Dubai Expo: Chance for change in Middle East and North Africa

Dubai’s world fair represents a golden opportunity for MENA participants to drum up interest in their countries.

Visitors stand in front of an innovative screen inside the 'The Dreamers Who Do' section of the UAE Pavilion
The final section of the UAE Pavillion - The Dreamers Who Do - aims to attract people to work in the UAE [Courtesy: UAE Pavilion]

Dubai, United Arab Emirates – As Dubai’s Expo 2020 draws to a close in March, many national pavilions are starting to ponder the impact of the world fair beyond its six-month run.

This is the first time a world fair has been held in the Middle East and North Africa, and with similar events having heralded great shifts in technological advancement, improved international relations, and increased trade, culture and tourism, many hope the current exhibit will also positively impact the MENA region.

Expo 2020 – which was delayed because of COVID-19 and opened in October 2021 – gathers 192 participating countries, each with their own custom-built pavilion showcasing their innovations, cultures and aims for the future, in a sprawling complex designed to fascinate visitors. For MENA participants, it is a golden opportunity to drum up interest in their countries.

“This event is a major catalyst for Dubai and the UAE. It has come at the right moment to set the tone for economic recovery and create a positive environment for businesses to thrive,” the senior vice president of political affairs at Expo 2020, Maha Al Gargawi, told Al Jazeera.

“Expo 2020 has put a special emphasis on small and medium-sized enterprises, fully understanding that they are key to future growth and job creation in the UAE. To that end, we have committed 20 percent of direct and indirect spending to SMEs.”

Expo 2020 is “constantly spotlighting breakthrough ideas, innovations and technologies that are shaping the future of our planet, helping to spark the next generation of technology”, she added.

“From harnessing volcanic energy to conserving marine life with the help of a robotic baby penguin, or paving the way to a plastic-free world, there’s a lot to learn and discover from some unexpected places.”

UAE Pavilion exterior is seen
Expo 2020 gathers 192 participating countries, each with their own custom-built pavilion showcasing their innovations, cultures and aims for the future [Courtesy: UAE Pavilion]

At the UAE Pavilion – a three-story marvel built in the shape of a falcon’s wings – visitors are guided through the emirate’s past, present and its aspirations for the future.

Much of the experience is focused on putting forward their traditions and culture to inform visitors, but the final section – The Dreamers Who Do – is aimed at attracting people to move to or work with the UAE.

By hosting co-creation opportunities with Expo and pavilion stakeholders, they seek to encourage local and global stakeholders to collaborate on social, diplomatic and philanthropic initiatives.

“The UAE Pavilion is really about the human capacity for innovation and personal achievements of all these people who came together and built this country from the ground up,” UAE Pavilion protocol relations manager Nasser al-Shukaili told Al Jazeera.

“The UAE is not just the Emirati people, but the [8.84 million] foreigners who now call the UAE their home. We’re putting forward the UAE’s openness and readiness to welcome new people, from all races, religions and cultures, and what opportunities are available for them to come find success here.

“We have leadership, space, resources and the ability to create everything and anything, but are waiting for new ‘dreamers’ to come and partner with us,” he added.

“The UAE has a lot of capabilities, but we need the ideas and innovators; the people to come and realise them, so we’re showing visitors how people around the world are living in the UAE and what they could achieve if they came, too.”

A group of men in traditional dress sing and play the drums celebrating Qatar National Day with 'Qatar' displayed on the wall behind them
Men celebrate Qatar National Day at the Qatar Pavilion [Courtesy: Qatar Pavilion]

With more than 80 percent of the UAE’s population not Emirati, they rely on foreigners immigrating there. As their ambitions grow, more people will be needed to realise large-scale projects, and Expo could be the catalyst for many to make the move.

For Qatar, Expo is a chance to boost tourism to business possibilities, in line with Doha’s National Vision 2030 plan. The pavilion, shaped like a dhow sailboat, promotes its aim of sustainable development and providing a high standard of living for its population.

“Qatar’s participation reflects the country’s aim to foster the development of a future where people, society, and environment are nurtured to achieve their potential,” Qatar Pavilion’s general commissioner Nasser bin Mohammed Almuhannadi said.

“Expo offers Qatar a platform through which the country can strengthen commercial, industrial, and investment cooperation relations with the various participating countries. In turn, this will contribute to supporting the industry, trade, and tourism sectors for further economic development.”

With 800,000 visitors entering the Qatar Pavilion so far and the World Cup set for December, there are many prospective clients for Qatari businesses.

An installation with many swings is seen at the Lebanon Pavilion with a photo of Lebanon displayed on a large screen
A swing installation is seen at the Lebanon Pavilion, showing guests the attractions the country has to offer [Courtesy: Lebanon Pavilion]

Unlike most pavilions, the Lebanon Pavilion is not nationally funded or run, and was put together in two months after the UAE donated the structure, in solidarity with the crisis-stricken country.

Their participation at Expo offers direct contact with potential tourists, investors and Lebanese in diaspora wishing to support their homeland, bringing in foreign currency – a scarce resource after the devaluation of the Lebanese pound.

“Our goal is to promote everything and anything made in Lebanon,” Lebanon Pavilion assistant director Khouloud Ezzeddine told Al Jazeera.

“[We] show the beauty of Lebanon to support tourism, from landscapes scenery from the mountains to our beaches, to our amazing food or luxury fashion like from Elie Saab.

“Our concept store features 47 Lebanese brands, which we’re putting forward for the Expo audience, firstly for their brand recognition and secondly to get the word out to support them financially,” she added.

“Then, there’s the business and innovation centre, so we can promote Lebanese intellects and minds, or fresh grads looking for work, to connect them to companies outside of Lebanon.”

Ezzeddine shared that they were able to help sign a number of contracts between Lebanese companies and partners or investors in Asia. For Lebanese startups or businesses fallen on hard times because of the economic crisis, such deals could be a lifeline.

According to an independent economic study requested by Dubai authorities, Ernst & Young expects Expo to have generated 905,200 jobs in the region and boosted the UAE economy overall by $33.4bn by 2031.

When Expo closes next month, an estimated 25 million people will have visited and participated in its programmes – all of whom will have exchanged knowledge, culture and business in some form – and contributed to the region’s future development.

Guests stand in a circular red and orange coloured section of the UAE pavillion which xplains the country's founding
Guests stand in a section of the UAE Pavilion explaining the country’s founding [Courtesy: UAE Pavilion]
Source: Al Jazeera