What the Expo will tell the world about the Emirates

It isn't easy to plan an international fair in a pandemic-ridden world, but by doing it the UAE is sending a strong message

Technicians walk at the under construction site of the Expo 2020 in Dubai.
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Four months after the announcement that Expo 2020 was to be postponed by a year in light of the global outbreak of Covid-19, UAE officials have expressed confidence in the country's ability to host the world fair in October 2021.

Even as officials described progress at the vast site in Dubai, during an International Participants Meeting on Monday, two things have become amply clear.

The first is the scale and diversity of challenges being overcome to ensure that the event is a success.

As is the case with the organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – another global event that has been pushed back by a year – there will be much for authorities in the UAE to consider.

Pavilion construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. Officials, meanwhile, have said they would work with the Bureau International des Expositions to develop guidelines for various scenarios to ensure a safe and healthy event. This will no doubt entail skilled co-ordination of the airline, tourism and transportation industries – an area in which the Emirates is becoming well practiced as the country reopens its economy from the lockdowns of the spring and summer.

It is also even more remarkable that the Emirates can stage the event in a pandemic context when one considers that past World Expos were halted in similar circumstances. The First World War from 1914 to 1918 and the Spanish Flu that followed shortly thereafter brought a temporary end to the movement. But it is a different world today, with different science and capabilities, and that is the point that the Dubai Expo will make.

Second is that, in spite of those challenges and the context of the pandemic, the global appetite for the World Expo seems undiminished.

The idea behind the first World Expo, held in London in 1851, was primarily to exhibit “the works of industry of all nations”. The character of what was essentially the first global fair for manufactured products and technological innovations has since evolved to include such themes as cultural exchange and nation-branding. In other words, for more than a century and a half, these expositions have been organised to reflect widespread changes from decolonisation to globalisation and the creation of a new rules-based order. So even in a world that seems to change as quickly as today’s, an expo is not only appropriate – but perhaps even necessary.

For so many in the international community, globalism and fostering partnerships remain on the agenda, even as some governments choose to retreat inward instead of rallying together to contain the spread of the virus in a co-ordinated, multilateral manner.

The stakes are high. Countries have long used the Expo to burnish their reputations. In 2021, the UAE can showcase itself as a bulwark of stability in a fluctuating world, while providing people from all countries safe and secure environs to meet, exchange ideas and strike partnerships with the sole purpose of building a better world.