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From traditional to abstract, Arab pavilions at Expo 2020 Dubai capture the imagination

DUBAI: Universal exhibitions have a long and illustrious past, especially for their enduring contributions to urban horizons and architectural world premieres. The Eiffel Tower and the Chicago Ferris Wheel are two of the most recognizable examples.

Despite these permanent contributions, the exhibits have been mostly temporary events, with elaborate pavilions representing countries from all over the world for a limited time, only to be unceremoniously removed at the end of the term.

Chicago built an entire temporary city in grand neoclassical style for its exhibition in 1893. The famous White City eventually provided planners with a plan for future growth – however, the buildings themselves have not been preserved.

This has been a common narrative of the World’s Fairs, with pavilion structures unused or subsequently destroyed.

This is not the case in Dubai. The Expo 2020 organizing committee designed the site to include a dedicated pavilion for each nation, in addition to other participating organizations, which are expected to stay long after the event ends.

Its innovative concept has given rise to more than 200 pavilions on a site twice the size of Monaco, the sovereign city of the Côte d’Azur.

The site is divided into three “thematic districts” which reflect the sub-themes of the event: sustainability, mobility and opportunity.


Some of the pavilions have been designed and built by participating countries, showcasing their own national architecture and designs, while others occupy standardized buildings assembled by the host.

Many Arab countries have built their own pavilions and invested considerable resources and efforts in their development (with the help of the United Arab Emirates in some cases).

All the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – as well as Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt, among others – have self-built pavilions.

Many of them are in the Opportunity District, with prime locations close to the UAE and Saudi Arabia pavilions.

As this is the first exhibition organized by a country in the Middle East, the Arab States have made every effort to leave their mark on the event.

The site’s architecture incorporates many elements of traditional Arabic design, but the overall impression may not be as visually cohesive as the White City of Chicago would have been.


Each country participating in Expo 2020 Dubai had the freedom to bring their own unique design, with regional touches such as trellises, courtyards and shade structures applied throughout.

The result is a selection of powerfully individual pavilions designed to capture the interest of visitors.

Arab pavilion designs and their associated architecture can be broadly defined as falling into two camps: traditional but innovative, with an emphasis on history and culture; and the expressive and the inventive, with an emphasis on the abstract and the experimental.

The flag of Algeria, on the model of the Casbah (citadel) of its capital Algiers, is part of the first category.

A nod to the host city, Algiers’ iconic palette of blue and white has been swapped for desert hues.

The design of the pavilion refers to the traditional Algerian style, with an interior courtyard and design elements to maximize air circulation.

While the pavilion’s interior courtyard provides a quiet and protected space, the facade is significantly stylized with designs resembling traditional Berber tattoos.


The Kuwait Pavilion, an eye-catching gold structure in the Sustainability District, also occupies the traditional yet innovative camp, constituting the contribution to the Gulf Kingdom’s most ambitious exhibition to date.

The design evokes desert ecology, with videos of camels and rolling sand dunes displayed on large external screens.

Textured gold exterior panels form a modern take on its desert terrain. In the center of the pavilion is a reproduction of a local water tower, used for the conservation of natural resources.

Another of the traditionalists is Morocco, which was inspired for its pavilion by its picturesque earthen villages.

34 meters high, spread over seven floors, it is one of the tallest buildings in the exhibition.

The facade was constructed using adobe construction methods, common in Morocco and inherently sustainable as the thick earth walls keep the cool air inside.

United Arab Emirates

The rooms are arranged around a central courtyard, decorated with hanging gardens and other tributes to Moroccan regions and ecosystems.

Oman also pays homage to its traditional roots with an emphasis on the ancient frankincense tree, which originated in Dhofar Governorate.

The exterior resembles the tree, with rich curved incense beams that took two to three years to create especially for the exhibition.

Oman also offers one of the most creative experiences for visitors, with an incense-scented disinfectant mist at the entrance and a photo zone where the floor panels emit sudden jets of lightly scented mist, so that the surprise of visitors is captured by the camera.

The Bahrain pavilion is among the most striking and experimental in the exhibition. Designed by Christian Kerez Zurich AG, the pavilion appears from the outside as a windowless metal box bristling with long metal rods, with no discernible entry or exit.

Instead, visitors are directed to a long ramp that takes them deeper and deeper underground, where the air becomes cooler and the sounds of the surface world fade away.


The descent is described by the architect as “a transition between the exterior and interior worlds of the pavilion”.

When visitors enter the pavilion itself, they are greeted by a cavernous ceiling and bright light.

The metal rods visible on the outside turn out to be part of a forest of floor-to-ceiling columns.

The pavilion design is intended to explore the concept of density, both with reference to the increasing urban density around the world and as a nod to the densely woven fabrics of Bahraini artisans.

Another nation whose pavilion design has pushed the boundaries is Saudi Arabia – the second largest in the exhibit after the United Arab Emirates and an obvious crowd favorite.

The structure is a ramp sloping towards the sky, implying the ambition of the Kingdom but also acting as a window.

The underside of the ramp, which faces visitors as they enter the pavilion, features the world’s largest LED display, depicting Saudi Arabia’s spectacular natural landscapes, giving visitors a glimpse of parts of the Kingdom that the most have never seen it before.

The pavilion was awarded a Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certificate in recognition of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to using sustainable building materials and recycling waste during the construction process.

In a marked change from past exhibitions, country pavilions will remain a permanent feature of the Dubai landscape.

Some pavilions will be reassigned to house an Expo 2020 Dubai museum, while others will remain linked to their country of origin as places of cultural exchange.


In 2010, the United Arab Emirates became the first country to move its pavilion to its soil after the Shanghai Expo (in the form of 24,000 individual steel pieces). In 2015, the United Arab Emirates also repatriated its flag from Milan.

Today, the country continues this tradition of sustainable reuse on a much larger scale. In the legacy period after the event, the site will evolve into a residential and commercial community named District 2020, retaining approximately 80 percent of its existing buildings.

In the meantime, millions of visitors to Expo 2020 Dubai are exposed to a global environment awash with new ideas, cultural experiences and entertainment. The great variety of architecture is a source of admiration and inspiration.

And thanks to the foresight of its organizers, the exhibition will not disappear after its six months have passed, but will live on as a sustainable community for decades to come.

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