Riyadh royal commission chief wants to welcome a billion people to Expo 2030

Fahd Al Rasheed on the Saudi capital's big plans — and why the metaverse could play a key role

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During last week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, there was a general sense of concern over the state of the world’s economy, with companies announcing job cuts and economists predicting a global recession affecting much of this year.

However, there were exceptions, particularly from the Gulf, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar presenting a dynamic picture of their short and mid-term outlooks.

Saudi Arabia’s delegation in Davos was among the largest, from Aramco executives to a number of cabinet members.

Among them was Fahd Al Rasheed, chief executive of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City, who was promoting his city and its ambition to be one of the fastest-growing in the world.

When you have a youthful population that feels this is our time, that optimism prevails
Fahd Al Rasheed, Royal Commission for Riyadh City

Speaking to The National, he said that despite the economic outlook globally, Saudi Arabia’s ambition and drive remained strong, in large part because of “optimism”.

“When you have a youthful population that feels this is our time, that optimism prevails. And it drives productivity naturally,” he said.

Among the projects under Mr Al Rasheed’s purview is the Saudi bid to host Expo 2030. Riyadh is competing against cities including Busan and Rome.

Odessa and Moscow were also in the running but given the Ukraine war, it seems unlikely to happen.

Mr Al Rasheed spoke of the significance of the Expo bid as it would coincide with the delivery of Vision 2030, the overarching master plan for the transformation of Saudi Arabia launched by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We are in a place where we're saying this is not just about the now in Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030 is about foresight,” he said.

Commercial office buildings in the Digital City development of Riyadh. Bloomberg

“We looked into the future, identified the challenges, identified opportunities, and we said how can we make this a full transformation of Saudi Arabia taking into account what we know.”

Energy transition, adapting to climate change realities and a growing population are part of what Riyadh needs to tackle, as do so many cities around the world.

Mr Al Rasheed said: “We need to realise that this is an inflection point in the history of humanity with all of these new technologies and innovations that are really changing and disrupting our world in a very positive way.

“But we also have some of these that have moral and ethical challenges and we need to address them. So we need to have that conversation.”

“We believe that Expo is the perfect venue for that. So, yes, we want to share our lessons learnt and, of course, our accomplishments, that's natural for any country.

“But we also want to have a new conversation in 2030 about what the world looks like in 2050”.

Mr Al Rasheed appeared confident that his country would receive the global support needed to win the Expo bid.

“This is not about one city hosting the Expo. This is everybody in Saudi Arabia wanting to host the Expo. The city of Riyadh is already planning this massive transformation.”

Riyadh will be getting a new airport, in addition to a metro several years in the making, and several large entertainment, housing and hospitality projects.

“Expo will just bring it all together,” he said.

Insight from Expo 2020 Dubai

Dubai was the first Arab city to host an Expo and the UAE has already announced its support for Riyadh’s bid to host 2030’s global fair.

Mr Al Rasheed said the UAE “demonstrated an incredible job — they had a major challenge with Covid-19 but they overcame it".

“They've really set the bar very high," he added. "And so, of course, we start by learning from what they have experienced and what they have done. And they've been very generous and sharing their support from day one.

“We have a very close relationship with our colleagues in the UAE. And this will help us as we move forward with their experience to host an incredible Expo 2030.”

If Riyadh’s Expo bid is successful, Saudi officials hope that more than a billion people will visit it — but not all in person.

Mr Al Rasheed said the aim was to have 30 to 40 million visitors experience Expo in person. However, “we want to do it virtually as well”, he said.

“This is the next step of the Expo, having one billion people visit in the metaverse.”

Mr Al Rasheed said this did not mean creating an exact replica of the Expo site in the metaverse.

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“What the multiverse means today is going to be different than 2030. It will be something that is very useful, very engaging, and you will actually learn something from it," he said.

“That's the investment that the kingdom and the city of Riyadh wants to make. We want to invest in that.

“Getting 30 to 40 million people there in person, and then comparing that to one billion people who would come there virtually, I think, is the ultimate definition of success.”

He said the metaverse as envisioned in 2030 does not exist today “and that's the big investment. And I believe the legacy that Expo 2030 will have."

Another major event Saudi Arabia is targeting is the World Cup. However, Mr Al Rasheed declined to confirm whether his country was bidding to host the football tournament with Egypt and Greece, as has been rumoured, simply responding with a smile: “Why not?”

While future events and projects are taking up much of Mr Al Rasheed’s time, there are also exciting plans expected for this year, as the Riyadh public metro system is expected to start operating, in addition to the expected announcement of the strategic plan for Riyadh later this year.

Updated: January 24, 2023, 4:19 AM