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With Israeli pavilion, Dubai set to open Expo, world’s biggest event since COVID

Organizers of Middle East’s first world fair hope for 25 million visitors over the next 6 months; Israel’s pavilion of ‘sand dunes’ marks a year since UAE normalization deal

People walk past the official Expo 2020 sign at the Dubai Expo in the United Arab Emirates, January 16, 2021. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP)
People walk past the official Expo 2020 sign at the Dubai Expo in the United Arab Emirates, January 16, 2021. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The COVID-delayed Expo 2020 kicks off in Dubai on Thursday with an extravagant opening ceremony for what is expected to be the world’s biggest event since the start of the pandemic.

Dubai’s edition of the global fair, the first ever held in the Middle East, hopes for 25 million visitors over six months to its gleaming pavilions in the desert.

Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum was to open the event grouping more than 190 countries, which he has promised will be “the most exceptional Expo in the history of the event.”

The Expo site in the dusty Dubai suburbs has remained strictly off-limits during its year-long postponement.

Architectural marvels and a long list of technological innovations will feature among the exhibits, showcasing the ingenuity and technological innovations of the participating countries.

The first world fair was held in London in 1851, when it was housed in the purpose-built Crystal Palace, and the Paris edition of 1889 featured the Eiffel Tower, at first intended as a temporary attraction.

Expo 2020 will be indelibly tinged by the pandemic, with masks and social distancing mandatory on site. Visitors will need to be vaccinated or have a negative PCR test to enter.

The United Arab Emirates, population 10 million, has reported rapidly dwindling coronavirus cases in recent weeks, dropping below 300 on Sunday — less than half the figure a fortnight earlier.

Journalists arrive for visiting Terra, The Sustainability Pavilion, during a media tour at the Dubai World Expo site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, January 16, 2021. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)

Robot panda, ancient coffin

The fair is another feather in the cap for Dubai, which has long strived for recognition with achievements such as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 828 meters (2,717 feet).

The postponement has worked out well in one respect for the UAE, as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding on December 2.

Workers have been putting 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 imported 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.

People take pictures in the Israel pavilion during a media tour ahead of the opening of the Dubai Expo 2020 in the Gulf Emirate on September 27, 2021 (AFP)

And Israel is also gearing up to take 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.”

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