DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AFP) — Dubai opened its extravagant Expo 2020 on Thursday with a flashy ceremony boasting fireworks and lights displays, as it attempts to woo the world despite the pandemic.
The domed Al Wasl Plaza, the centerpiece of the vast Expo site, was lit by spectacular projections as Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum declared the $7 billion event open.
“The entire world gathers in the UAE as we inaugurate together, with the blessing of Allah, Expo 2020 Dubai,” Sheikh Hamdan said.
Chinese pianist Lang Lang was among the star performers, and blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli closed the show in front of Dubai’s royal rulers.
The ceremony kicks off a six-month world fair attended by more than 190 countries, despite the European parliament’s call for member states to boycott over the United Arab Emirates’ human rights record.
Organizers are hoping for 25 million visits to Expo 2020, the first in the Middle East, which is set to be the most attended event since the pandemic. This year’s Tokyo Olympics went ahead largely without fans.
However, travel restrictions remain in place around the globe during a spectacle that was conceived pre-COVID-19 and is starting a year late.
Organizers did not respond to a request for details on ticket sales, but discounts are already being offered and Dubai government employees have been given six days off to attend.
Themes of sustainability and the planet’s future were prevalent in the lavish show at Al Wasl Plaza, the centerpiece of the vast Expo site which sprawls across an area twice the size of Monaco.
Futuristic constructions dot the purpose-built showground in the Dubai suburbs, where countries are bidding to outdo each other for ingenuity and innovation.
The recent record of Expos is patchy, with the 2017 edition in Kazakhstan tainted by corruption, and violent protests in Milan in 2015 by demonstrators angered by the event’s cost.
The first world exhibition was held in London in 1851, when it was housed in the newly-built Crystal Palace. The Paris edition of 1889 featured the Eiffel Tower, then intended as a temporary attraction.
Expo 2020 will be unmistakeably tinged by the pandemic, with masks and social distancing mandatory on site. Visitors need to be vaccinated or have a negative PCR test to enter.
The United Arab Emirates, population 10 million, has reported a sharp drop in coronavirus cases, falling below 300 this week — less than half the figure a fortnight earlier.
Dubai, one of the UAE’s seven emirates, has long strived for international recognition with projects such as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 828 meters (2,717 feet).
Human rights record
But away from Thursday’s fireworks, concerns are being expressed about the UAE’s human rights record.
This month, the European parliament adopted a tough resolution urging member countries and businesses to pull out of the event over the jailing of rights activists and “inhumane” practices towards immigrant workers.
The parliament “deeply deplores the gap between the UAE’s claims to be a tolerant and rights-respecting country and the fact its own human rights defenders are detained in harsh conditions”, the resolution said.
“[Expo] is just another opportunity for the government to promote itself falsely as open and tolerant,” Human Rights Watch researcher Hiba Zayadin told AFP.
Workers put the final touches on infrastructure and facilities at the site this week as the clock ticked down to the delayed launch.
A succession of politicians, business leaders, celebrities and sportspeople are expected at the Expo, whose diverse attractions include the Harlem Globetrotters and a Chinese robot panda.
A full-scale hyperloop cabin, touted as the future of long-distance travel and transport, is among the exhibits, while Egypt has sent an ancient coffin from pharaonic days.
China has one of the largest pavilions — a LED-lit, lamp-shaped creation — while Morocco’s is made with traditional mud-building methods.
Israel is also taking part, a year after the UAE and the Jewish state normalized ties.
The Israeli pavilion, which includes a large illuminated sign saying “toward tomorrow” using both Arabic and Hebrew — will be open to all. Inside, pathways run between sand dunes made of a thin layer of concrete and sand-colored rubber.
“Our pavilion… is made of things that integrate us, that show how similar we are,” Menachem Gantz, the spokesman for Israel’s pavilion, told AFP. “The ‘sand’ we’re standing on symbolizes the dunes, and the topography of Israel and the Emirates is very similar to it.”