Blame game mounts as US bid to secure public funds for Expo stalls again

Influential Democrat-run committee urges Trump and Pompeo to make new push for private sector backing

The design for the $60 million US pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai, as revealed last year. However, funding to build it has still not been secured. Courtesy: USA Expo
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America’s top diplomat has been urged to make a last-gasp plea to businesses to pay for a US pavilion at Expo 2020, with his late bid to secure taxpayer funding on the brink of failure.

Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, has led a behind-the-scenes charm offensive in Washington DC over recent months aimed at persuading Congress to lift legal restrictions that prevent US public money being used for Expos.

He launched the campaign, which included hosting a reception at the US State Department and intense lobbying of Congressional leaders, after a previous efforts to get businesses to pay the estimated $60m (Dh220m) bill for a US presence in Dubai proved fruitless.

While Congress has not provided funding, we strongly encourage the Trump administration to prioritise raising private dollars for the pavilion

However, legislation designed to offer a workaround and secure the cash needed from the public purse has failed to progress through the US Senate.

Meanwhile, a late attempt to secure money through an end-of-year spending bill received a hostile reception from the Democrat-led committee responsible for writing the legislation, and cash was not included in a $54.7 billion package for state and foreign operations announced on Tuesday.

While some US figures are hopeful that a last-minute solution will yet emerge, other sources are adamant that public funding for an American Expo pavilion in Dubai is simply “not going to happen”.

It remains possible that there could be no formal presence from the world’s leading superpower at the showpiece Dubai event, which begins in October, a situation Mr Pompeo believes would harm US interests.

A blame game has already begun in Washington, with some criticising Donald Trump and Mr Pompeo for not doing enough to attract private funds and leaving attempts to secure public money far too late.

Others believe partisanship on Capitol Hill, with the discourse currently dominated by Mr Trump’s expected impeachment, largely explains the stand-off.

epa07775339 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC, USA, 15 August 2019. The remarks came following a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri who is negotiating to secure continued US support to Lebanon while holding back sanctions on Hezbollah and its allies.  EPA/SHAWN THEW
 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been working behind the scenes to secure funding, believing a presence is important to US diplomacy. EPA

"Secretary Pompeo's late ask for funding for the World Expo pavilion would have required Congress to cut funding from other important global leadership priorities," Evan Hollander, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee which writes funding bills, told The National.

“While Congress has not provided funding, we strongly encourage the Trump administration to prioritise raising private dollars for the pavilion.”

Earlier attempts at securing private sector funding have fallen flat. The ban on use of public money means previous US pavilions at world Expos have been paid for by private donations, but businesses are understood to have been reluctant this time around due to issues at previous events that left supporters regretting getting involved.

The non-profit group set up to build and run the US pavilion for Milan 2015, which had a theme of sustainability, went bankrupt after the event with $28m (Dh103m) of debt, creating a calamity for many of its creditors who were forced to lay off staff.

At that time, some Republican politicians refused the Obama administration’s appeals to get around funding rules, and this had left some Democrats reluctant to help out a Republican White House and State Department facing the same problem today.

Mr Pompeo's office has been "flooding" Democrat and Republican Congressional leaders with phone calls and emails pleading with them to lift the restrictions on public funding over recent months, Foreign Policy magazine reported last week.

The Washington-based publication obtained a letter from Mr Pompeo, which he sent to James Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on October 15. Similar letters were sent to other influential figures.

“Unfortunately, US participation in Expo 2020 is in jeopardy, because the private-sector funding model has not succeeded,” the secretary of state wrote.

“Failing to participate will cede the ground to Iran, Russia and China.”

In November, the new US ambassador to the UAE, John Rakolta Jr, admitted that US participation in Expo 2020 was “in the hands of the US Congress” but insisted he was confident a solution would be found.

US rivals such as China are set to put on impressive displays at next year's event. Expo 2020
US rivals such as China are set to put on impressive displays at next year's event. Expo 2020

However, with the current session of Congress finishing at the end of the year and Christmas recess likely to begin within days, options are running out. The politicians are due to return to work in January, although events are likely to be taken over by Mr Trump’s impeachment.

The US State Department did not respond to a request from The National for comment. However, in a response to Foreign Policy, a spokesman rejected the accusation that it had not worked hard enough for private funds.

"The State Department was determined to exhaust all efforts within the authority provided to it by Congress," the official said

“The Department worked extensively to raise private sector funds through 2018 and early 2019. Unfortunately, this model proved to once again fall short – as it has in 7 of the last 10 Expos.”

The US embassy to the UAE declined to comment. An Expo 2020 spokeswoman said: “We do not discuss matters on individual participants.”