Expo 2020 Dubai: Hits and Misses

For a tourist, who is not a jet setting merchant or businessman, an Expo is a mix of Disneyland and the Olympics – both of which I love. Despite my enthusiasm for both, xpoO in Dubai was my first and, overall, it was a great experience – especially given the Emirati penchant for pomp.

Although Dubai’s contribution to the world of invention and collective imagination pales compared to the grand World Expo’s of yore which gave us things from the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel tower to the use of Tesla’s AC, as well as the telephone and the zipper, it still provides an insight into how different countries see themselves now and the future. Despite the fact that it heavily leans into the corporate pablum concepts like sustainability, mobility and opportunity. Probably the most significant single exhibit at the Expo is the Space X rocket (at the US pavilion), but there are also many nice electric cars (Croatia, China), and – architecturally – quite a few impressive feats: the UAE, South Korea, Switzerland, Pakistan and Austria stood out in terms of individual pavilions, while the overall site looks plausibly what a city of the future could look like – with a beautiful huge Al Wasl (“connection”) plaza and the huge waterfall-like water feature.

Although politics and great power rivalry often played a role in pavilion design and contents, Dubai’s Expo had little of that, with a generally kumbaya vision of a world of sustainable, mobile, and innovative (that is to say, culturally almost homogenous) countries. The only piece of controversy was the fact that Serbian and Kosovo pavilion used the same motif for their stamps/logos (a Vinča statue) na Putin merch inside the Russian pavilion.

Serbian pavilion turned out better than I expected, but still did not really succeed in conveying what is interesting and cool about Serbia, settling on stiff compliance to the pablumy themes of mobility, sustainability etc. Design by Serbo-Czech A3 Architects is good, the visuals by Pokretači alum Lazar Bodroža are compelling and it is good to see products by Sofi cosmetics and some good Serbian designers being sold. The merchandise could have been more aimed at the luxury and food loving host country and display our luxurious wooden furniture and boats to great produce like honey, raspberries and ajvar). The content is ok: it aims to depict Serbia as a country of innovators and artists, but sadly does not leverage vernacular art (from old churches to turbo-folk) to tell a more red-blooded story.

Next time, I hope to see Serbia less embarrassed of its real culture and diversity – Pakistan, Switzerland, Peru and Angola did this amazingly. Indeed, a good pavilion should tell a story, much like churches and ancient temples were. 

From the outside, it should both inspire awe but also be inviting, implying to the audience that within its walls there is something valuable hiding. The entrance (like in the case of Peru, UAE and Switzerland) should make you cut ties with the outside world and induct the entrant into the mystery ahead. The procession around it should have an intro, and a progression, building towards the climax of an inner sanctum – and then allowing for inner emotional and intellectual resolution within the visitor, as the impressions settle. The exit should also not be an afterthought but allow the visitor to relax and mull what they have seen and go heard refreshed.

If this is unachievable, a pavilion should be like a home: where people enter and relax, and maybe are impressed with the luxury. It should feel safe and be allowed to get on with their business, maybe browsing around. Otherwise, if it does not go for one of these two option, it is awkward, jumbled (India, Iran in this case) or straight up painfully boring (Colombia, Slovenia).

In terms of tips: the restaurants and the merch tend to be overpriced. If you are there with anyone who is over-60 (ideally over 65) make use of the free queue-jump (Smart Pass).

Here is the list of my favourite pavilions as well as the ones to miss (I also did a Twitter thread on the various pavilions as I was there)

  • South Korea
  • Pakistan
  • Peru
  • UAE
  • US
  • Switzerland
  • Angola
  • Russia
  • Italy
  • Mobility pavilion
  • Thailand

Wish I could have seen (long queue and long day):

  • Japan
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Hungary

Nice to look from the outside (no need to enter):

  • UK
  • Austria
  • China

Good effort:

  • Serbia
  • Montenegro
  • Croatia
  • Finland


  • Slovenia
  • Denmark
  • Oman
  • Colombia
  • India
  • Northern Macedonia
  • France

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