Expo 2020 Dubai and the UAE's moment of glory

The mega event showed the world that the UAE is a truly international place

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Here we are, after six months, more than 32,000 events, well over 20 million visits and an array of global stars gracing its orbit. The sun has finally set on a triumphant six months of Expo 2020.

It is easy to forget in the hubbub and spectacle of this grand undertaking’s final week that its story began in earnest a decade ago. When Dubai first unveiled its bid for this global fair its underlying ambitions were simple and clear: this was a chance to stand the emirate on the global stage, attract new tourism opportunities and plant the seeds of a start-up environment – with all the associated real estate development that would go with it.

As we all know, when the great exhibition was finally ready to open its doors, those ambitions were under the most existential of threats. As Covid-19’s grip on the world tightened, a global gathering to showcase, share and celebrate was the last thing on anybody’s mind.

Visitors attend the closing ceremony of Expo 2020, in Dubai, on March 31. AFP

Yet, when Expo finally did open its doors, while its ambitions were reined in, its horizons had somehow expanded. It was as if the pause had also given the UAE the chance to reflect on its own place in the world. The notion of what this country might achieve with a focus on fostering bilateral relations, compromise, peace and stability became a more overt hallmark of its outlook, and Expo became a physical expression of that philosophy.

There has been a constant stream of high-level visitors to this showcase in search of MOUs and bilateral agreements. The results of many of these may still be unclear, but there is no question that Expo helped to place the UAE in a leadership position for the region at a time when such a leader is dearly needed, especially as relations with the world’s key players are being recalibrated.

Female empowerment, something particularly significant for this region, was celebrated through the first-ever Women’s Pavilion, which shone a beacon on female achievements and potential. One woman who embodies this is Reem Al Hashimy, whose remarkable stewardship of this project should be applauded. She described Expo as “one of many significant milestones that really put the UAE on a trajectory towards prosperity, towards impact, really highlighting that global citizenry that we are so committed to”.

It was perhaps in the Expo Live Pavilion where the potential impact of this giant event was most on display.

I fell deeply in love with “Be My Eyes”, the brainchild of a Danish inventor who is losing his sight. It is an app that allows visually impaired people to ask for help, connecting them with one of the largest networks of volunteers of its kind in the world, who can then “see” for them through their smartphones. Unsure if the food in your fridge is past its use-by date, or whether the medicine bottle in your hand is the correct one? Direct help is literally in your hand.

Other projects address profound and urgent needs with delightful simplicity. One of these, Desert Control, is a project to turn arid soil into fertile land. The world is losing 12 million hectares of fertile soil a year, and all the biodiversity that goes with it. This invention uses nanotechnology, completely chemical-free, to restore degraded land to fertility in a matter of hours.

Another, “A Litre of Light”, uses inexpensive, readily available materials to provide high quality solar lighting to communities without electricity – a problem facing 1.4 billion people around the world. It offers a transformative solution to communities dependent on kerosene and replaces a costly, wasteful, impractical supply chain with a simple and environmentally friendly alternative.

These kinds of practical, viable innovations are as simple as they are inspiring. They also play directly into supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which another remarkable woman, deputy secretary general of the UN, Amina Mohammad, used Expo as a platform to promote.

None of this will have been lost on the many thousands of local schoolchildren who visited the Expo site. This brings me to another observation: a feature of the pandemic was the way in which many in the UAE themselves began to view their country in a different way.

With travel options drastically reduced, the pandemic forced people around the world to engage with their home countries – and here in the UAE, Emiratis and other residents alike clearly liked what they saw. Expo provided an outlet for that fresh enthusiasm for local attractions. Seventy per cent of the visitors here are said to have been locals, a number surely beyond the dreams of the organisers.

Of course, the primary purpose of any Expo is to provide a place to bring the world together, and 192 countries will leave Expo 2020 safe in the knowledge that it provided them with that showcase.

But this fair has also seen Dubai take its chance to demonstrate its own evolution. Outsiders have often viewed this place as a playground, a place of extravagance, at times even wastefulness. But Expo – which came in under budget – has provided a platform for it to demonstrate it is serious about sustainability, mobility, and long-term opportunity. It has also shown the world that this is a truly international place – increasingly cosmopolitan, tolerant and innovative.

Against all the odds, this Expo and its host city have been a beacon for what might be possible for the world, even as that world continues to grapple with enormous challenges.

Published: April 01, 2022, 6:00 PM