Dubai is a city full of hope and energy. Rapidly rising out of the desert just a few decades ago, the city is an odd sensory mix: The dulcet sounds of the Muslim calls to prayer blend with your earbuds throughout the day. The spice souks smell of frankincense and rose hips with brightly colored displays. And yet every restaurant near the Burj Khalifa reads like a designer knockoff of the Cheesecake Factory. The city is roomy with massive highways and automatic tolls designed for car traffic. On your first day you might make the mistake of trying to walk to a metro station that seems close but is in fact a sweaty distance. Trying to dodge the bright sun on narrow curbs they consider sidewalks, the concrete pillars of highways tower overhead. And yet, take a short drive out of the city and the Vegas-style fountain shows are covered in sand. Look at the skyline from the surrounding desert and the city feels very small. Our Arabic ancestors harvested dates and camel milk to build an oasis now running on the fumes of urban tourism during Covid.
Dubai brings this energy of old and new to World Expo 202(2)―the first to be held in the Middle East. Delayed a year due to Covid, January 2022 marked the event’s halfway point of the season in what feels like a never-ending dumpster fire of a pandemic. The world may be dysfunctional but the Expo is on most days calm―I would argue, a slice of comfort with perfect winter weather in an otherwise unsettling decade so far. From the entrance, the park already feels far less crowded than recent Expos. Guards check your vaccinations, PCR tests, and ticket QR codes before directing you to a TSA-level standard of security. Upon entry, guests are instructed that they will be reminded to wear their masks correctly throughout their visit. There are so many hand sanitizer dispensers, you could bathe in it. Jets soar closely overhead leaving red and green contrails for the United Arab Emirates flag. A large convention center just inside the park hosts a daily PCR testing center with free tests for workers and eligible guests. It’s massive and busy but orderly. Hungry but afraid of breathing humans? You are likely to encounter more open-air restaurants in the park than those indoor, let alone ordering takeaway to dine on Arabic calligraphy-inspired benches lining the park’s walkways.
With so few crowds compared to recent expos in Shanghai (2010) and Milan (2015), the park feels almost luxuriously quiet on weekdays―a wonderland for the introverted. Most major pavilions require smart queues via QR with very short lines compared to the multi-hour waits at prior expos. Some countries step up the protocols such as Korea’s pavilion which requires multiple rounds of photographs taken by fever-sensing video cameras. Rarely an attendee still refuses to wear a mask. With most pavilions allowing a limited number of participants at a time, these socially-distant viewings offer attendees the ability to experience pavilions to a greater depth. Play with the interactive camera projecting a river―only four other people are in the space with you. Stressed by too many people in any one room? Pavilion workers easily assist attendees on how to move through faster, encouraging flow. With more space and a moderate feeling of safety of mask enforcement, you can stroll through pavilions safer than you could at Epcot.
And yet, the force of Omicron has left many of us in an existential crisis. What are we even doing here? What does it mean to have a World Expo when we are so globally disconnected? How do we collectively experience a space when we are forcibly distanced? What does our global future hold? Who are we in a crisis?
For the most part, I would argue that Expo 202(2)―the collective we―are hopeful. In Aotearoa/New Zealand’s pavilion, spectators celebrate the newly created law that grants personhood to the Whanganui River. The country’s national narrative argues that centering Maori people and their relationships to the environment is critical for a sustainable future. That future requires you to see indigenous people and the earth as part of you.
From the Italian Pavilion’s funky boat-topped roof to the Netherlands’ umbrella projection screens, we can embrace sustainability as not only serious but silly. Luxembourg, Brazil, and Hungary’s pavilions all encourage us to just chill out. Be the adult that takes the giant two-story tunnel slide. Lounge in the water hammock. Take off your shoes and get in the ball pit representing an ancient therapeutic bathhouse. Tired of that ball pit? Campus Germany has you covered with its room filled with 100,000 ideas (balls) for a sustainable future.
Make no mistake, the expo was home to several sustainability debacles that take one step forward and three steps back.Terra, the sustainability pavilion with a solar panel roof has a gigantic carbon footprint for a building that size. With the park sponsored by PepsiCo among other corporations, several infomercial-like pavilions sponsoring Aquafina and Lays are out of place and advertise more than engage. Covid undoubtedly altered the design and management of pavilions like Spain’s with an entire wing left empty. Sometimes the social distancing is palpable to an extent that the expo can feel lonely with video screens as teachers and the constant reminder to not stand near anyone. Ever.
Right near the exit, the UK pavilion reminds us that in a world filled with loneliness and confusion, we think beautifully together. As an enactment of Stephen Hawking’s legacy, the pavilion uses artificial intelligence to work with attendees to create poetry that will be projected into space. Couplets about the moon, love, and darkness flash on and off the screens that make the exterior facade of the pavilion. As we have learned these past two years through Zoom, even sharing a screen can make the world a much smaller place. What word did I choose to send into space as a future interstellar poem? Hopeful.