoes of the Russian invasion did not stop at Expo’s gates. And only two days before the end of the Exhibition, it appeared that the timing of a new telephone call between Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and Ukrainian President Zelensky (after the one that had taken place on 4 March) was being delayed – especially after the “mystery” around Saudi and Emirati leaders allegedly refusing Biden’s telephone calls.
The UAE has announced that five planes carrying several tons of humanitarian aid have already left the country, heading to Ukraine, in answer to the appeals launched by the United Nations. At the same time the nightmare of the Iranian threat, exacerbated by the fear of a US disengagement, has been appeased through the talks that took place in Rabat between US Secretary of State Blinken and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. The US tried to reassure the Gulf monarchies on its determination to help them repel attacks by the Houthis, aligned with Iran, in Yemen. But - a month on from the declarations of the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba - various countries, from Japan to the UK and the US, are demanding a more assertive stance on oil production to curb the Brent oil price surge.
Of course, plans for a geopolitical legacy of Expo did not foresee this, but at least one final postscript, if not a chapter, bears the title of a frightening new conflict, which casts a shadow on the Near East as well.