Dubai’s COVID-delayed Expo 2020 has announced itself to the world with an extravagant opening ceremony headlined by British pop star Ellie Goulding and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

The largest city in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates on Thursday night kicked off its world fair. The event, which was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but retained its original name, begins on Friday and runs until March 31, 2022.

It is the first expo for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, and is one of the world’s largest events to take place in the midst of the pandemic, following the Summer Olympics in Tokyo staged without spectators.

The sprawling 1,080-hectare Expo 2020 site, featuring pavilions from 192 countries, has been slowly taking shape in the middle of a desolate stretch of sand on the outskirts of Dubai since the city won the bid for the mega event in 2013.

Its opening ceremony, curated by Belgian theatre director Franco Dragone — known for his work with Cirque du Soleil — took a select group of VIP guests in attendance on a high-tech journey through the natural world.

The event featured 900 cast members from 64 countries and about 1,000 crew. Organizers billed it as “the most immersive show in the world,” with 252 projectors screening images across the 130-metre wide, 67-metre tall Al Wasl Dome, the “jewel in the Expo crown.”

British singer Ellie Goulding performs during the opening ceremony of Expo 2020 on Thursday in Dubai. Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli also headlined the event. (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

Other than Goulding and Bocelli, who performed just one song each, Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, Saudi singer Mohammed Abdo, Chinese pianist Lang Lang and American singer Andra Day also took to the stage for the event. The metaphor-heavy show followed the story of a young girl, who symbolized “hope.”

That hope could also be seen as a metaphor for the expectations Dubai has placed on Expo 2020 to provide a much-needed boost to its economy and help it diversify away from its dependency on oil.

Dubai hopes Expo will boost economy

The country’s economy took a hit when its real estate market crashed following the global financial crisis, and it has since tried to reposition itself as a centre for tourism and business.

Landmark social reforms announced in 2019 decriminalized alcohol, suicide and living with a member of the opposite sex before marriage, while new long-term visas — five-year, 10-year, retirement and “golden” visas for VIPs — allow expats to settle in a country that was previously off limits to foreigners to settle in permanently. Remote working visas announced in the midst of the pandemic attempted to lure digital nomads to take advantage of the U.A.E.’s tax-free, five-star lifestyle.

A view of the Burj Khalifa and the downtown skyline in Dubai. Tourism is a major part of the city’s economy, which took a hit when its real estate market crashed following the global financial crisis. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Tourism-reliant Dubai threw open its doors to international tourists in July 2020 after a brief, but strict, lockdown and has been aggressively marketing itself as a safe travel destination in the lead-up to Expo.

Dubai has reported 735,992 cases of COVID-19 and 2,097 deaths, but it has been spared from a more severe outbreak by its young population and large number of hospital beds. Its vaccination rates are also among the highest in the world — but it was also an early adopter of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, which has had doubts raised over its efficacy.

The U.A.E. capital, Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, which is just an hour’s drive down the road from Dubai, closed itself off from the rest of the country at the onset of the pandemic — barring international tourists and erecting a land border, which required a negative COVID-19 test to pass. Abu Dhabi has been largely buffeted from the fallout of the pandemic by its sovereign wealth fund, which manages its oil reserves and is estimated to be worth about $700 billion US.

As Expo 2020 opens on Friday, Dubai has largely relaxed its COVID-19 physical-distancing and capacity rules, but it maintains a ban on dancing and mandates that masks be worn both indoors and outdoors. Temperatures currently hit about 38 C in the middle of the day in the U.A.E.

Workers are seen next to the Expo 2020 logo ahead of the opening ceremony. The sprawling 1,080-hectare site has been slowly taking shape in the middle of a desolate stretch of sand on the outskirts of Dubai since the city won the bid for the mega event in 2013. (Rula Rouhana/Reuters)

While Expo 2020 initially said visitors would not need to be vaccinated to visit the event, it backtracked just a couple of weeks later, announcing that proof of vaccination or a valid PCR test would be required to enter. An on-site COVID-19 testing station offers visitors free PCR tests, with results within six hours, or a rapid test for 125 AED ($43 Cdn), with results available within 15 to 30 minutes.

Pre-pandemic, Expo organizers forecast 25 million visitors to the event over its six-month tenure. That number has not been adjusted for its new dates and circumstances, but organizers have since been referring to “25 million visits,” which will include repeat visitors and people watching online. Expo’s digital offering has become a cornerstone of the event, and Dubai reportedly wants these visitors to be included in its overall attendance numbers.

The city is desperate for its visitation numbers to be a success, with discounted tickets and giveaways easy to come by. Those who fly on the Emirates airline, the U.A.E.’s flagship carrier, are given a free Expo 2020 ticket with their airfare. Expo staff have each been given five free season passes to give away, as well as dozens of single-day and discount passes.

Many Dubai entities were given free passes, and Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed announced this week that Dubai government employees would get six paid days off to visit the site.

Star power used to share message

In 2019, auditors EY estimated that the event would contribute more than $33.4 billion US to the country’s economy between 2013 and 2031, saying it would “encourage millions around the world to visit the U.A.E. in 2020” and “will also stimulate travel and tourism and support economic diversification for years after.”

Those forecasts have not been updated to take the pandemic into account. EY estimated construction projects for Expo would cost the U.A.E. $7 billion US alone.

With so much riding on the event, the country has pulled in some of the world’s biggest stars to share its message. Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi is a global ambassador, and a CGI-heavy advertisement featuring Australian actor Chris Hemsworth was released in recent weeks, set to the Willy Wonka theme tune and featuring a host of children dancing across the screen without face masks. A disclaimer in one corner states: “This commercial was filmed in 2019.”

Artists carry national flags during the opening ceremony of Dubai Expo 2020 on Thursday. The world’s fair features pavilions from 192 countries. (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

Emirates aircraft and public transport in the city have borne the Expo logo for years.

But Dubai’s bullish “business as usual” pandemic strategy could be paying off.

Despite laying off thousands of staff in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, Emirates airline has been ramping up its flight routes, rehiring thousands of staff on unpaid leave and asking those it made redundant if they’d like to reapply. Dubai’s real estate market is said to be on the rebound after years of record-low rents, buoyed by the simple notion of the potential outside investment from visitors to Expo 2020.

But though world’s fairs were once landmark events for a host city and a chance to show off groundbreaking technology (electricity, the telephone, baby incubators, the clean-energy car and the X-ray machine were unveiled at world’s fairs), recent Expos haven’t received the same amount of attention as their predecessors.

Dubai, however, believes its legacy won’t necessarily be tangible and could be more about bilateral agreements and diplomatic talks.

But it has also spawned the world’s largest Ferris wheel, to keep with the theme of world’s fairs of years gone by (Seattle’s Space Needle and Paris’s Eiffel Tower were built to mark their own Expos). Ain Dubai, at a height of 250 metres, has obliterated the world’s former largest wheel — the 167-metre High Roller in Las Vegas — but it’s been plagued by delays caused by rumoured design flaws that required repair.

The sun sets behind the Ain Dubai, or Dubai Eye, the world’s largest Ferris wheel, in Dubai. At a height of 250 metres, it’s obliterated the world’s former largest such structure — the 167-metre High Roller in Las Vegas (Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press)

Parts of the Expo site will be retained and will outlast the event, becoming District 2020, a future-focused and tech hub for Dubai. Most of the country pavilions, however, will be dismantled.

Canada’s offering at the event is located in the Sustainability District (there are three districts at this Expo — the other two being Mobility and Opportunity) and was designed by Toronto-based Moriyama & Teshima Architects.

The pavilion is a spherical, latticed wooden structure, which cost the country $21 million, and is “inspired by the Canadian landscape and Middle Eastern architectural elements.”

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