Saudi Arabia’s success in winning the vote to host Expo 2030 in Riyadh — with 119 votes out of 165 from the Bureau International des Expositions — is a remarkable achievement. It will not only have economic and tourism benefits, but also cultural significance. This victory reflects the rapid changes happening in Saudi society and promotes greater awareness. This awareness will help Saudis become more accepting of visitors from different cultures and religions, without perceiving it as a clash of civilizations. These changes will have a positive impact on both individuals and society, allowing for the development of a new narrative in which Saudi identity is seen as open and flexible, rather than closed and rigid.
Saudi society is now more confident in sharing its ideas and history with others. It is proud to be at the forefront of reform, development and building a modern civil state. The strong emotions that spread on social media and the expressions of joy in Saudi cities after winning the hosting of Expo 2030 are proof of the Saudi people’s “national confidence.” They are not afraid to express their views about the future to the world, without feeling like their opinions are third-world nonsense.
Saudi Arabia is currently one of the top-20 most powerful economies globally. It is a significant energy source and plays a crucial role in stabilizing oil prices. The country attracts billions of dollars for various development, economic and industrial projects. When visiting the capital, Riyadh, or witnessing the ongoing projects in NEOM, the Red Sea, Qiddiya, AlUla, Jazan, Madinah and Makkah’s holy sites, Jeddah, Abha, Alkhobar and other cities, one can observe that these endeavors are not just short-term improvements or temporary projects to gain attention. Rather, they are part of a long-term transformation set by Saudi Vision 2030. This vision aims to bring about economic, social, administrative, cultural and religious reforms, which require patience and a fresh perspective on the role of religion in life.
Saudi society suffered for decades from two dominant religious trends: extremist Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood. These trends, along with other affiliated or rival movements, share a narrow interpretation of religion, reject modernity and advocate for a radical vision that segregates women and men and prohibits music, cinema and theater. As a result, the enjoyment of life was diminished, leading some Saudi youth to become involved in supporting terrorist groups or propagating their ideologies.
Saudi society is now more confident in sharing its ideas and history with others. It is proud to be at the forefront of reform.
The Saudi government has implemented strong actions to control the spread of extremist ideas and stop the use of mosques or public spaces for promoting extremism and hate speech. This caused extremists to back down, especially because those who encouraged violence were legally punished and received prison sentences.
As a result, religious reforms have led to increased personal freedoms and reduced influence from religious leaders. This progress has enabled Saudi Arabia to successfully host significant sporting events like the FIFA Club World Cup 2023, Formula One Grands Prix at Jeddah, the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, the 2034 FIFA World Cup and more. These events go beyond mere sport and have a significant impact on society and culture, shaping people’s behavior and thinking patterns.
The logo of Expo 2030 in Riyadh features six palm fronds, each representing a different aspect: heritage, science, technology, nature, architecture and the arts. The fronds were designed with various colors and shapes.
Palm fronds are a common sight in different parts of Saudi Arabia. In the past, before the oil industry took off, palm trees played a vital role in the local economy. People would consume their dates and the fronds and fibers were utilized to construct houses and create various supplies. These trees were also seen as a symbol of resilience in the scorching desert heat, endurance during strong, dusty winds and a significant food source that was often enjoyed with milk, yogurt or ghee.
The palm tree symbolizes both attachment to the land and pride in the local environment. Saudi Arabia, while striving for modernization and civilization, maintains a strong connection to its ancestral values.
The different colors of the palm leaves symbolize the diversity of this country’s cultures, dialects, sects, social customs and cuisine, despite having a common root. This diversity is now a source of strength and wealth, rather than a cause of division or conflict, as it was once promoted by extremists.
Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan and the Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to UNESCO Princess Haifa Al-Mogrin were part of the Saudi delegation that worked on the Expo 2030 file. Their presence during the final announcement was due to their direct involvement in the cultural aspect of the event. Culture is a crucial factor in the process of reform and change and, without cultural enlightenment, sustainable economic growth and administrative development in state institutions cannot be accomplished.
Prince Badr emphasized that Expo 2030 in Riyadh will serve as a significant global platform to share the authentic culture and astonishing diversity of Saudi Arabia across various cultural sectors. Princess Haifa shared the same vision, stating: “The world will come to us and will learn about the culture of the Kingdom, its people and its youth, and will be a partner with Riyadh in advancing the wheel of development. It will be a benefit for everyone.”
This highlights the significance of culture as a fundamental aspect of the exhibition, as the Saudi government recognizes the significance of cultural exchange in facilitating communication with different peoples and nations, and as a component of soft power that traditional power cannot achieve.
• Hassan Al-Mustafa is a Saudi writer and researcher interested in Islamic movements, the development of religious discourse and the relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran. Twitter: @Halmustafa