The Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday won the right to host the 2030 World Expo, defeating rival bids from Italy and South Korea as well as overcoming objections from rights activists to take hold of another global mega-event.
With a pledge for an Expo “built by the world for the world”, Saudi’s bid smashed the opposition after a years-long lobbying campaign whose intensity caused some gnashing of teeth among its Italian rivals.
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The World Expo — which traces its history back to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris that saw the construction of the Eiffel Tower — is a months-long showcase event attracting millions of visitors that aims to respond to the specific challenges of the current time.
Hosting the Expo is of immense importance for Saudi Arabia whose bid has been spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, as he seeks to secure the world’s top events to showcase the kingdom across the globe.
The date of 2030 is also hugely symbolic as it coincides with the key milestone in the Vision 2030 programme of MBS to diversify Saudi Arabia economically and also culturally.
The selection of the country “underlines its influential and leading role, and the international confidence it enjoys,” the official Saudi press agency quoted the prince as saying. “Saudi Arabia has become an ideal destination for hosting major international events”.
The kingdom is set to host the 2034 football World Cup after emerging as the only bidder for the event and is already welcoming a host of motor-racing, golf and combat sports events.
Needing only one round of voting and securing the necessary two-thirds majority of member states at the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) organisers, Riyadh won 119 votes, South Korea’s Busan 29 and Italian capital Rome 17, the BIE said.
All sides sought to sprinkle some stardust, with South Korea bringing former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to back its bid and Italy Davis Cup-winning tennis star Jannik Sinner by video.
For Saudi, football star Cristiano Ronaldo who now plays for Riyadh side Al-Nassr, popped up with a video message. “Riyadh is an amazing city and ready to welcome all of you.”
‘History of rights violations’
The Riyadh Expo is set to take place from October 2030 to March 2031 on the theme “The Era of Change: Together for a Foresighted Tomorrow”.
But many rights groups had expressed dismay over Saudi Arabia winning the bid, arguing MBS’s glitzy reform drives hide a reality where dissidents are imprisoned and executions rampant.
Concern over Saudi’s rights record under MBS has always been symbolised by the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Groups including MENA Rights Group, Freedom House and Paris-based NGO Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM) last week wrote an open letter urging against choosing Riyadh “given its appalling human rights situation”.
“By providing a global platform to a regime with a history of violating basic human rights and curbing freedoms, the international community risks sending a tacit message that such actions are acceptable,” it said.
Saudi, one of the world’s top executioners, put to death 112 people between January and October this year, according to Amnesty.
French President Emmanuel Macron had already given Riyadh Paris’s backing when he held talks with the crown prince at the Elysee in July 2022, a move that caused some irritation in Italy, France’s neighbour and European Union partner.
Meanwhile the sheer ease of the Saudi victory troubled Italy’s bid chief, the diplomat Giampiero Massolo, who said the bidding was “no longer a battle of content… but a mercantilistic approach.”
“Is this the right future for the international community?” he asked, saying the size of the Saudi victory was “unexpected”.
“This overwhelming victory is not about comparing projects but voting in a transactional way.”
But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in his final presentation pledged an “unwavering commitment to collaborate with all nations to deliver an Expo built by the world for the world.”
After Riyadh’s victory was confirmed he said the Saudi team was “immensely proud” and it was an “expression of the trust the international community has in what we have to offer.”
“The architecture will be fantastic. It will be about a journey that can bring the world together,” he added.
The next World Expo is due in 2025 in Osaka, Japan, on the theme “Designing Future Society for Our Lives”.