As three colossal shape-shifting gateways swing open on the Middle East’s first Expo, essential finds out whether the desert edition of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ will live up to its Eastern promise. Dates: October 1-March 31.


As three colossal shape-shifting gateways swing open on the Middle East’s first Expo, essential finds out whether the desert edition of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ will live up to its Eastern promise. Dates: October 1-March 31.


Picture a garden city powered by solar trees and watered by smart rainfall extracted from desert air; a place nine tenths the size of Gibraltar, with robots instead of British Bobbies to give visitors directions in a polyglot of languages.

Welcome – or in the traditional Emirati greeting, Hayyakum – to Expo 2020 Dubai where, one year later than scheduled, 191 countries of the world will put pandemic woes and political differences on hold to share their visions for creating a better world.

Dubai’s billionaire ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has promised that the 35th World Fair, themed ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, will ‘astonish the world’. And the sustainable city that has grown up ‘Expo-nentially’ on Dubai’s border with Abu Dhabi certainly looks like a miracle.

Five years ago it was a sandy wasteland known as The Empty Quarter where only the hardy ghaf survived – the UAE’s national tree. Today there’s a whole avenue of them, along with 340 other plant species gracing parks, plazas and the courtyards of 200 new architectural wonders just as jaw-dropping as downtown Dubai’s, except these buildings generate their own water and power.

Even more striking from a drone’s eye view, the site is laid out in the shape of a flower with the world’s largest projection dome at its centre, a spectacular cupola that turns into a dazzling 360-degree light show after dark. Three connecting petal-shaped zones themed Sustainability, Opportunity and Mobility are home to 200 pavilions offering visitors thrilling immersive journeys into the future via Artificial Intelligence, robotics, Big Data and biotech.

Every nation from A for Afghanistan to Z for Zimbabwe was invited to put up a pavilion and wow us at the most inclusive Expo yet. Stroll through Singapore’s hanging gardens and eat the plants; dine in an African food hall and eat the plates; chat to an interactive hologram in Turkmenistan; or talk turkey with 142 human social innovators from 76 countries at the Expo Live pavilion. As well as a theme park extraordinaire, Expo is a global forum for exchanging ideas and delivering real-life solutions.

Dubai’s is the first Expo in over 100 years to have a Women’s Pavilion, created by Cartier in association with human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney. An Expo App enabling visitors to reserve time slots and curate theme tours helps to manage the sensory overload of 60 daily shows and 200 restaurants offering 60 types of cuisine. And it’s all a 15-minute, socially-distanced and mask-mandated ride from the city centre on the new Route 2020 metro line.

Dubai reopened to international travellers in August and the Sheikh is confidently expecting 25 million visitors to Expo over the next six months. In a world ravaged by pandemic and climate change, a dazzling exhibition showcasing a brighter future for the planet is the shot of optimism we all need. But Expo Dubai is more than a six-month wonder. Paris Expo left us the Eiffel Tower in 1889; Philadelphia’s introduced popcorn and Heinz Tomato Ketchup to the world in 1876; London’s Great Exhibition, the first world Fair in 1851, gave us plate glass windows (although The Crystal Palace burned down). Dubai’s legacy will be the largest yet. When the show wraps up at the end of March, 80 per cent of this shiny sustainable city will be recycled as District 2020, a 5G-enabled Silicone Valley dedicated to developing themes explored at the Fair.

Perception-shifting Portals

Strong enough to stand unsupported but so light they can be pushed open with your hand, British starchitect Asif Khan’s trio of towering 21-metre gates are one of the fascinating puzzles of Expo. Made of ultra-light carbon fibre mesh in a design inspired by Arabic mashrabiya latticework, they are at once two-dimensional planes and three-dimensional objects while from certain angles they reflect the Expo logo. It took nine shipments to transport these big boys from Bavaria to Dubai but the illusion is worth it. Step through them into the future!

Expo’s Crown Jewel

Al Wasl Dome has been all over Instagram since Lionel Messi scored a goal through the open roof to kick off Expo’s 100-day countdown. Taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, heavier than 25 blue whales and wider than two Airbus A380s wing to wing, this architectural showstopper is the world’s largest 360° projection dome. Every evening after Maghrib, the sunset prayer, 250 laser projectors will power up a video light show that can be seen inside or out through the dome’s translucent skin. By day, it keeps Al Wasl Plaza cool, centre stage to the main Expo action, laid out with fountains, gardens and park benches emulating Arabic calligraphy.
The dome’s steel trellis design was copied from an ancient gold ring found during site excavations. Dubai’s ruler saw it as a good omen and chose it for the Expo logo.

Down to Earth

The future of the planet is in your hands at Terra, the Sustainability District’s UFO-shaped pavilion. Net zero for energy and water, ‘solar trees’ rotate like sunflowers to draw energy while ‘water trees’ convert moisture from the air to irrigate the gardens. Inside, an augmented reality journey reveals the beauty of the natural world’s landscapes and oceans before segueing into the harsh realities of the Sea of Consumption Hall. Visitors decide the planet’s fate by answering soul-searching questions en route, with data shared on a scoreboard. Would you give up your phone to save a rainforest?

Cutting-edge Commuting

Find out what we’ll all be zipping around town on when electric scooters are passé at the Mobility Pavilion. Conceived as a fairground for rides, think hover boards, jetpacks, cars that drive themselves and solar-powered bikes, all whizzing around a circular 330-metre track above and below ground like the Wacky Races cartoon. You can also ride the world’s largest passenger lift – made for 160 people but Covid-limited to 38 during the fair. Wrapped in a spiral of stainless steel heat shields emulating a helter-skelter, world-famous architects Foster + Partners were behind the pavilion’s eye-popping design.

Send a message to E.T.

Could AI help us to communicate with other worlds? The UK Pavilion, shaped like a giant megaphone angled towards the heavens, attempts to answer that question with Message to Space, based on a Stephen Hawking idea. Earthlings are invited to donate a word to a global collective poem describing life on Earth to extra-terrestrials. Their random words are then processed into couplets by robot bards and projected on the pavilion façade in a continuous poem.

Space Age Cuisine

Move over Heston Blumenthal. Expo’s Epochal Banquet will make molecular gastronomy look Victorian. Dishes that glow in the dark, flavour-changing desserts, new-to-the-plate plants and recipes inspired by microbiology, artificial intelligence and space exploration are on the menu. The nightly two-hour foodie adventure has been cooked up by British multi-sensory dining masterminds Bompas & Parr to show how AI can help humans to sustainably feed the world.

Cool Spain

Up-ended ice cream cones spring to mind and the Spanish Pavilion’s take on architecture of the future will certainly keep you cool as the climate heats up. The conical 3D-printed structures promote air flow on the ground floor and expel hot air through their open tops. Inside the cones you can take an augmented reality trip through the neural pathways of the human brain and sit in a Valencia-built Z01 hyperloop capsule, the next big thing in rapid transit – way cooler than ice cream.

Host with the Most

Expo’s host country has set the standard in soaring architecture with the UAE Pavilion, inspired by a falcon in flight. Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava’s design references the falconry expeditions used to forge connections between tribal desert communities that led to the founding of the United Arab Emirates 50 years ago. Inside this big bird, visitors can follow the trajectory of human flight from the days of Icarus to the Space Age, kick back in a futuristic First Class cabin, help design a greener aircraft, and grab a bird’s eye views from the sky lounge.

Window on Saudi

Balanced on one edge like a giant tipped-over TV, Saudi Arabia’s gravity-defying pavilion has set three new Guinness World Records for the longest interactive water curtain, largest interactive light floor and biggest LED mirror screen – a 1,300m2 window on the kingdom symbolising Saudi’s more open attitude. The Middle East’s largest country will be showcasing its 10-year plan, Saudi Vision 2030, which includes diversifying the economy away from oil and providing more opportunities for women.