On Thursday, the world’s eyes were on the UAE as it opened Dubai Expo 2020. It was hard to ignore, with performances from the Italian opera maestro Andrea Bocelli, British singer Ellie Goulding, Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu. Canadian broadcaster CBC called the event “spectacular”. American news station CNN remarked: “Dubai doesn't do anything by half, the city always goes big”.
It was important that the UAE got the ceremony right. When done well, such openings leave permanent impressions about the identity and creativity of a country. The UK’s at the 2012 Olympics packaged the culture and history of the entire country in just a few hours. It was watched by 900 million people. China’s at the 2008 Summer Games included 14,000 performers and celebrated its many inventions. It told the magnificent story of one of the oldest civilisations on Earth.
Unlike the Olympics, Expo 2020 will last for six months. Its defining moments will keep coming. The National has been reporting early aspects of the festival that have already caught the world’s attention.
A water feature that is almost the height of a football field will be the backdrop for thousands of photos over the coming months, for people from all over the world.
Saudi Arabia’s pavilion breaks multiple records, including the largest-ever digital mirror screen and a 32-metre digital water feature that is nearly two thirds as tall as Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. The entire building is five-storeys high and takes up an area the size of two football fields.
The country’s pavilion is second only in size to the UAE’s one. The morning after the opening ceremony, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, visited the site that is modelled on a falcon in flight, hailing it as an “architectural masterpiece".
The opening ceremony took place in Al Wasl Plaza, centred around another symbol of Emirati culture, the Ghaf tree, the UAE's national tree which is famed for its resilience and ability to live for 120 years in some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
World Expos are, and always have been, built around physical structures. But also at the heart of the event are the people who take part in it.
Child star Mira Singh was perhaps an unexpected hero of the opening ceremony, with her performance as a young girl whose personal journey symbolises the wider narrative of Expo 2020. A talented actor, Mira also embodies one of the most remarkable aspects of the UAE’s society, its diversity. Born to an Indian father and a Belarusian mother, Mira goes to JSS International School in Dubai. Like all children who grow up in the UAE, she will reap the benefits and holistic education of being raised in one of the world’s most diverse societies.
The stars of the show were not just onstage. Perhaps without realising it, anyone who was physically at the event contributed to what will become one of Expo 2020’s most defining aspects, the return of crowds after more than a year of tight, international controls on gatherings.
In such a busy opening week, it is hard to give credit to all the things that make Expo 2020 a moment to celebrate. What we do know is that in just a few days, people from world-famous singers to young actors, even members of an audience, have already made Expo 2020 the global spectacle it promised to be. This story is an inclusive one. For anyone who wants to be part of it, all you have to do is turn up.