The past six months have shown that the Expo 2020 Dubai official song – This is our time – was more than just aspirational lyrics.
We hoped that the Expo would demonstrate that the UAE is the world’s de facto meeting place for shaping urgent international dialogues.
Connecting minds and creating the future was already a tall aim. Add into the mix a global pandemic, unprecedented disruption and a fracturing geopolitical landscape, and it looked like the odds were stacked against us.
And yet, as the UAE has so often proved, it became a beacon of hope in an increasingly uncertain socioeconomic landscape.
As societies, economies and communities seek to navigate the new economy, the Expo brought together those responsible for charting a course through the choppy waters ahead to co-operate on innovative solutions in a show of resilience and collaboration.
Heads of state and government, industry experts and thought leaders flocked to Dubai in their millions, took to the Expo’s stages and offered solutions to today’s most pressing sustainable development challenges – from energy transition and food and water security, to female empowerment in science, technology and leadership.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, said on the final day of the six-month event: “We portrayed to the world a different version of ingenuity that touched the hearts and minds of every member of society.”
It doesn’t feel like an ending. Rather it feels like the giant doors of Opportunity Gate will remain open, in perpetuity. It feels like the start of a new era, both for the UAE and the wider world.
With sustainable development being an integral part of the schedule, the world fair offered a glimpse of low-carbon cities of the future with its Energy Trees and imaginative pavilions featuring the latest green technologies.
It started as it would continue. On the opening week, which aptly focused on climate and biodiversity, the UAE announced its Net Zero for 2050 Strategic Initiative, becoming the first country in the Mena region to set out a pathway towards a net-zero economy by mid-century.
Subsequently, through the array of thematic weeks, the energy sector was frequently pushed to the fore, attracting various heads of state, decision and policymakers to engage in the big topics shaping its future. From Climate and Biodiversity Week – which opened the event – to Global Goals Week, through to Food, Agriculture and Livelihoods and Water Week, the energy nexus drove the agenda.
This setting provided the stage for a raft of agreements signed by countries, organisations and other entities looking to boost collaboration on sustainable energy solutions.
As one standout example, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and French President Emmanuel Macron signed agreements that will see the two countries extend further support to developing nations to meet their Paris Agreement objectives. They also agreed to increase their support to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) and the International Solar Alliance.
Furthermore, in November, the UAE’s Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure signed an MoU with Israel’s Ministry of Energy to strengthen relations in the energy sector.
As well as bilateral opportunities, the Expo provided the space for governments to engage with the private sector. A Ugandan delegation, for example, signed deals that included investments worth more than $650 million in renewable energy projects.
And in the UAE, the Expo hosted the launch of a global clean energy powerhouse that saw Masdar, Adnoc and Taqa join forces with Mubadala to spearhead the nation’s drive to net-zero carbon by 2050 through a strategic initiative that will focus on boosting renewable energy and green hydrogen.
And, as we saw at the World Government Summit, leaders from around the globe met at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Forum to discuss the mechanisms of the global energy transition, why it must be just, and the importance of not defunding the current system before making the transition.
As well as agreements made on the ground, Expo’s wide reach and accessibility to different audiences have provided the opportunity to raise a broader awareness about the global energy transition – from its relevance, to its impact on people, business and organisations.
For instance, the Beyond Food initiative – launched by the UAE and Irena – aims to bridge the investment gap for vulnerable communities and increase crucial access to sustainable energy for cooking.
The clean cooking sector has been historically overlooked, attracting limited international and local finance.
Tackling this challenge presents numerous opportunities to reduce poverty, advance gender equality, increase access to energy and benefit public health.
The Expo also demonstrated the clear link between the UN’s seventh Sustainable Development Goal – ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy – to the other global goals more clearly. From the way the world fair was structured, it became clear that sustainable development is an interconnected nexus, with each of our global goals directly impacting the others.
The critical need to involve more women in policymaking and leadership positions, across the board, was also a prominent theme at the Expo.
As I said during a keynote speech I delivered on International Women’s Day, “we must move past a world marked by the language of biases and stereotypes, redefine the structures holding women down, underneath the glass ceilings and lost in the labyrinths on industries dominated by men”.
We want a world that is fair, equitable and inclusive. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it makes absolute, common, socioeconomic sense.
The consensus that emerged from the Expo was that we need to accelerate our move away from individual efforts and silo operations, towards a more collaborative approach that addresses the nexus of the SDGs as a fluid, ever-evolving ecosystem.
The Expo has shown us that innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When people come together to collaborate, innovations and breakthroughs are possible. And in that sense the Expo has fostered a spirit of collaborative innovation, which will be essential to tackling the challenges of tomorrow’s world.
Even as the giant entry portals of Expo 2020 Dubai shutter, the legacy of a mini metropolis that was built on the principles of hope, equity and diversity will live on in the commitments made, the partnerships forged and in the actions that we will take for a future where we all have an equal stake.