The pavilion aims to “connect minds” and create space for a "better future for all humanity."
The long-awaited Dubai Expo has been in full swing since October 2021, welcoming millions of visitors to a newly-built complex on the edge of the city where dozens of countries are displaying their cultures and histories within unique, innovative pavilions. The total cost of the affair is said to be around $7 billion.
For some of the most sought-after pavilions, like that of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) itself, Saudi Arabia, and India, Expo-goers queue for hours, in temperatures higher than 30C, to experience what the countries have to offer.
And countries aren’t just offering a brochure and some local candies. For example, in the Netherlands pavilion, the Dutch showcase their cutting-edge green technology by having solar-powered rain fall from the building structure in a process designed to illustrate how water can be conserved in a desert climate.
In the Switzerland pavilion, guests walk through fog for an experience that mirrors a hike through the Swiss Alps. After walking through the Japanese pavilion, visitors can enjoy sushi off a traditional conveyer belt, the taste of which would bring even a Nobu chef to tears.
The pavilions range in size too. Some are huge and carefully designed with massive investments from the respective nation. Nearly all of them have some wait time. The smaller ones, built like a small strip mall of countries, are in-and-out experiences.
The one outlier, it seems, is Israel.
Standing not far from the 1,200m² State of Palestine pavilion—the verbiage of which is glaringly intentional—the Israeli pavilion is composed of an open concept structure that “reflects the region’s spirit of openness with an architectural design that features no walls or borders,” according to the pavilion’s website. Knafo Kilmore architects, who designed the structure, say they drew their inspiration from sand dunes, a common sight across the UAE and Israel.
It’s one of the few pavilions where passersby can be inside without actually having to go inside, which appears as more of a methodological decision than a coincidence, given the public’s mixed reaction to such an overt display of Israeli presence. The Expo is set to attract over 25 million visitors, and with 191 countries participating over six months, it's the largest event Israel has ever participated in within the Arab world.
Beneath the open area, an actor speaks from a screen about Israeli technology, diversity, and demographics as guests wait to be allowed into a standing theatre. The facts the actor offers and the subsequent quiz would be the only semi-real element of learning offered by the pavilion. However, it is clear that the presentation is more about painting a narrative than celebrating the nation.
When the doors open into the theatre, Israeli presenter Lucy Ayoub appears on a 360-degree screen. She introduces herself as an Israeli with a Jewish mother and Arab father, and says she herself had trouble “finding the right tone.” She encourages visitors to instead focus on “following the beat.”
She speaks a bit of Arabic, and there’s dancing, some panoramas of Israel, and bizarre metaphors that come across as a vague allude to politics for people who are aware of Israel’s stacking human rights violations but are a hodgepodge of words to people who aren’t. There was definitely no mention of occupation, but any mention of culture, history, or substantive understanding of Israel was absent.
Most of the crowd, around 25 people, appeared to be European, apart from a smattering of locals and a group of clapping Israelis. Of the 15 million people Israel expects will visit the pavilion, it is not known how many have shown up so far. But if that particular Friday was any indication, the public hasn’t warmed up to Israel in the way it had hoped.
Adam, visiting from Tel Aviv, was just excited even to have the Israeli flag displayed in the UAE.
“Nobody can deny how crazy this is. It’s like there’s no difference between Israel and the rest of the countries you see here, and, really, there isn’t. Now everyone can see we’re just like everyone else,” he said.
Simone, on holiday from London, left a bit confused.
“I get that they were saying, you know, we’re all humans, so politics shouldn’t matter. But I feel like a better way to do that would have been to explain, like, X, Y, Z, not ignore it.”
Israel’s presence at the Dubai Expo is the brainchild of the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, in which the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco normalised relations with Israel under the brokerage of the United States. The move drew criticism from Palestinians and their advocates, as it was thought to have violated Arab consensus that a resolution for Palestine was a prerequisite to any ties with the Jewish state.
The UAE Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri said last year that he believes the newfound relations with Israel, which have already led to over 60 Memorandums of Understanding between the two nations, will generate “over a trillion dollars of economic activity over the next decade."
However, it wasn’t the peace treaties themselves, nor the economic ties, that set the Abraham Accords apart. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively, and have both enjoyed millions in bilateral trade, tourism, and other economic agreements.
Yet, according to Makram Rabah, a history lecturer at the American University of Beirut, cultural normalisation came after the fact and “wasn’t the top priority.” After all, both Egypt and Jordan host millions of Palestinian refugees, who were either violently expelled from Palestine themselves, or are the children or grandchildren of those who were.
This differs from the Abraham Accords, where cultural normalisation was at the forefront of the deal.
“When it comes to the Gulf, the Gulf made sure that this is a kind of deal that will be mutually beneficial in the sense that it is [an] economic, but also a security [deal]. And given the fact that the UAE, in general, has this cultural diversity and has different pavilions with the Dubai Expo, culture plays an important role that the UAE wants to project itself as a cultural hub,” says Rabah.
That’s not to say that with the signing of a pen, more than 70 years of history have been erased in the minds of Emiratis. But it’s not easy to gauge public opinion in the UAE since several rights organisations have accused the country of cracking down on activists for speaking out against normalisation in 2020.
The UAE has, however, rejected reports of human rights abuse and called one such resolution in the European Parliament "factually incorrect."
A precarious future
Suppose the Dubai Expo was meant to be a springboard for further cultural ties, to cement what has already been growing or to water what has not. In that case, it’s unclear if Lucy Ayoub’s cloaked expressions, such as “differences rhyme and opposites kiss,” had the intended effect.
"I call on all the countries in the region, including countries with which we still do not have official relations, to use Expo Dubai as a diving board into [the] cooperation that is so critical to our shared future," Tamar Zandberg, Israel’s Minister of Environmental Protection, said from the Expo in October.
She hopes that “connecting minds”—part of the Israeli pavilion’s official slogan—would allow for “a better future for all humanity.”