With exactly a year to go before millions of visitors flock to Dubai for Expo 2020, the latest iteration of the global fair serves as a timely reminder of what the region – and indeed the world itself – can, and should, look like in the future. The six-month-long event presents a chance for those who live in the UAE to come together and play an important role in an ambitious project that is both local and global in nature. The expo is also an opportunity to present a different narrative about this region. There are many misconceptions about the Arab world, and parts of it are indeed mired in uncertainty as some countries face numerous challenges including war, sectarian strife, terrorism and problems of weak governance. Yet next year's exposition, the first of its kind in the region, is set to showcase the immense potential the Middle East has to grow and make progress with the right will, vision and enterprising spirit.
We live in a paradoxical world, in which the ideals of globalisation and multilateralism are being severely tested by opposing forces like ultra-nationalism and nativism. These are knee-jerk responses from some quarters to issues such as interconnectedness and migration. But the trouble with nationalistic movements is that they threaten to dismantle established institutions and norms, and have a tendency to look inwards and lure their followers with the promise of returning them to the mythical “good old days”. It is in this context that the role of Expo 2020, with its goals to “create, collaborate and innovate”, cannot be overstated. Since the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, which paid homage to the industrial revolution, expos have always promised a brighter future – one made possible by human collaboration.
It was at expos, held every five years, that world-changing inventions like the telegraph, typewriter, X-ray machine, television and mobile phone were first put on display. Expo 2020 Dubai aims to inspire entrepreneurs and transform lives as creative thinkers seek to tackle issues ranging from climate change to affordable software allowing blind computer users to better understand what is on the screen in front of them – under the three pillars of opportunity, mobility and sustainability. But more than anything else, it is the overarching theme of the expo – “connecting minds, creating the future” – that will resonate with visitors most. As they spend time in a genuinely global city like Dubai and rub shoulders with people from other parts of the world, they will, hopefully, take with them the message that international co-operation and ingenuity have never been more important as human civilisation faces unparalleled challenges.
It is also important to emphasise the role expos play in further enhancing the profiles of the countries they are hosted in. The 1851 expo in London, for instance, was as much a showcase of Britain's might and power as it was about its innovative exhibitors. In the modern era, Expo 2010 in Shanghai provided the ideal platform for a rising China to project soft power. Similarly, the UAE will further burnish its reputation on the world stage, as a bulwark of stability in a fluctuating region, whose social compact enabling citizens from 200 countries to co-exist in peace and harmony is a model for societies around the world.
It is this wealth of human resources already available in the country that will help make the event a resounding success. Over 80,000 applications have been received to fill more than 30,000 volunteer positions. Given the scale and significance of the event, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of a great moment in time.