Expo 2020 Dubai: Marvels of technology and sustainability in the desert

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Belgian pavilion

The Belgian pavilion at dusk. © Nizar Bredan

On a piece of desert of more than 4 km² in Dubai – one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – dozens of pavilions rose from the ground within a few years, one even more glitzy than the last. This is the setting for the 35th World Expo, the first to be held in an Arab country. From 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022, this is an opportunity for the host country and participating countries and international organisations to showcase their talents.

Past expos have left us with a number of iconic buildings. The very first World Expo in 1851 – on the eve of the Second Industrial Revolution – created the Crystal Palace in London, which unfortunately was lost afterwards. The Eiffel Tower is a remnant of the World Expo in Paris in 1889.

Closer to home is the Atomium in Brussels, the showpiece of Expo 58, which marked Belgium's launch into modernity. Built to be demolished immediately after the Expo, it remains a national symbol to this day. Fun fact: the press conference on Belgium's participation in Expo 2020 Dubai was held in one of the spheres of the Atomium.

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Info signs about Nafi Thiam, Frank De Winne and Eddy Merckx

Info signs on Nafi Thiam and Frank De Winne at the entrance of the Belgian pavilion. In the background: Info sign about Eddy Merckx. © Nizar Bredan

Green Arch

Dubai chose 'Connecting Minds, Creating the Future' as its theme. The Expo site is divided into three districts, one for each sub-theme: opportunity (unlocking potential), mobility (creating smarter and better connections) and sustainability (living in balance with the world around us).

In the mobility district, right next to the main avenue, there is an inviting yet overwhelming structure, conceived as an ornate, wooden arch with lush greenery along its walls: the 'Green Arch'. Information boards at the entrance about Nafi Thiam and Eddy Merckx, among others, give away that this is the Belgian pavilion. Even Belgian cartoon characters feature here.

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Belgian pavilion bar

The cosy bar in the Belgian pavilion. © Nizar Bredan

In terms of street food, visitors can enjoy Belgian fries, waffles and chocolate. Inside, there is a covered Belgian restaurant with a stunning view of the Expo site, while on the roof, visitors can sit back on the beautiful roof terrace with bar and lounge.

But the pavilion is not just about the clichés. Young and old alike can visit an interactive exhibition focusing on sustainable mobility. All three Belgian regions are represented, each showcasing their own modern technologies. Finally, the business centre – with seating for 150 people – allows businesspeople to organise all kinds of events.

The elegant building was constructed by the Belgian company BESIX, together with architect firms Assar and Vincent Callebaut. BESIX has been active in Dubai since 1965 and has played a major role in transforming a sparsely populated corner of the Arabian Peninsula into the futuristic looking place it is today.

No less than 92 Belgian companies contributed to the realisation of the Green Arch, including souvenir sellers and chocolatiers. After all, being an 'official supplier of the Belgium Pavilion' immediately gives you a competitive edge.

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Belgium always participates

Since 1995, the World Expo has only been held every five years. And not without reason: a country's participation requires years of preparation. The Belgian Government decided back in 2016 – right after the previous Expo in Milan in 2015 – that our country would attend again in Expo 2020 Dubai.

The practical implementation of our participation is handled by the federal body BelExpo, which operates under the responsibility of the federal minister for the economy, Pierre-Yves Dermagne. FPS Foreign Affairs also participates in the numerous preparatory meetings – with the regions and so on. Our local embassy in the capital Abu Dhabi offers the services of its network and is responsible for welcoming Belgian ministers during the Expo.

Over the last 170 years of world expos, Belgium has always taken part. After all, a world expo is the ideal setting to showcase the country to the whole world. In the case of Expo 2020 Dubai, Belgium can raise its profile among tourists, particularly from the Gulf region, Asia, and Africa, thanks to its remarkable pavilion.

A world expo also offers a unique opportunity for Belgian dignitaries to meet many world leaders on site. But above all, a world expo is a business event, and the numerous Belgian companies that travel to Dubai to establish contacts attest to this.

Since trade relations are first and foremost organised by the regions individually, Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia-themed weeks are being organised in the Belgium pavilion especially for businesspeople, in addition to various trade missions. The event also includes a Belgium National Day (5 February 2022).

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Belgian cartoonists

Belgian cartoon characters guide the visitor through the world of sustainable mobility. © Nizar Bredan

An ambitious country with so much potential

Dubai itself – and by extension the UAE – is also a place of particular interest for Belgian companies. After all, the country has enormous potential. As it is seeking to rid itself of dependence on oil – which still accounts for 30% of its wealth today – it is working hard to find ways of diversifying its economy. And Belgian businesspeople are pleased to get their share of the interest.

Dubai is a city that dreams big: it aims to become 'the world's best city to live and work' by 2040. And the UAE wants to become the best country in the world by 2071, which will mark 100 years since its formation. To this end, the country is looking beyond tourism, futuristic real estate, and international trade. Society in 2071 must be built on happiness and well-being, excellent education and health care, and a diversified knowledge economy with plenty of scope for scientific and technological development. Dubai itself wants highly accessible public transport and lots of green spaces.

Belgian companies have a great deal to offer in all these areas: major port and infrastructure works, renewable energy, food, space travel, health, and all kinds of high tech are just a few examples.

Belgium's participation in Expo 2020 Dubai is therefore more than worthwhile. As the event is taking place one year later than planned due to the coronavirus pandemic, it coincides with 50 years of diplomatic relations between Belgium and the UAE (see box). For our embassy in Abu Dhabi and the FPS Foreign Affairs, this offers an extra opportunity to strengthen relations with the country.

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Solar panels on roof of Belgian pavilion

Thanks to the solar panels on the roof, the Belgian pavilion produces more energy than it consumes. © Nizar Bredan

Dismantling and rebuilding

Sustainability must not just be a meaningless buzzword. With this in mind, Dubai wants to recover the Expo site and use at least 80% of the buildings for a science centre. The Belgium pavilion not only produces more energy than it consumes, it can also be completely dismantled, enabling it to be rebuilt identically in another place. BESIX has already done this with the Belgium pavilion from Expo 2015 in Milan, which was given a new home in the citadel in Namur. What exactly will happen to the current pavilion is not yet known.

In short, world expos are places to be seen in. They offer a unique opportunity for countries to put their best foot forward when it comes to technology and innovation, and to make business contacts. Belgium has an excellent track record already: our pavilion has been consistently ranked among the top 10 most beautiful outcomes of Expo 2020 Dubai. The Green Arch passes the sustainability test with flying colours too.

50 years of diplomatic relations with the UAE

On 2 December 1971, six – later seven - emirates in the Arabian Peninsula joined together to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their goal was to be a stronger presence on the international stage after the end of the British protectorate. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the most well-known emirates internationally.

Our country recognised the UAE as early as 8 December 1971 – barely six days after independence. Since then, we have maintained very good relations and the UAE is our main trading partner in the Arab world. In 2020, our country exported goods worth 2.5 billion euros to the UAE, mainly diamonds, chemical products, and machinery and equipment. We also have close relationships in the services sector.

What is more, the UAE is home to the largest Belgian community in the Gulf region, with over 3,600 registered Belgian nationals. Companies such as BESIX, which has been active in the country since 1965, and the dredgers De Nul and Deme, have played a significant role in transforming a sparsely populated corner of the Arabian Peninsula into the futuristic looking place it is today. Belgium also cooperates in relation to space travel and healthcare.

The 50th anniversary of our diplomatic relations and Expo 2020 Dubai are an opportunity for our country to strengthen ties and raise the profile of our relations. Various events in this context will be organised by the embassy or with the support of the embassy from November onwards.

It is also important to mention that the UAE is a diplomatic ally in a number of areas. For example, the UAE plays a very active role in the fight against terrorism and extremism. The UAE is also leading the way in the Gulf in tackling climate change. What is more, the country is of particular logistical importance, not only for international humanitarian organisations, but also for pharmaceutical companies based in Belgium. The UAE recently provided great support in the evacuation of Belgians and other eligible persons from Kabul.

The exchange of knowledge and expertise is at the heart of our relationships. Our country will continue to work on strengthening our bilateral relations and our joint efforts to promote a stable world order and multilateralism.

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Logo 50 jaar diplomatieke relaties tussen België en de Verenigde Arabische Emiraten