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One of the world’s largest international events since the start of the coronavirus pandemic is set to open its doors. Expo 2020 Dubai – the first world exposition to be held in the Middle East, North Africa, or South Asia – will have its long-delayed opening on October 1 and run through March 31, 2022. The massive expo will feature dedicated pavilions for 192 countries, the most in expo history, and host scores of commercial and institutional participants, such as Emirates Airlines and the Gulf Cooperation Council. It will bring together musical performances, art installations, and over 200 restaurants, and it will include up to 60 daily shows and events. Under the overarching theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,” the expo will explore global issues presented through 10 dedicated theme weeks, including “Climate & Biodiversity,” “Knowledge & Learning,” and “Space.”
While a global event, Expo 2020 Dubai has sought to cultivate local engagement through initiatives focused on incorporating young Emirati citizens and residents. From thousands of volunteer opportunities to various educational programs at local schools, Expo 2020 aims to leave an impact on UAE citizens and residents that will far outlast the duration of the event. AGSIW spoke with young Emiratis who were involved in the expo to learn about their work and what drew them to participate in Expo 2020. For many, living in a country joining the ranks of historic world expositions has truly meant the world.
World Expos: Past and Present
The first world exposition was conceived in Great Britain in 1851 as an international exhibition for countries to showcase their latest technological innovations, promote cultural exchange, and bring entertainment from around the world to local audiences. Much like earlier expos, which highlighted industrial advances such as Ferris wheels, steam engines, and construction materials alongside cultural and artistic pavilions, Expo 2020 Dubai will showcase technological advancements, in fields such as air travel, Artificial Intelligence, and health care, while enabling visitors to immerse themselves in the rich histories and cultures of nearly every country in the world.
Expos are also known by their signature architectural innovations. London’s Crystal Palace (1851), Paris’s Eiffel Tower (1889), Seattle’s Space Needle (1962), and Montreal’s Biosphere (1967) all represent national or urban landmarks, while inventions debuted at expos have included automatic dishwashers and zippers (Chicago, 1893), x-rays and ice cream cones (St. Louis, 1904), and IMAX movies (Osaka, 1970). To this history of monumental architecture, Expo 2020 Dubai contributes Al Wasl Dome, the world’s largest 360 degree-projection surface, designed by American firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill. Al Wasl, link or connection in Arabic, refers to the dome’s role as a spatial focal point connecting surrounding “petals” and the event’s three thematic districts: the Mobility District (blue); the Sustainability District (green); and the Opportunity District (orange). At each of the thematic districts, visitors can learn more about how these concepts have impacted human progress and societal development and how they continue to shape the world.
Beyond the physical expo site in southeast Dubai, Expo 2020 Dubai will offer platforms for the exchange of ideas. These initiatives include: the World Majlis, a forum for thought leaders to address pressing global issues; the Global Best Practice Program, which highlights projects from around the world that have created innovative solutions to challenges facing various communities; and the Expo Live program, which provides financial support to initiatives deemed to have a positive impact on societies and the environment.
Young Emiratis Take the Lead
While hosting a global event, Dubai has sought to involve young Emiratis and UAE residents, so they get the most out of living in the host city. For example, the Volunteer Program has invited citizens and residents from across the country to serve as the backbone of the expo’s workforce and as ambassadors for the UAE. Launched in October 2017 at a Three Year Countdown event in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence neighborhood, the program initially engaged UAE citizens and residents in brainstorming sessions to help define what the central role of volunteers would be during the expo.
The Expo 2020 Volunteer Program received over 160,000 applications from UAE citizens and residents via a platform run in collaboration with the UAE Ministry of Community Development and Emirates Foundation. Representing over 180 nationalities, the 30,000 selected volunteers range in age from 18-79 with Emirati nationals comprising 61% of 18 to 24-year-old volunteers (and 46% of the total), while women make up over half of the volunteer workforce.
Mahmood Al Qadi, an Emirati university student volunteering at Expo 2020, described what it felt like to be from the city hosting such a major event. He said, “It’s exciting! It’s been advertised so much over the past year and my family members who are expo operations employees have been sharing their enthusiasm with us. The expo site has been a huge development project, so it was great to finally start to see it come together.”
Mahmood also mentioned what his role will be: “I’ll be serving as a volunteer leader in the Opportunity District, where I’ll be overseeing about 10 volunteers … Volunteers will have posts across pavilions and outdoor spaces in the district, and, as they’re rotating across these posts during their shifts, I’ll be there to help them out with anything they need and to ensure smooth transitions. And, of course, if guests or volunteers have any questions or concerns, it’ll be my job to try to help them out however I can or to pass it on to someone more qualified to take care of the issue.”
As he is nearing completion of his university studies, Mahmood said that having Expo 2020 in his hometown has helped him shape his own professional goals. “For me the expo has been an opportunity to be exposed to a variety of international projects and industries, specifically in technology and business, that have inspired me to pursue particular fields. As an engineer in training, this is an incredible experience that doesn’t come along often. The sheer size of the space coupled with my own academic and professional interests made me even more eager to be a part of the expo.”
The Volunteer Program is partnering with the Dubai Police and telecommunications company Etisalat to train volunteers in communication and management skills, coronavirus safety regulations, and navigating the expansive expo site. Volunteers are also learning the history of expos around the world, how to ensure an inclusive and safe event, Emirati culture and cultural awareness, and basic sign language. Volunteer roles encompass a range of activities across the expo site, including welcoming prominent guests, serving as the first points of contact for Expo 2020 visitors, and providing technical and logistical support for daily events. In total, members of the Volunteer Program will dedicate over 16 million hours aiming to ensure a successful event.
In addition to the volunteers, Expo 2020 has also hired hundreds of thousands of individuals to fill jobs in marketing, operations, media, entertainment, hospitality, and catering. Latifa Khoory, joined the Expo Media Center team as an assistant producer shortly after graduating with a BA in film and new media practice. When asked about working at the expo, Latifa said: “It’s a dream first job. I’m working on one of the biggest international events happening right now, so it feels pretty surreal to be a part of it and to be working at the expo site every day.”
Sharing her experience working around the expo pavilions, Latifa said, “I’m also learning a lot about other countries; the Surinamese pavilion faces our office in the Sustainability District, and, given that I pass it every day heading into work, it sparked my curiosity. I’ve been researching countries that I wasn’t very familiar with and have been learning so much about them this way. Apparently, this pavilion is one of a few designed by students! I was really impressed by that.”
Latifa also reflected on her experience as a new entrant to the workforce: “My 6-month journey with Expo 2020, which started just a few weeks ago, has been very intense so far, of course. The Expo Media Center serves as a connection between the event and international media outlets, so when we deliver content to the international community, we help shape the image of the Dubai expo and our country that the world is seeing.”
Expo 2020 Engagement in UAE Schools
Another initiative geared toward youth participation is the Expo School Program, which provides teaching staff across the country with student resources and engagement opportunities that correspond to the event’s themes. These include interactive challenges, an anthology of children’s tales featuring several of the participating countries, and organized class trips to the expo site. For example, the Nasheed Al Wasl program invites students to participate in opera workshops led by the Welsh National Opera and perform a 30-minute segment of the first Emirati opera, “Al Wasl,” by American composer Mohammed Fairouz. Students will sing alongside a professional orchestra at the expo’s opening and perform periodically throughout the event.
Maryam AlShehie, a student ambassador from New York University Abu Dhabi, explained why she joined the Expo 2020 team: “I’ve always been passionate about serving as a bridge between my peers and larger initiatives. Along with my interest in meeting a diverse group of passionate people, I was driven by curiosity. Expo 2020 has been an event that the whole world is anticipating, and I was curious to know more about behind-the-scenes activities and how to participate as a young Emirati female representing NYU Abu Dhabi … I’m really looking forward to seeing what I’ve been imagining since middle school become a reality.”
As an ambassador, Maryam helped to organize several Expo 2020 Trivia Nights at NYU Abu Dhabi to “bring Expo 2020 to campus.” She said, “We shared information and fun facts about the expo with students and showed videos, pictures, and the latest developments on the expo to build excitement on campus and so that students could engage with Expo 2020.” Maryam will also be coordinating access and transportation for NYU Abu Dhabi students. Looking ahead to the start of the event, she said, “I’m also excited to meet and learn from people from all around the globe, especially the youth. I’m already learning a few languages and have been practicing with my classmates at NYUAD, but I really can’t wait to use these skills with visitors at the expo.”
Beyond the Expo
Architecture and international participation at Expo 2020, as well as plans to sustainably reuse the expo site for the District 2020 project, have been getting most of the attention in the months leading up to Expo 2020 Dubai. But the engagement of so many of the UAE’s residents, through the volunteer and educational programs or as visitors, will also be part of its legacy. Young people, whose futures will be the most shaped by the conversations happening at Expo 2020, will be key to moving beyond the present-day challenges and building a sustainable future in which a global spirit can prevail.
is an associate in arts, culture, and social trends at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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