MILAN // The Gulf nations at the Milan Expo are displaying the region’s cultural richness in pavilions that are nothing if not diverse.
While the UAE's sand dune design focuses on landscape, the sails surrounding Kuwait's building represent the region's seagoing traditions, while Oman's fort-style pavilion and Qatar's souq find their inspiration in traditional architecture.
Taking a different approach entirely, Bahrain’s pavilion appears modest from the outside, but hidden inside is a series of gardens that has entranced visitors.
What unites them all, in keeping with the Expo 2015 theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, is a focus on how each nation has thrived despite climates that can make it a challenge to provide food and water for growing populations.
Oman’s pavilion includes an emphasis on the country’s fishing traditions, featuring a video from a fisherman, Juma Al Farsi, with 50 years of experience at sea.
“I learnt my profession as a fisherman from my father and grandfather, and now I teach my children. We are proud of our heritage,” Mr Al Farsi says in the video.
One display explains that the country is 236 per cent self-sufficient in fish, compared with 45 per cent self-sufficient in eggs and 40 per cent in milk.
The pavilion also features a vast sundial, with rocks from different parts of the country marking the hours, a full-sized kitchen with a moving housewife projected on to the wall behind it, and models of two men sitting down to begin a traditional breakfast.
“We’re trying to showcase the sustainability of food and water over decades – how Omanis could live in a harsh environment,” said the pavilion director, Khalid Al Zuhaimi.
But the pavilion is not just about the difficulties climate has posed. It also celebrates the benefits brought by the natural environment, through a palm tree painted gold to symbolise its importance, and a display about the vital annual monsoon that gives off water vapour.
New agricultural technology is also highlighted, something that is also a key theme of Qatar’s pavilion.
Mohammed Al Bloshi, the pavilion operations manager, said a key message of the pavilion was “how we grow, how we trade, how we eat” and a focus on the Qatar National Food Security Programme.
One of the Qatari pavilion’s attractions is an appetising display of traditional foods, such as aseeda dumplings and sweet dough balls. While these are not for eating, the pavilion does offer succulent dates for visitors to enjoy.
Its centrepiece is a downwards spiral walkway surrounding a palm-tree shape on to which images celebrating the nation are projected.
Also drawing in the crowds are Qatari singers accompanied by keyboards, traditional hand-held drums and sword displays, performing on a stage just outside the pavilion. Mr Al Bloshi is not surprised to see enthusiastic audiences.
“Some people speak or talk differently, but music is the international language, everyone knows it. That’s why many people like it,” he said.
Bahrain’s pavilion and its delightful gardens reflect the country’s rich horticultural traditions, the product of what a display describes as “exceptional natural advantages” during history, such as abundant springs.
There are 10 gardens featuring fruit trees with the aim that, at any one time during the six-month expo, at least one type will be bearing fruit. Currently large lemons are hanging down from some of the trees.
Maitham Al Mubarak, a volunteer at the pavilion, said its theme of “archaeologies of green” was about showing “the greening of Bahrain – what it was and how it is now”.
He said some trees in the gardens are still abundant in Bahrain, such as the jujube, but others, such as olive trees, are no longer grown in the island nation.
“So many people coming from Bahrain say, ‘We don’t have olives in Bahrain,’ but we used to have them a lot,” Mr Al Mubarak said.
In keeping with its interest in the past as well as the present, the pavilion has a display of seals, some featuring agricultural plants, from the Dilmun civilisation of up to 4,000 years ago.
“People have been enjoying the story the pavilion tells,” Mr Al Mubarak said.
Kuwait’s pavilion, a fort surrounded by sails, uses technology to recreate the elements inside.
Saudi Arabia, which produced one of the most popular pavilions at the last World Expo, at Shanghai in 2010, is absent this time around.
The dozens of other national pavilions use widely divergent methods to display their respective countries’ culture.
Romania’s display has a thatched roof, Brazil’s features a vast net of ropes several metres off the ground on which visitors can walk, and the Belarus pavilion focuses on agriculture by having a rugged red “Belarus” branded tractor parked outside.