By James Ogul
A major, six-month, BIE-registered world exposition is set to open in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on October 20, 2020 and the United States may not be there. More than $7 billion is being invested in Expo 2020 Dubai, the first world’s fair hosted in the Middle East. To date, nearly 200 countries have signed up to participate, each participant making a commitment at the federal level to exhibit in the form of a national pavilion, with per-pavilion investment ranging as high as China’s $100 million.
Many of these pavilions are already under construction and their designs have been shared with the press and public. For its part, the US needs $60 million to participate and doesn’t currently have the funds.
Unlike many other countries, the US has policy in place that mandates paying for its world pavilions though contributions from corporations and states rather than use Federal money. A two-year fundraising effort intended to raise money for participation in Dubai 2020 has failed and as a result, the State Department has asked Congress to step in with an appropriation.
The State Department saw fundraising problems on the horizon as early as this past summer and has been lobbying Congress to revise the funding model from private sector to one that allows Federal funding for US participation in world’s fairs.
USA Pavilion, Expo 2015 Milano
The Dubai 2020 expo has a high profile and the issues around US participation have attracted attention in the press, globally. A Dec 4, 2019 story in “Arabian Business” [a weekly business magazine published in Dubai, www.arabianbusiness.com] reported that a State Department Official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the department has “extensively” engaged Congress since the summer in a bid to change the funding model for US participation in events such as Expo 2020 Dubai. According to the report, the official said, “These briefings have occurred at all levels, and have included congressional staff and members from the authorizing and appropriating committees and involved the Department’s most senior leadership.” The anonymous official further indicated that the department considers a US presence at the Expo as “‘vital’ to American diplomatic and national security interests.”
In a bid to shift the US expo pavilion funding model, a bill, H.R. 4842, was introduced on Oct 29, 2019 to allow Federal money to be spent for Dubai but after quick passage by the House of Representatives on voice vote it was sent to the Senate, where as of this writing it continues to languish and has not been brought to a vote.
According to a recent report by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Nov 8, 2019 letter to Representative Nita Lowery, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, “There is simply too much at stake for the United States to fail to participate in Expo 2020. In the absence of the United States, global rivals would tell our story for us, ultimately damaging our reputation, disappointing our allies, and emboldening our adversaries.”
On Nov 26, 2019, Arabian Business quoted Danny Sebright, the president of the Washington, DC-based US-UAE Business Council, saying that the US was “woefully late to the table” in starting work on its pavilion. Speaking at a gathering of US and UAE government officials and business leaders – which included Reem bint Ibrahim Al Hashemy, director-general of the Expo 2020 Dubai Office – Sebright communicated that a failure to secure funding would represent “failings in America’s ability to promote and deploy its soft power abroad.”
The Arabian Business report also cited remarks by newly appointed US ambassador to the UAE, John Rakolta Jr., who said, “we are up against the wire” to get the Expo pavilion up and running but also expressing confidence that Congress would ultimately pass some legislation allowing US participation to proceed.
On the appropriations front, Foreign Policy magazine (based in Washington, D.C.) reported on Dec 13, 2019, that in an Oct. 15 letter to James Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Pompeo wrote, “Unfortunately, U.S. participation in Expo 2020 is in jeopardy, because the private-sector funding model has not succeeded…Failing to participate will cede the ground to Iran, Russia and China.”
But there is Congressional resistance. Foreign Policy’s Dec 13 article also quoted Evan Hollander, spokesperson for the Democrat-led House Appropriations Committee, saying, “If Secretary Pompeo believed this pavilion was essential, he should have prioritized raising private dollars to do so – just as other administrations have done.” (Hollander’s statement does not do justice to the considerable challenges encountered in raising said funds for US participation at Astana 2017, Milan 2015, Yeosu 2012 and Shanghai 2010, as well as prior expos dating back to Seville 1992.)
The Foreign Policy article also reported that while Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, “supports the efforts of American communities to bid for the World Expo in future years, the Trump administration has completely mishandled the process of preparing for an American pavilion at next year’s event,” stating that Lowey “opposes the State Department’s last minute request to redirect funding from national security priorities to a pavilion in Dubai.”
USA Pavilion, Expo 2017 Astana
Today’s (Dec 17, 2019) article in “The National [a UAE-based media outlet, www.thenational.ae] entitled “Blame game mounts as US bid to secure public funds for Expo Stalls Again” reports that “a late attempt to secure money though an end-of-year spending bill received a hostile reception from the Democratic-led committee responsible for writing the legislation and cash was not included in the $54.7 billion package for State and Foreign Operations announced on Tuesday.” (See State Department’s press release here) The National reported that Evan van Hollander, spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee that writes funding bills said, “Secretary Pompeo’s late ask for funding for the World Expo Pavilion would have required Congress to cut funding from other important leadership priorities,” and went on to say, “While Congress has not provided funding, we strongly encourage the Trump administration to prioritize raising private dollars for the pavilion.”
US participation in Expo 2020 Dubai remains in limbo. With only 10 months remaining to opening day as of this writing, even if money is raised it will be very difficult to design and build a pavilion in time. A project of this magnitude would typically take 27 months to complete. That would include private sector fundraising, architectural design and planning, exhibit design and fabrication, building construction, exhibit installation, and development and implementation of an operations program.
Even in that restricted time frame, should the funding be acquired, a creditable pavilion can go forward. There is still a window to find a creative solution.