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As Dubai prepares for Expo 2020, one person who has been observing events with interest is Peter Vine, a Welshman who now lives in Ireland.
Dr Vine, now 75, was the UAE pavilion project director for four expos.
He had the daunting task of creating pavilions that caught the attention of visitors and satisfied the country’s leaders, who demanded only the very best.
“It was a very challenging experience and very exciting, because we would have a fixed deadline and very high expectations of what we could achieve,” he said.
“Every pavilion we built was better than the one before. That was achieved by keeping a good team together.”
Dr Vine’s first expo was Zaragoza 2008 in Spain, a specialised expo focused on, “Water and Sustainable Development” – key issues for a country as water-stressed as the UAE.
Dr Vine was well aware of this, having been approached to be pavilion project director after writing a book about the country.
“I was immediately reminded that Sheikh Zayed was more interested in water when the oil companies were drilling for oil,” he said of the UAE’s founding father.
The pavilion, which featured a river and a film, was a big hit, attracting more than one million visitors and being among just half a dozen national exhibits to scoop a gold award from organisers.
Dr Vine said the pavilions received “incredible support and encouragement from the UAE government”, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, overseeing the projects as chairman of the National Media Council.
“He is an inspiring person to work for,” said Dr Vine.
“He made it known he expected the best and he expected something extraordinary.”
The country’s leaders looked for continual improvement, so after Zaragoza, Dr Vine and his team worked to create something even more impressive for Expo 2010 Shanghai, a world expo with the theme, “Better City, Better Life”.
“It was as if the organisers had written the theme for the UAE,” said Dr Vine.
“Back in the sixties conditions were tough in the UAE, with a life expectancy of not much more than 50.“
Over the course of a decade, they raised that to more than 70. They did that with investment in residential development, urban development, education and health.
“We could tell the story of how the UAE had approached the challenge of improving the welfare of its citizens.”
Working with the world-renowned architectural practice Foster + Partners, the original plan had been for a pavilion covered by photovoltaic cells.
However, it was felt this did not tie in sufficiently with the theme of the event, and the architects were tasked with producing a design inspired by a sand dune, something that initially caused them concern.
“It was the danger of looking tacky,” said Dr Vine.
“It had to be done in a creative way. It was hugely successful and the pavilion was brought back and rebuilt in Abu Dhabi. That set the standard of what UAE pavilions could do.”
Next up was the specialised expo, in Yeosu, South Korea, in 2012, themed around, “The living ocean and coast”, a subject of particular interest to Dr Vine as he has a PhD in marine biology.
Featuring, among much else, a sea tunnel and feature film, the pavilion was another hit and scooped a silver medal. “We chose this topic of the boy and the turtle,” said Dr Vine.
“It was inspired by a real boy who picked up rubbish from the shore.
“We made it into a small feature film called, ‘The Turtle.’ It was a very moving film about a boy who had a vision to stop the use of unrecyclable plastic.”
The film won half a dozen awards, including a gold at the renowned film festival in Cannes. For Dr Vine’s final expo, in Milan in 2015, with the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” the team was interested in showing how the UAE had improved its food security despite the extreme climate.
“When we went looking for stories in the UAE about food, I was hugely impressed by the progress that had been made over the past decade with food production,” said Dr Vine.
The UAE’s pavilion of red-brown rippled concrete evoked the narrow streets of traditional Gulf towns and cities. Another collaboration with Foster + Partners, it won an award for best exterior design.
The pavilions were a joint effort of many – numbers ranged from a dozen to as many as 200 – and it is the creation and development of a team of Emiratis that Dr Vine considers one of his biggest achievements.
Staff involvement from one expo to the next provided continuity, something that countries that built up teams from scratch for each event missed out on.
He hopes to visit Expo 2020 Dubai and will be interested to find out what the UAE has produced for its home expo.
“The UAE has a long history of successful participation at world expos and I cannot wait to see what they are doing at Expo 2020 Dubai,” he said.