How Dubai’s Expo 2020 shows the power of aspiration


How Dubai’s Expo 2020 shows the power of aspiration

How Dubai’s Expo 2020 shows the power of aspiration
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The great American boxer Mike Tyson offered up a pithy and eloquent understanding of world affairs when he said: “Everyone has a plan, until you get punched in the face.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a massive punch to our world. It has caused the deaths of almost 4.8 million people, cratered economies, and fractured and reordered societies. We are still picking our way through the destruction. The long-term negative effects of extended school closures, increasing isolation, and rising poverty and inequality will remain with us long after we reach optimal vaccination levels worldwide.

For the first time in more than two decades, poverty levels have risen worldwide, and the growing tide of the middle class — one of the great megatrends of our era — has faced its first serious slowdown. The numbers tell a story of accelerating inequality worldwide and fragile recoveries in the developing world.

But numbers do not tell the whole story. As the sociologist William Bruce Cameron observed: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” One of the defining features of our world over the past few decades has been the epidemic of aspiration — something difficult to count, but certainly transformative.

Everywhere you go, people are aspiring to a better life, and the track record shows that, despite all of the problems we face, it is actually possible. Today, the daughter of a Kenyan farmer or the son of an Egyptian service worker can achieve their dreams through education, migration or entrepreneurial flourish. Yes, powerful obstacles remain, but the reality of our past five decades has been a march toward rising human development, driven, in large part, by aspiration.

Aspiration is a powerful driver of international affairs, and it is also a powerful driver behind the World Expo that Dubai will host over the next six months. It is appropriate that the UAE will launch the expo this week, on the eve of its 50th anniversary as a nation. Few countries in the world have achieved so much over such a short period of time.

From the 1971 amalgamation of individual emirates, which were mostly poor and only modestly connected to global markets, the UAE has emerged as a global economic hub, a central node of east-west flows of people, goods and services, and a brilliant example of visionary leadership transforming a country.

As a small country of less than 10 million people, the UAE punches above its weight geoeconomically. 

Afshin Molavi

As a small country of less than 10 million people, the UAE punches above its weight geoeconomically. It conducts more international trade than Brazil or Indonesia, attracts more international tourists than India, accounts for nearly a third of global outward investment from West Asia, and its shipping lanes and air corridors are among the busiest in the world. Perhaps just as importantly, the UAE has emerged as a major hub for South Asia, large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa, and the broader Middle East.

World Expos have often been beacons of hope and aspiration; a place where the world’s nations come together to showcase their achievements. More formally, the Bureau International des Expositions — the Paris-based body that governs all World Expos — has described them as a “global gathering of nations dedicated to finding solutions to pressing challenges of our time… organized around a theme that attempts to improve humankind’s knowledge, takes into account human and social aspirations and highlights scientific, technological, economic and social progress.”

Bill Gates once described the 1962 Seattle Expo as a transformative moment in his life, giving him a glimpse of what is possible in the future. Since the first global exposition in London in 1851, the world’s leading innovators have either displayed their wares or drawn inspiration from others at such events. But one thing was missing until recently: Virtually all World Expos took place in the Western world, until Shanghai 2010. Historically, they have been “Western” expos.

Dubai’s Expo 2020 will be the first to take place in the Middle East and, given the UAE’s role as an emerging markets hub, it might also be seen as the first to take place within an eight-hour flight of two-thirds of the world’s population. Its theme — “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future” — seems appropriate for a city known for its connectivity.

While we will still face tremendous challenges, the Dubai expo might offer some healing tonic to a world that is increasingly fractured, isolated and wounded. What inspiration might a future Bill Gates from Lagos or Lahore, a future innovator from Mumbai or Muscat or a budding scientist from Accra or Abu Dhabi derive from Expo 2020? Surely such inspiration can’t be counted, but it certainly counts.

• Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Editor and Founder of Emerging World newsletter. Twitter: @afshinmolavi

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view