Geography and potential of Expo 2020

Expo 2020 Dubai will be the first Exposition in MENASA area (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia). This will turn the spotlight on each of the world’s 192 countries and on the potential of a region which has about 2.3 billion people.

On 27 November 2013, during the 154th General Assembly of the Bureau International Des Expositions, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was elected to host the 170th edition of the Universal Exposition, with a landslide victory over Brazil, Russia and Turkey. Under the slogan 'Connecting Minds, Creating the Future', Expo 2020 Dubai will be the first exhibition to take place in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, shining a spotlight on the potential of a region inhabited by some 2.3 billion people. In another first, organizers have decided that each of the world’s 192 countries would have its own pavilion to showcase their best assets.

Therefore, taking a stroll through the Pavilions of Expo 2020 Dubai is a useful exercise to gauge the UAE’s ambitions and to understand the geopolitical dynamics that have unfolded in the eight years that have elapsed since the day of the victory. In the district of Opportunity (one of the three main themes, together with Mobility and Sustainability), the eye is caught by the Pavilions of Qatar and Israel. Much has changed in these past eight years. Qatar has gone from a breakdown in diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain in 2017 to their restoration at the beginning of this year, when the Al Ula Declaration put an end to the crisis. Furthermore, the UAE’s proclamation of 2019 as Year of Tolerance promoted inter-religious dialogue at different levels. It set the stage for Pope Francis' visit to Abu Dhabi, the first ever Papal trip to the Arabian Peninsula, and paved the way for the Abraham Accords which led to the normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries, such as Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

The Italian Pavilion is located between the districts of Opportunity and Sustainability, the latter being a central theme of both Expo 2020 Dubai and of the UAE agenda, which seeks to align the mantra of national economic diversification with the global trend towards energy transition. Italian energy majors are present in the country and contributing to this through their participation in the process. Over the past few years, the UAE has created some of the largest solar parks in the world and has also invested in nuclear energy, with the zero-emission Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, which has just had a second unit connected to the national grid. Furthermore, in 2015, the headquarter of IRENA, the United Nations’ International Renewable Energy Agency – coincidentally chaired by an Italian, Mr. Francesco La Camera – was established in the eco-city of Masdar City, near Abu Dhabi, making this the first intergovernmental organization based in the Middle East. During this summer, the UAE also formalized its candidacy to host COP28 (the UN Conference on Climate Change) in 2023, after Egypt’s bid to host COP27 next year.

Today, the UAE’s influence stretches from critical international choke-points in Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb – through which respectively 20 percent and 4 percent of crude oil supplies transit every day – to the Horn of Africa and Libya, and the country is increasingly strengthening synergies with China, the main oil buyer in the region as well as leading interlocutor in the crucial sector of artificial intelligence.

In these eight years, the face of the UAE has also changed. Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, the so-called "island of Emirati soft power", is hosting an increasing collection of iconic symbols of the UAE’s international connections. These range from the dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi to New York Abu Dhabi University, from international schools (725 of which are distributed throughout the national territory, making the UAE a world leader in the sector) to the Guggenheim, currently under construction. And then there is the Abrahamic Family House: a mosque, a church and a synagogue hosted in the same complex, based on the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together signed in 2019 by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. Earlier this summer, the Al Amal probe, launched by the Emirates Space Agency (set up in Dubai just six years ago) entered into orbit around Mars. All of this, coupled with the recurrence of the country’s Golden Jubilee, has led main national newspaper The National to hint, in a recent article, that Burj Khalifa could pick up the legacy of the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of the Universal Exposition.

In short, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that “distant” November of 2013 and the UAE’s post-pandemic economic recovery (estimated at up to 4 percent in 2021 by the Ministry of Economy) is running hand in hand with a continuous strengthening of the country’s diplomatic standing. Indeed, it did not go unnoticed that, as the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal crisis unfolded on 15 and 16 September, two weeks before the Dubai Expo opens its gates, the Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan flew first to Paris and then to London.

Official communiqués talk about increasing cooperation (from the Louvre in Abu Dhabi to a number of economic projects) in the case of France, and a GBP10 billion (US$13.8 billion) investment in a wide range of sectors, starting from renewable energies, for the UK – an important assist to the British government, after the erosion of internal investments that followed Brexit. At the time of the visit, the Expo 2020 Dubai twitter account shared a photo of the Prince with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Downing Street, wearing the Expo 2020 Dubai green Sustainability bracelet. The orange one, instead, symbol of Opportunity, had appeared shortly before in a shot with French President Macron. As an old English saying warns, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”.


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