Dubai expo is a genius lesson of nation-branding - opinion

There is no doubt that EXPO Dubai will continue to make waves, and that the UAE will continue to reap the benefits of its well-thought-out nation-branding strategy.

 The sign of Dubai Expo 2020 is seen at the entrance of the site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates January 16, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/RULA ROUHANA )
The sign of Dubai Expo 2020 is seen at the entrance of the site in Dubai, United Arab Emirates January 16, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/RULA ROUHANA )

With the Dubai EXPO 2020 event, the United Arab Emirates has once again displayed its innovative approach to nation-branding – one that other countries can learn from.

Every four years, a different country is selected to showcase national achievements as part of world expositions. Unlike past expos, which quickly faded from collective memory, the Dubai expo is likely to continue radiating its aura well into the future.

Thanks to sophisticated targeted messaging on traditional media platforms and social media, smart design, and high visibility, EXPO 2020 has reached a wide audience, within and outside the UAE. One hundred and ninety-two pavilions were set up to highlight national achievements and narratives. 

The Dubai EXPO features quality family entertainment, leisure outings, and ample opportunities to educate about regional and global challenges. As many as 5.6 million people had visited EXPO by the end of 2021, and many more wished they could drop by.

EXPO 2020 is built as a place of learning for adults and children alike.

Jews and Muslims pose in front of a menorah at the Israeli pavilion for Expo 2020 in Dubai, last Sunday on the first night of Hanukkah. (credit: SATISH KUMAR/REUTERS)Jews and Muslims pose in front of a menorah at the Israeli pavilion for Expo 2020 in Dubai, last Sunday on the first night of Hanukkah. (credit: SATISH KUMAR/REUTERS)

Through the EXPO School Program, children can take a virtual cartoon trip around EXPO; teachers can find teaching material – and even teach the “universal language of music” thanks to the official EXPO song. Top students serve as EXPO ambassadors, contributing social media content on a regular basis.

UAE government employees were given six extra vacation days to visit the event, and entrance to EXPO was free on the UAE’s 50th National Day. EXPO is clearly the product of a highly coordinated effort by various government agencies and private organizations to create an unparalleled experience combining education, learning, culture, multiculturalism, and – as it turns out – diplomacy.

Rather unexpectedly, Dubai’s EXPO has come to function as a dynamic diplomatic platform, where decision-makers and leading thinkers regularly meet. It has become an essential stop in any official visit to the UAE, including by heads of state.

Twenty-six heads of states and presidents, including the presidents of France, Pakistan, Latvia, Turkmenistan, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and the King of the Netherlands, visited their country’s pavilion at EXPO before heading for the capital. The fact that they land at Dubai’s airport makes such a visit all the more appealing.

THIS REPRESENTS a certain shift in attention from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. When Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the main two emirates, decided to unite in 1971 and establish the UAE, the meeting took place in the middle of the desert to convey the message that no emirate would dominate the other.

Since that time, Abu Dhabi has been the place where government officials and diplomats converge, while Dubai serves as the business hub of the country – a reflection of the careful equilibrium achieved between the two most influential emirates in the UAE. EXPO 2020 has – willfully or not – afforded Dubai some appeal in the diplomatic and political arena.

As such, EXPO Dubai has become a central element of the UAE’s innovative nation-branding efforts. It is part and parcel of the UAE’s efforts to position itself as a central actor in the Arab world and a key global hub.

EXPO DUBAI opened in October 2021 – following a postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and is set to run until March 2022, but it will likely turn into a permanent fixture, and fulfill its out-of-the-ordinary role, in one way or another, going forward.

Its main themes – Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability – crafted around the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals, were chosen with this long-term vision in mind. They provide some insight into EXPO’s ambitions, as well as the UAE’s worldview and priorities.

Beyond the spotlight on sustainable development goals, the UN’s presence at EXPO can be felt via the countless opportunities that EXPO offers for informal diplomacy.

The UN has created a special website for the event, and UN diplomats regularly visit the various pavilions. A model UN conference (simulating real UN work and activities) will be held during the closing week of EXPO in March 2022.

Until then, the “UN Hub” – like all other pavilions – has put together impressive programming, including cultural and diplomatic events, and workshops on UN- related issues.

Clearly, the UN has seized a unique opportunity to share its message and make itself relevant. The UN’s unprecedented engagement at EXPO has amplified and strengthened the UAE’s own forward-looking and inclusive message. 

EXPO 2020 has turned the UAE into the center of the world, the place where everything is possible – where Palestine, Iran and Israel each have a pavilion within a few meters of each other, and where Qatar (a nation subject to an embargo by Saudi Arabia and the UAE until early 2021) was able to join at the last minute.

EXPO 2020 has been shaped into a tool of nation-branding. It has helped the UAE to market itself as a nation of tolerance, and one that connects people and cultures. This is how the Gulf state colored its EXPO with its unique brush. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it has also succeeded in showing the world that in-person events are not only possible – they also have an irreplaceable value.

There is no doubt that EXPO Dubai will continue to make waves, and that the UAE will continue to reap the benefits of its well-thought-out nation-branding strategy.

Dr. Daphne Richemond-Barak is a publishing expert at The Miryam Institute. She is Assistant Professor in the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, where she heads the International Program in Government.