EXPO 2020 Dubai

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Set between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Expo 2020 Dubai spreads out over 1,083 acres, making it one of the largest world fairs. It is divided equally into petal-shaped zones representing sustainability, opportunity and mobility. Anchoring each zone is a large themed pavilion set to remain after the fair. Coinciding with the UAE’s 50th founding anniversary, the Expo runs through March 31, 2022.

After eight years and billions in the making, the Dubai Expo 2020 opened this past fall.  The six-month-long exhibit, pushed back a year by the pandemic, is the first world’s fair to be held in the Middle East. A record 191 participating countries, each with its own pavilion, are putting their best foot forward by showcasing their history, accomplishments, tourist attractions and ambitions.

While “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” is the official leitmotif, a trio of sub-themes revolving around sustainability, mobility and opportunity anchors the fair.  Indeed, the entire expo, including its pavilions, aims to be sustainable, relying primarily on solar panels and other renewable sources for energy and recycling much of its water.

A refreshing iced Moroccan tea at an Emirati café. There is no shortage of places to eat and drink at the Expo which serves up everything from street food to fine dining.

But what about recycling the structures that will remain long after the fair ends in March? After all, the infrastructure built for many world extravaganzas like Olympic games and World Cups, often become impractical white elephants. Not so in this case, according to fair organizers, who say that most of the park will be reutilized, becoming a new mixed-use community located strategically between Dubai’s airports and transit hubs and easily accessible by metro.

While most national pavilions will be broken down, the remaining larger ones will be converted to commercial spaces, residences, hospitals, clinics and schools. Whether any of them will attain the iconic status of the Eiffel Tower, which served as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair or Seattle’s Space Needle, unveiled at the 1962 fair, remains to be seen.

Some practical tips: plan ahead.  First, know that to enter the Expo site, located about 20 minutes outside of Dubai, visitors aged 18 and older must show a negative PCR test or proof of COVID-19 vaccination.  Second, book your tickets, making sure to avail yourself of the Smart Queue which will enable you to skip long lines.

The wait times to get into the more popular pavilions like UAE, USA, Italy and India can be quite long.  When I visited in late October, the next availability to check out the Emirates airline pavilion was three days away!

Lastly, note that the fair is a magnet for school groups.  If you want to avoid busloads of young children, you’ll want to visit later in the day, starting at around 4:00 PM.  That will give you less time to see the sights, but it will be relatively calmer.  Keep in mind that it’s impossible to see the whole fair in one day, so if your time is limited, choose your pavilions wisely.  But, don’t just opt for the big, showy ones.  For me, some of the smaller pavilions like Rwanda’s and Afghanistan’s were more rewarding than their flashier neighbors.

Below are some highlights from my visit:

On the left is the centerpiece of the Expo – Al Wasl plaza covered by a futuristic dome — a steel interpretation of the Expo’s logo based on an ancient jewel recently discovered near the site. UAE’s white winged pavilion is on the right.
Al Wasl Plaza lies at the heart of the Expo. (Al Wasl means “the connection” in Arabic.) Designed by the Chicago architects Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, the steel dome is more than 220 feet tall and more than 800 feet in diameter. Rendering: Expo 2020
Providing welcome shade by day and immersive theater experiences by night, Al Wasl Plaza will become a hub linking neighboring hotels and offices.
Perhaps the most dramatic of the national pavilions is the United Arab Emirates’ own, designed by Santiago Calatrava (also responsible for the Oculus, the World Trade Center’s transportation hub in lower Manhattan). The pavilion is inspired by the shape of a falcon’s wing (falconry being a cultural touchstone in the region). Its carbon fiber wings close up, keeping the pavilion’s solar panels clean in case of sandstorms.
The UAE pavilion. © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh + Barbara Burg.
Photovoltaic panels provide both power and shade.
The United Kingdom’s cone-shaped pavilion is made of cross-laminated timber and displays an illuminated series of AI-generated poems based on words provided by visitors. The pavilion was designed by Es Devlin, a British artist known for her stage sets for Beyoncé and Adele, as well as the London 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony. She is the first female designer of a UK pavilion since the inception of the World’s Fair in 1851 in London.
Financed by the UAE to the tune of $60 million (due to Congress’ ban on using public funds to take part in fairs organized by the Bureau International des Expositions – BIE – like the Dubai Expo), the mobility-focused American pavilion celebrates “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of the Future.” On display are a moon rock, a Martian meteorite, a Mars rover prototype and a replica of the Space X rocket. When visitors alight from the high capacity walkway that meanders through the exhibit, they can eat “New York” bagels and drink Budweiser beer at the pavilion’s restaurant and buy NASA T shirts in the gift shop. The U.S. is forecasting 5 million visitors to its pavilion and Expo organizers expect 25 million visitors to the fairgrounds.
Also in the Mobility District sits Russia’s dynamic, rainbow-hued pavilion. Composed of two spheres encircled by multi-colored tubes, with one dome sitting inside another like the traditional Russian matryoshka, the structure aims to convey the idea of constant movement towards unstoppable progressive development. Inside visitors take in a show about the science of the brain called “The Mechanics of Wonder,” calling for greater human cooperation. Photo: Ilia Ivanov
Upon entering Ukraine’s pavilion, shaped like a wheat spikelet, visitors find themselves in a “field” created from real ears of wheat, “nano-wheat”, and digital wheat. This symbolically demonstrates Ukraine’s desire to move into the future in harmony with nature and technological progress.
The Expo’s walking paths, lined with hearty local Ghaf trees (the UAE’s national tree) are marked by black and white striations that recall a traditional Emirati weaving pattern called Sadu. Fun fact: Able to live up to 120 years, the Ghaf is the evergreen tree of the desert. It is a drought-tolerant tree, able to withstand the harsh desert environment. Its presence on sand dunes is an indicator of water underground.
The fate of Afghanistan’s pavilion hung in the balance after the Taliban takeover of the country in August, remaining empty for weeks. Its savior is Mohamed Amer Rahimy, a private collector and Afghan refugee who has lived in Austria since 1976. After receiving the green light from Expo officials, Rahimy traveled from Vienna to Dubai with over 300 artifacts from his collection. The pieces on display range from the 12th to the 20th century.

Objects include intricately woven shawls and wedding outfits, bronze daggers, jade relics and ceramics alongside turquoise, lapis lazuli and precious saffron – all indigenous to Afghanistan. I loved the amber and turquoise jewelry available for sale and walked away with a beautiful pair of turquoise chandelier earrings.

Afghanistan is known as the source of the world’s finest lapis lazuli. It has been mined continuously in a northern province for 6,000 years.
Afghanistan’s “red gold” or saffron, is consistently voted best in the world.
Located in the Sustainability district, Singapore’s cool, lush pavilion is an oasis in the desert, offering a vision of how architecture and nature can coexist.
The pavilion achieves zero net energy and water with walls giving way to hanging gardens capable of creating their own microclimate. The pavilion is kept cool in the desert heat via water drawn from the ground, desalinated and passed through mist fans, significantly lowering the temperature. No air conditioning needed. When I was there, daytime temperatures hovered at 98-100 degrees. Yet, the pavilion was pleasantly cool.
The innovative Netherlands pavilion showcases experimental solutions for water scarcity, energy use and food shortages by, among other things, the installation of a vertical farm and the harvesting of water from air humidity. The pavilion extracts an impressive 200 gallons of water per day. The power is obtained through lightweight organic solar cells designed by a Dutch artist.
Located in the Opportunity district, the muscular Saudi Arabia pavilion is the second largest, offering a variety of immersive experiences exhibiting the desert nations’ economy, arts, culture and natural features.
Some of the more daring visitors pass through a timed waterfall at the entrance of the pavilion.
Large curved screens exhibit Saudi Arabia’s 13 regions. Photo: Designboom
A honeycombed roof with hanging plants keeps the café cool. In the gift shop, I was told that the Oud perfume I purchased was available only in Saudi Arabia.
Also located in the Opportunity district is one of my favorite exhibits, the Rwanda pavilion, where you can trek with gorillas and buy colorful woven baskets and beaded accessories. Photo: Expo 2020
Visitors can trek with mountain gorillas in virtual reality at Rwanda’s pavilion. Image: Flickr/youngrobv
I walked off with more than half a dozen of these handwoven baskets. They now grace my dining room wall.
China’s ambitious pavilion, shaped like a lantern, highlights 5,000 years of history and crowns recent technological achievements while offering a glimpse into the future with space exploration, robotics and smart cities.
An ultra-futuristic concept car unveiled in the China pavilion is envisaged to fly and go underwater. It also boasts zero-gravity seats and holographic image interaction.
Built of rammed earth, Morocco’s pavilion demonstrates an ancient alternative to concrete. It is built like a village, consisting of 22 houses stacked on top of each other. The carbon footprint is next to nothing as it was constructed from materials found within a 3-mile radius of the site. Rendering: Oualalou + Choi
A traditional Moroccan home is built of masonry or earth on the outside and wood on the inside creating a sense of warmth.
The colorful and intricately carved doors of Morocco.
Highlighting the relationship between East and West, Switzerland’s pavilion, located in the Opportunity zone, is an homage to Bedouin tents that stand on old dried-up river beds in the desert.
I especially liked Switzerland’s electric minicar, which opens from the front.
The Emirates airline pavilion had a 3-day wait list when I was there, so book your tickets in advance! Had I been able to enter, I would have been privy to, among other things, the future of aircraft cabin design that is set to take comfort and well-being to another level, redefining the experience of flying. The 4-story structure is modeled around an aircraft’s wings taking flight. And like many of the pavilions, sustainability was a goal in its construction with the use of regional, reusable and recyclable materials.
Inside the pavilion, staffed by Emirates crew, visitors can use virtual reality headsets to navigate through a virtual jet, passing through different types of cabins, exploring seating configurations of the future and the fuselage’s interactive windows. And that’s not all. Aviation enthusiasts are given the opportunity to design and even fly their own plane with a flight simulator. Photo: Emirates
In a nod to its heritage, the façade of Egypt’s pavilion is emblazoned with hieroglyphics while the rectangular entrance evokes its iconic pyramids.
On display for the first time is a recently discovered sarcophagus belonging to the ancient Egyptian priest Psamtik. Photo: Mashable ME
Italy’s pavilion, one of the most popular attractions at the Expo, embodies the concept of reusable design. Three boat hulls form the roof while the façade is constructed of nautical ropes made from recycled plastic. Organic elements such as orange peels and coffee grounds were used as construction materials. Inside, air conditioning is replaced by a system that uses shading, misting and ventilation.
Israel’s open, mirrored pavilion, within sight of the Palestinian building, is focused on the future. With a design reminiscent of a desert dune and a sign saying “Toward Tomorrow” in a combined Arabic and Hebrew script, the pavilion strives to show commonality between Israel and the Gulf states.
Traditional oriental architecture is the inspiration behind Kazakhstan’s pavilion, constructed from perforated steel. During the opening ceremony, a show performed with a dancer and a robotic hand symbolized the interaction between man and artificial intelligence and the search for a balance among the two.
Topped by colorful cones partially covered with ultralight and flexible solar panels, Spain’s pavilion is a series of immersive experiences emphasizing biodiversity and sustainability. The “Forest of Intelligence” on the lower floor is a 3D printed artificial forest capable of producing oxygen.
The stacked cubes forming Germany’s large pavilion reduce the impact of direct sunlight and generate shade, creating a microclimate. An outer shell can be rotated and opened, allowing the building to breathe.
The giant entry portal to the expo merges old and new with traditional mashrabiya patterns woven from thin, light carbon-fiber strands.
Children of all ages are sure to delight upon encountering Opti, the expo’s goodwill ambassador. 50 of these AI-powered robots roam the grounds dispensing information, cracking jokes and helping with food deliveries. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a pack of them performing flash mob-style dance routines to Kanye West’s song, “Stronger.”

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