When the first Expo opened in 1851 in London, most of the Arab world was under Ottoman rule. The notion of modern state was unheard of in this part of the world. It would be 120 years before seven emirates on the south-eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula come to together to form the UAE.
In few days, this union opens its doors wide to welcome the world to what is expected to be one of the most exciting exhibitions in Expo history, one that will showcase the latest and boldest innovations brought to you by 191 countries.
But more interestingly, it will be the UAE’s show, the UAE’s opportunity to share its amazing story, by definition one of the most innovative, creative projects our region has ever seen.
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The London Expo, called the Great Exhibition, was held at the height of the Victorian age, nearly a century after the start of the first Industrial Revolution to exhibit the latest inventions and products of that great movement in addition to unique collections and artefacts brought from the different British colonies around the world.
It is said that 6 million people visited the exhibition’s site, the Crystal Palace, a giant iron and glass structure built specially to house the London Expo.
Since then, 34 expos have been held. Over 170 years, these great exhibitions have been the place for the world to exchange new ideas, inventions and scientific discoveries- from ice cream cones, tomato ketchup, the telephone and TV broadcasting to the Ferris Wheel and hydrogen- powered cars. Even great artists, like Picasso in Paris in 1937, used the Expo to present their latest masterpieces.
On Friday, the world will gather in Dubai for the 35th Expo. This one promises to be different. Today’s world is nothing like the one that was in 1851. That seems light years away. We have moved on so much that Expos are no longer the exclusive venue to showcase new things.
It has become challenging to outdo the previous ones. Most of us lost the notion of surprise as the endless advances in communication allow us to learn of the new scientific discoveries and inventions while they are still at the development stage, ore even better while they are still ideas on the board.
But Dubai, and the UAE, never shies away from a challenge. The great minds behind Dubai Expo put together a concept that sums up what not only today’s world but also the future is about- the concepts of sustainability, mobility and opportunity. Those concepts present solutions. Not theoretical ones but actual and practical solutions tried successfully in different parts of the world.
The coronavirus pandemic showed us how fragile this world is. How a virus can easily disrupt all aspects of life- from schools and world to business and travel. For the good part of the past two years, the world was shut.
COVID-19 changed our social habits too as we grew afraid of even shaking hands with friends and colleagues. The proliferation of wars in recent years present a greater challenge to the world so does climate change.
Therefore, Dubai Expo is going to be significant in presenting solutions to a world in quest for remedies. We will learn how the Czech Republic turns barren land to fertile by extracting water vapour from the air using solar power. We will see how vertical farms work in the Netherlands.
We will learn how a young child has changed the life of his community in rural Malawi. We will see countless examples of those innovations and real-life stories that are assembled in one place to offer a troubled world realistic and easy to implement solutions.
More importantly though, the world will gather here for the next six months to learn of a more thrilling story- the story of this young nation. When the first expo was held in London, this nation was no more than few scattered towns of tribal societies.
Fastest human development projects
Today, the UAE is cited as one of the most successful and fastest human development projects in recent world history. Its GDP in 1971, when the federation of the UAE was established, was Dh6.5 billion ($1.7 billion) compared to Dh1.54 trillion this year. The population was less than 250,000 then.
Today, the UAE’s population is almost 10 million. We didn’t have paved highways until the 1960s. Today, the country boasts one of the most advanced infrastructure in the world. Its health, education and economic systems have made the UAE one of the top competitive states globally and pushed it to the top of every human development index.
This a story that must be told. And the millions of people who will visit the Expo will have the opportunity to learn of that story, which is by itself a unique model for others, especially in the developing world, to emulate.
The official theme song of Expo puts it right. ‘This is our time’. this is our time and chance to showcase this amazing story of the UAE.
In his book, ‘My Story’, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, says of the UAE story: “They will say after a long time; here they existed, here they worked; here they accomplished. Here they were born, raised, loved and beloved by people; here they launched that project, and here they celebrated its accomplishments. Here they started, and here they reached.”
On Friday, the world will see firsthand how far this young nation has reached. This is our time.