Dubai Expo presents a glitzy facade of 192 nations in total harmony. The strife from back home lurks just under the surface

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A record 192 countries are represented at this year’s postponed expo – up from 139 at the last World Expo in Milan – among them, arguably, the world’s most poverty-stricken, war-torn and unstable.

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Aided by funding from the Emirati government, they are all using Expo 2020 to project a spectacular image that may attract investment or tourists, but the struggle from home remains just beneath the surface.

Away from the main walkway, the modest Myanmar Pavilion is filled with photographs, clothing and cultural items native to the South Asian nation – in an effort to represent the regional and religious diversity of the majority Buddhist country.


The pavilion’s deputy director, Levi Sap Ni Thang, says she was appointed by the previous democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi government. In February, “deputy” was added to Thang’s title after Myanmar’s military took control of the country, arrested Suu Kyi and cracked down on nationwide protests. Technically now he is also in charge of the pavilion.

Thang herself is a perfume entrepreneur and a household name in Myanmar for her philanthropic work. he also has headlines in the United States Most recently on the purchase of oil and gas leases.

Back in Dubai, Thang told Granthshala that she has been planning an expo exhibition for years, aimed at boosting trade and attracting visitors to Myanmar, but acknowledged that “it may not be a good time now” [for tourists]”

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The expo runs until March 2022 and Thang says he hopes that at some point Myanmar’s military will “send a new team” to take over the pavilion as they have taken over the country. She said she recently declined a call with a minister to discuss control of the pavilion. However, if she is pushed out, Thang said that she would not stick around.

“I do this for my people, not any political party,” she told Granthshala. Myanmar’s military government did not respond to requests for comment from Granthshala.

The Afghanistan pavilion was sitting empty at the beginning of the expo, but has now opened.

Myanmar’s pavilion is not the only one to be implicated in a government coup. The Afghanistan pavilion remained empty for several days at the start of the Expo on 1 October, when the Taliban took over the country, leaving a void in its management. Now, Mohamed Omar Rahimi, an Afghan antiquities collector from Austria, has opened the pavilion after being called off by expo organizers and battling customs delays.

Rahimi told Granthshala that he represents neither the previous government nor the Taliban, and has worked for the Afghan people. In fact, there is no sign of Afghanistan’s tumultuousness in its display of colorful traditional clothing, ornate antique jewelry and elegant brassware, including mortars and pestles from the 12th century.

Rahimi takes great pains to make it clear that she is nonpartisan — in fact, she says she has curated objects for the Afghan Pavilion in more than a dozen exposés on behalf of several regimes since the 1970s — And said that he only wants peace for his country, no matter who is in charge. Rahimi said his goal was to showcase Afghanistan’s rich cultural history, and to promote investment and buyers for the country’s exports, such as saffron, which is on sale in small vials in the pavilion.

“Any regime comes to Afghanistan, then five years, four years later, the next regime comes. For me, my people are important,” he told Granthshala.

Many of the country’s pavilions at Expo 2020 are funded by the Emirati government, although organizers declined to elaborate on cost-sharing arrangements. Private sponsorship is also a major source of funding, but individual governments are ultimately put in charge.

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At the Syrian Pavilion, there is no doubt that President Bashar al-Assad, accused of using chemical weapons on his own people, is in control. His portrait hangs among 1,500 Syrian-made wooden paintings, which collectively represent the country’s national unity – despite it being torn apart by a decade of civil war. The historical timeline of Syria makes no mention of that conflict.

According to designer and director Khalid Alshama, the pavilion was financed by the Emirati government and Syrian businessmen. Syria’s economy minister, Mohammed al-Khalil, was there to open the pavilion and Alshama is encouraging tourists to return to the country.

“It’s completely safe,” Alshama insisted. “Now, we’re trying to build our economy back. The war is over in 99% [of Syria]Airstrikes and terrorist attacks are still frequent in the country, and civilian casualties are common.

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his wife feature prominently at the center of the country's pavilion.

Similarly, the Yemeni Pavilion displays a 330-year-old manuscript, and some of the rarest swords from the Gulf – but makes no mention of the brutal war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen over the past seven years.

Perhaps the strangest paradox is the Lebanese Pavilion. A striking solid gray structure with minimal black sculptures outside the standing guard, the presentation bears no resemblance to the country’s current economic situation. Lebanon is still recovering from the Beirut port explosion that killed hundreds and injured thousands – as well as a worsening economic crisis that has eroded the value of the Lebanese pound, and with it, the life savings of ordinary people. According to a recent United Nations report, severe food, fuel and medicine shortages have helped push nearly three-quarters of the population into poverty.

Nevertheless, inside the pavilion, visitors are greeted by an immersive video experience that could easily double as an advertisement from the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, highlighting the country’s natural beauty with beautiful aerial views.

The Lebanon Pavilion is a decidedly non-political entity, says its director.

“The news will cover the unincorporated version of Lebanon,” explained pavilion director Nathalie Habchi Harfouche. Harfouche does not work for the Lebanese state. When the country’s dysfunctional government, plagued by allegations of corruption, abandoned plans to operate the pavilion in 2019, a coalition of private sponsors led by the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and expatriates in Dubai stepped in to salvage the project, organizers said. Said – Aided by funding from the United Arab Emirates. The logo of Lebanon’s Ministry of Economy adorns the wall, but Harfouche said that technically the pavilions are not needed more than anything since they are supported by the government.

“We’re not taking water for the government, we’re not doing their job, we’re doing it for the people. If they’re not willing to do it, we will. If it means our existence, then so be it.” Yes. We want to survive and we’re going to survive as people,” she told Granthshala.

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Behind the gift shop, filled with soap and jewelry, is a charming bar with a curated selection of Lebanese wines. Harfouche said the pavilion’s exhibits will evolve and change over the next six months – including content that “reflects reality, but still in an artistic way.” Still, he has no plans to openly politicize the pavilion.

“why would I do that?” He asked. “I don’t want to think about the government. It is an apolitical entity here.”

Harfouche said his goal is to encourage tourism and badly needed investment to help rebuild Lebanon’s battered economy, and ultimately help its people.

“It would have been easier not to be here, but it would have been a complete waste of opportunity for people, not for anyone else,” he said.

Expo 2020 has spent a huge amount of money to ensure that as many countries as possible are represented here. Spokesman Schonde McGatchin declined to go into cost details, but told Granthshala that: “It [financial support] Provides each country to tell its own story about its culture and heritage and its focus for the future.”

Each nation represented here is presenting a narrative of sorts, but many of them are far from the complete story.


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