At Expo Dubai, global political issues loom
Iran wants you to put politics aside and marvel at its ornate carpets. Syria wants you to forget about its brutal war and discover the world’s first alphabet. Yemen, on the brink of famine, is very excited about its honey and coffee.
Welcome to Expo 2020 Dubai, the world’s premier exhibition in the Middle East with more than 190 participating countries except Afghanistan, whose new Taliban rulers are absent.
Dubai has gambled billions to make the Expo Village built from the ground up a triumphant tourist attraction and a symbol of the UAE itself – a feast for the eyes designed to be devoid of politics and built on the promise of globalization.
But even as nations use their flags as benign infomercials, political turmoil around the world manages to creep in.
“We only had one bullet to shoot,” said Manahel Thabet, director of the Yemeni pavilion. “We wanted to present Yemen in a different way… to show the people and not a political agenda.” But the winding journey the exhibit craftsmanship has taken from the nation’s rebel-held north to the elegant UAE-funded pavilion betrays a very different Yemen.
Traders described painful nights marching with sacks of stones, spices and honey to the Expo through the battlefields of Marib, the last stronghold of the Yemeni government currently under siege by Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
The Burma Pavilion, where the army’s seizure of power has turned into a bloody conflict, displays a golden chariot and invites visitors to its plains dotted with pagodas.
The previous government, overthrown in a coup in February, appointed a prominent Burmese philanthropist to lead and sponsor the showcase years ago.
But a person familiar with the flag’s operations, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said Myanmar’s military junta.
in recent weeks, had attempted to revamp the philanthropist’s exhibit and change the event schedule, hoping to host nationalist military gatherings during the fair’s six-month period.
The exhibition’s organizers, the person added, were trying to prevent the takeover, but the fate of the pavilion remains uncertain.
After the UAE announced it would normalize relations with Israel last year, infuriating Palestinians and upsetting a long-standing Arab consensus, the PA said it would boycott the Dubai Expo.
And yet, just a two-minute walk from Israel’s Mirrored Arch, the Pavilion of Palestine looms high, its expansive exterior painted in Arabic calligraphy indicating, “Yesterday it was called Palestine. Today it is called Palestine. The exhibit creates a full sensory experience, inviting visitors to touch handmade ceramic jugs, watch vendors slice knafeh, a pastry filled with syrupy cheese, and smell oranges from Palestinian farms.
However, the Palestine pavilion has not officially opened to the public, as employees described a litany of headaches trying to gain approval from Israeli authorities to remove certain goods from the occupied West Bank.
When asked what motivated the turnaround in Palestine’s participation, staff members said it was decided that a Palestinian absence from the great world fair would be worse.
While many countries received invitations to attend the Expo almost immediately after Dubai won the bid in 2013, Syria said it was invited just two years ago – shortly after the UAE has reopened its embassy in Damascus, a sign of improved relations with President Bashar Assad following years of devastating civil war. It was the last nation to begin construction.
The staff at the Black Box Theater, filled with inspirational slogans like ‘we will rise together’ and lengthy explanations of the written alphabet of ancient Mesopotamia, lamented the last-minute rush and lack of funds. Noting that Assad was focusing on rebuilding Syria’s destroyed cities, pavilion designer Khaled Alshamaa said the government was largely providing “moral support.” Illustrated wooden tablets sent by 1,500 ordinary Syrians from all over the world cover the walls of the pavilion. But visitors won’t find any references to the death or displacement – which staff insist this is a happy coincidence, not evidence of restrictions on freedom of movement. expression. Miniature portraits of Assad and his wife Asma look down from the mosaic. Other postcard images show musical instruments, bouquets of flowers, and sprawling Syrian breakfasts.
“The war is over,” Alshamaa said. “Even though there are sanctions, we are alive. This is the message we want to show you. A large mirror in the pavilion carries a more enigmatic message: “What you see is not all there is. Other politically sensitive pavilions even struggled to present themselves.
North Korea is nowhere to be found. The Libyan flag, which sank into violent chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, still reeks of fresh paint. The windows are empty but for thick layers of dust and the TV screens waver between children’s cartoons and the static scenes of the beaches of Tripoli.
Signage points to Afghanistan, but its pavilion appears closed – nothing more than a sparse exhibition hall for office furniture. The country’s previous government had fixed the pavilion before the Taliban invaded Kabul in the final days of the US troop withdrawal on August 15, forcing President Ashraf Ghani into exile in the UAE and canceling plans for a showcase of the Expo, among others.
At the exhibit for the Islamic Republic of Iran, a staff woman beams to visitors, gushing that her trip to the surreal theme park is her first time outside the sanctions-hit country.
Although the booth features portraits of past and current Iranian supreme rulers, the showcase at the Shiite powerhouse makes no mention of
religion, nor other sources of the nation’s pride such as its controversial ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.
Instead, Iran has gone for outright craft spiel, throwing Persian rugs without reference to US sanctions crippling trade. Merchants sell saffron candies. The chefs delicately spice up the kebab. Businessmen advocate free economic zones.
The Iranian pavilion presents perhaps the most appropriate metaphor for the Expo. In one room, visitors have to look through tiny holes in the wall to see scenes from real life in Iran, where anonymous people dig vast copper mines, walk calmly along village roads, and weave colorful textiles. The brief optimistic glimpses offer no more and no less than what the country wants you to see.