Expo 2020 Dubai will embrace universal values – but few know they were already being practised 2,000 years ago

The well-travelled ancestors of today’s Emiratis were also, in their time, connecting minds and creating the future

An artist's impression of the UAE pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai site. Wam
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In a little over two and half years, Expo 2020 Dubai will be inaugurated. Work at the site began some time ago while more countries are announcing their intention to participate and detailed planning of the nature of the UAE's own offering to visitors is now well under way. It will, I am sure, prove to be a rather remarkable occasion, attracting millions of visitors from home, the region and beyond.

With its motto Connecting Minds, Creating the Future, the event seems set to offer a variety of insights, in a range of ways, into what may lie ahead for an increasingly interdependent world, both as far as the UAE is concerned and for other countries.

Here from the Emirates, we are going to have a good tale to tell, covering topics like our embracing of renewable energy or the recognition of the increasing importance of artificial intelligence. That will fit well with the "creating the future" bit.

I wonder, though, whether there isn’t scope in the context of "connecting minds" to look back at our national heritage too. After all, as the nation’s Founding Father Sheikh Zayed taught us: "He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn".

Expo 2020 Dubai is less than 1,000 days away

Expo 2020 Dubai is less than 1,000 days away

As we seek to make the best use of Expo 2020 to teach others about the Emirates, due thought needs to be given to how, in marketing terms, we pitch that story. What particular topics will attract attention? What aspects of our society will strike a chord in the minds of those whom we seek to attract as visitors? How can we learn from the past as we move into the future?

It's here, I think, that we could deploy aspects of our national heritage, not just to stimulate the interest of potential visitors but also, more broadly, as part of a coherent cultural diplomacy strategy that seeks to promote a better understanding of the country. The key is not so much the archaeological discoveries themselves, however fascinating they may be, but the lessons that they and more recent historical information can offer about the UAE's millennia of relations with other countries and regions.

Thus, for example, when Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed recently took CNN anchor Becky Anderson around Louvre Abu Dhabi, among the pieces he singled out to show her were finds from the early Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas, an early example, he noted, of the UAE's tradition of religious tolerance. That's something that resonates far beyond the Gulf.

As, through Louvre Abu Dhabi, we seek to promote the concept of the universality of art and culture, is it of relevance that 2,000 years ago, pearls from the UAE were highly prized in imperial Rome? Or that the pearl necklaces to be seen in works by some of the great Renaissance painters came from the Gulf? That’s part of a shared past.

About two millennia ago, Arab sailors from the Gulf were sailing between here and southern China and it was through this route that Islam first reached China a few centuries later. Is this little-known history something that will help to stimulate greater Chinese interest in the country that extends beyond trade, investment and aspirations for future partnerships?

It is right that we are proud of what the country has achieved in less than half a century. It is right, too, that we are ambitious in what we seek to achieve in the years and decades to come. When we talk about these topics, whether at Expo 2020 or, more generally, through our cultural diplomacy, perhaps we should also talk more of the UAE’s long and fascinating history of interchange with other countries and with other civilisations. After all, the ancestors of today’s Emiratis were also, in their time, connecting minds and creating the future.