‘Greetings from Dubai’: international music stars shine in Expo 2020 opening ceremony

The performances offered something for everyone, in addition to a few surprises

Ellie Goulding performs at the opening ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai. Photo: Francois Nel / Getty
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It began in rhythm and ended with soul: Expo 2020 Dubai’s opening ceremony featured an array of sounds, underscoring the international flavour of the event.

From the rumbling percussion of the traditional Emirati Ayala dance starting the proceedings, to the moving closing number by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, artists spanning generations and genres banded together to amplify the Expo’s message of unity, optimism and perseverance.

The ceremony’s performances offered something for everyone, in addition to a few surprises.

For Arab pop listeners, the event could mark the first time Emirati star Ahlam AlShamsi has sung in English.

And fans of Ellie Goulding will be thrilled to see a rare showing by the UK star, with Expo 2020 Dubai only her second public performance in more than a year.

Bocelli once again demonstrated that he knew how to seize the moment.

No stranger to the event, having performed the official theme song La forza del sorriso (The Strength of a Smile) for the Milan Expo in 2015, the opera superstar took to the stage for a stirring rendition of 1999 Grammy Award-winning hit The Prayer.

Follow the latest updates on Expo 2020 Dubai here

The track’s final Italian lyrics, a plea for grace in difficult times, served as heart-warming coda for the ceremony, which by its safe and successful staging personifies the message of resilience the Expo is sending to the world amid the pandemic.

Here are four other key musical moments from the Expo 2020 Dubai opening ceremony.

1. Dubai has a new pop anthem

Who better to celebrate the Expo’s host city than one of its most loved residents?

In many ways, Emirati pop star Ahlam's music echoes Dubai’s DNA, with its keen eye for the future and respect for the past.

For the opening ceremony, the singer debuted Fi Dubai (In Dubai), a vibrant ode to the emirate.

Backed by the all-women Firdaus Orchestra, under the baton of Lebanese composer Yasmina Sabbah, the track is a sweeping and orchestral work which has Ahlam moving from Arabic to English lyrics.

The heart of the song lies in the Arabic section, in which Ahlam declares: “Greetings from Dubai, from here the future is better. Hand in hand, let’s begin a road towards a very beautiful world.”

That optimism is channeled in the English section of the song, where she sings: "We are blessed and we stand united. Rise as one and one with love.”

Considering the sentiments, it won’t be hard to imagine Fi Dubai featuring regularly throughout the Expo and major events in the emirate.

2. The view is better from the stage

While the live broadcast did a fine job of capturing the startling expanse of Al Wasl Plaza, the Expo site’s centrepiece, it felt more magical peering at it from the stage, one of the ceremony’s performers said.

Speaking to The National minutes after the closing ceremony, Lebanese singer and Berklee Abu Dhabi creative director Mayssa Karaa described the atmosphere in the venue as memorable.

“It was an amazing feeling to be up on stage and being able to perform among world-class talent," Karaa said.

"Not only was this an exceptional experience but this was truly a once-in-a-life time opportunity of being able to be part of the Expo 2020 story.

“A big thank you to the audience for also being part of this experience.”

Karaa performed the Expo’s theme song, This is Our Time, alongside pop star Hussain Al Jassmi and fellow Emirati soul singer Almas.

It is not a surprise the inspirational number went down a treat on Thursday night.

The track’s was written by Greg Wells, the Canadian composer behind Right Where I Am Supposed To Be, the official song of the 2019 Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi.

3. The poetry of Sheikh Zayed

The evocative lyricism of the UAE’s Founding Father was front and centre in the ceremony.

It served as inspiration for the event’s opening song, performed by Al Jassmi and based on the poetry of Sheikh Zayed.

The stirring piece is a staple of UAE National Day celebrations, with lyrics detailing the strength and pride of the Emirati character.

Actor Habib Ghuloom, a stalwart of Emirati theatre and television industry, also performed a passage of poetry by Sheikh Zayed.

4. Songs of resilience

From the Khaleeji pop sung by Saudi Arabian crooner Mohamed Abdo and ethereal playing of Chinese pianist Lang Lang, to the throbbing electro-pop Anything Can Happen by Goulding, linking all of these disparate sounds together is the common lyrical thread of resilience.

This was lovingly summarised US soul singer Andra Day.

Written in 2015 after personal struggles, Rise Up served as a rallying call to all us to preserve: "We’re going to walk it out and move mountains."

Updated: September 30, 2021, 9:23 PM