After eight years of planning and with billions of dollars spent, the Middle East's first ever World Fair opened on Friday in Dubai. The months-long extravaganza hopes to draw both visitors and global attention to this desert-turned-dreamscape. And as Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum put it, Expo 2020 is a chance "forge a united worldwide effort to build a more sustainable and prosperous future for all".
Dubai opened Expo 2020 in an extravagant ceremony Thursday that bathed the site's signature central dome in light, a symbolic beacon for the city-state's hopes that the world's fair will draw tourists despite the coronavirus pandemic. Thursday night's ceremony, attended by Abu Dhabi's powerful Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and a host of other dignitaries, offered the equivalent of a creation myth for Dubai as hundreds of singers, dancers and acrobats performed.
The site's central Al Wasl Dome, made of steel and weighing the equivalent of 25 blue whales, according to Expo organizers, became a 360-degree screen showing images of the desert and nature as sound rolled across the gathered audience. The Expo site had a visible police presence Thursday before the ceremony, with security guards stationed at every corner. Those attending passed through airport-style security screening all visitors to the event. As guests filtered through, speakers chirped with piped-in bird songs.
Organisers say 192 nations are represented at the expo. The US pavilion will showcase a replica of the Space X Falcon 9 rocket. Italy's pavilion houses a 3-D replica of Michelangelo's biblical hero, David, that is 17 feet high (5.2 meters). Other attractions include an African food hall, a royal Egyptian mummy, concerts and performances from around the world, and the option to dine on a USD 500 three-course meal with glow-in-the-dark cuisine.
"With the opening of Expo 2020 Dubai, I congratulate my brother Mohammed bin Rashid and everyone that has been involved in this historic event. Over the next 6 months, the UAE will welcome people from across the world to share experiences and create a brighter future for all," tweeted Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Not long ago, the site of the 1,080 acre (438 hectare) expo was barren desert. Less than a decade later, it is a buzzing futuristic landscape with robots, a new metro station, multi-million dollar pavilions and so-called districts with names like "sustainability" and "opportunity". But against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear how many visitors Dubai can attract, and how much the expo will stimulate its tourism-driven economy.
Politics also could affect the Expo. The European Parliament this month urged nations not to take part in the Expo, citing human rights abuses, the jailing of activists and the autocratic government's use of spyware to target critics. However, European Union top diplomat Josep Borrell acknowledged in a statement Thursday the bloc would take part in the Expo.