The Journey to Expo 2020 Dubai and Its Legacy

Expo 2020 Dubai set a precedent for future U.S. participation in world’s fairs, the “Olympics of public diplomacy.”


The USA Pavilion illuminated at night in Dubai, 2021.
USA Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai

On March 31, 2022, the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai celebrating “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of the Future” closed its doors. Our last visitors, a local Indian family, exited the pavilion as the U.S. Air Forces Central Band brought down the house with a rousing “God Bless the USA.” Over on the main Expo 2020 stages, Christina Aguilera, Yo-Yo Ma, and Norah Jones finished their concerts, and fireworks rounded out the night.

No fewer than 1.5 million visitors from 164 countries had visited the pavilion in six months. There were 5,440 distinguished “protocol” visitors from 109 countries. Seventy-two youth ambassadors representing 37 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico participated in telling America’s story to the world. There had been 378 performers and speakers, from all 50 states, and 175 events attended by almost 9,000 individuals. It was all put together and managed by the USA Pavilion team of more than 300 colleagues, who engaged our diverse guests in more than 30 languages.

By all accounts, U.S. participation in Expo 2020, the first world’s fair to take place in the Middle East–North Africa–South Asia (MENASA) region, was a resounding success, not least because it almost didn’t happen at all. From long-standing issues of funding and the inertia of several decades of U.S. government dithering to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the obstacles were daunting. In overcoming them, we proved that the State Department could manage this $60 million project, and that it was worth doing again in the future.

Significantly, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 President Joe Biden signed into law on Dec. 29, 2022, to fund the government enables the State Department—for the first time ever—to spend money on a U.S. pavilion at a world’s fair.

This is the story of the journey to Expo 2020 Dubai and its legacy. It is a tribute to the hundreds of colleagues who brought the pavilion to life against all odds in the midst of a global pandemic. And it is a testament to our private partners who contributed to creating a pavilion experience that the American people, regardless of political affiliation, could be proud of.

For me, it is the story of a 30-year journey from my first visit to a world’s fair in Taejon, South Korea, to serving as the deputy commissioner general at the USA Pavilion in Dubai.

A “Tent in the Desert”?

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket replica at the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.
USA Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai

Today, many are unaware what a world’s fair is, that it still exists; and even fewer have ever been to one. It is curious, too, that so few colleagues—public diplomacy or otherwise—have worked on what is arguably the world’s largest public diplomacy event. There are many reasons why this is so. Historically, the fairs were executed by a different agency that no longer exists (USIA, the U.S. Information Agency). Also, there are legal limits on domestic messaging regarding foreign policy (Smith-Mundt). Further, the public-private partnership model of the last three decades meant that few State colleagues had the opportunity to work on the project. And the last world’s fair in the United States was in 1984, nearly four decades ago, in New Orleans. But when a colleague in the regional bureau asked, “Why do you need so much money to build a tent in the desert?” the extent of our public awareness challenge became clear.

My introduction to world’s fairs was Taejon Expo 1993, a specialized exposition and one of the first held in a developing country. I joined the Foreign Service after visiting Hannover Expo 2000 as a 20-year-old intern at U.S. Consulate General Frankfurt. Seeing that empty, grassy field where the USA Pavilion should have been—due to funding challenges, the United States had missed the fair altogether—changed my life forever. I became expo-obsessed and have attended every world expo since. In college, I wrote an article for Frankfurt’s Community Liaison Office newsletter and a letter to my congressman advocating federal funding for U.S. participation in world’s fairs.

As a newly minted junior officer, I wrote to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) encouraging participation in Expo 2005 Aichi, Japan, and later to the executive secretary about Expo 2010 Shanghai. After Expo 2015 Milan, I wrote about the history of U.S. participation in world’s fairs, events that I have referred to as the “Olympics of public diplomacy” (see “World’s Fairs Today: A Visit to Milan, Lessons for Dubai,” in the October 2015 FSJ).

Since the end of the Cold War, federal law (22 U.S.C. 2452b) has limited the State Department’s ability to spend appropriated funds on a pavilion, and financing U.S. participation in expos has proved challenging. The U.S. did not participate at all in the 2000 world’s fair in Hannover, and in 2001 it withdrew from the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), the intergovernmental organization that administers and certifies six-month-long world’s fairs every five years and shorter-duration specialized international exhibitions in between. Congress viewed a U.S. pavilion as a private-sector responsibility, ignoring the public diplomacy angle and the prevailing practice of other governments that provided public financing.

With the 1999 merger of USIA into the State Department, ECA assumed responsibility for participation in world’s fairs, but without federal funding it remained a non-priority. For Expo 2015 Milan, ECA delegated authority to the regional bureau, continuing a regional bureau rotational arrangement that has hampered delivery (see Beatrice Camp’s Speaking Out, “Neglecting World’s Fairs Does Not Make Them Go Away, So Let’s Do It Right,” in the September 2016 FSJ). Following the bankruptcy of the private partners behind the USA Pavilion at Expo 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry created an internal task force to address whether and how the United States should participate in world’s fairs in the future. The task force’s recommendations included creating an International Expositions Unit and exploring federal funding.

A New Start

In January 2017, task force member Jim Core was selected to lead the new “Expo Unit” housed in the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The office set to work with Minnesota officials to bring a three-month specialized exhibition to the state in 2023. Among other things, the bipartisan Minnesota delegation worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, aided by the committee’s entrepreneurial Pearson Fellow Sean O’Neill, on legislation authorizing the United States to rejoin the BIE.

On May 8, 2017, President Donald Trump signed into law the “U.S. Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act” (P.L. 115-32). Two days later, Jim Core was dropping off the treaty re-accession documents signed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the French embassy in Washington, D.C.

On Nov. 15, 2017, the United States lost the race to Argentina for the 2023 specialized international exposition. But the United States had done better than anyone expected; six months earlier it was not even a BIE member. The experience, and lessons learned captured in a Foreign Service Institute case study on multilateral diplomacy, would form the basis for a renewed bid by Minnesota for 2027, as well as raising hopes for Expo 2020.

On Feb. 16, 2018, the Federal Register published the Department of State’s request for proposals (RFP 2018-03116) for the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. This formally kicked off our search for an implementing partner that would design, build, operate, and disassemble the pavilion—not to mention raise the funds! We knew this would be especially challenging given the Expo 2015 Milan partner’s bankruptcy and the limited number of organizations with experience in the design and building of world’s fair pavilions.

After a second organization failed to raise sufficient funds, the State Department concluded that federal support was required.

The Expo Unit worked with the U.S.-UAE Business Council on an RFP roadshow with in-person events in New York City, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Houston, San Francisco, and Palo Alto in addition to virtual webinars. Our work paid off—we received multiple qualified bids. On June 5, 2018, Acting Under Secretary Heather Nauert announced the selection of a consortium to deliver the pavilion. Unfortunately, the group was unable to raise the money, and the department severed ties.

Throughout 2019, State continued its quest for a viable partner. The Bureau of Global Public Affairs created a two-minute video extolling the importance of participation in Expo 2020, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a reception in State’s 8th floor diplomatic reception rooms. However, companies were reluctant to contribute to a pavilion without dedicated federal support. After a second organization failed to raise sufficient funds, the department concluded that federal support was required. That summer, the Department of State secured White House support to make the ask, and the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget sent Congress the first prospective request for appropriated Department of State funding for the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. Within the White House, senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner and his chief of staff John Rader advocated for the project and marshalled administration support.

As the department pursued federal funding and briefed OMB and congressional staff—my previous American Political Science Association (APSA) congressional fellowship really came in handy!—the Expo Unit made contingency plans and preparations. Expo 2020 Dubai was scheduled to open its doors in less than one year. Other countries had begun construction a year ago; and here we were, going back to the design drawing board. Department leadership leaned into the saddle and supported a series of workshops in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Dubai with the experiential design firm Thinkwell Group and architectural advisers Woods Bagot to identify a creative design and construction program that could still be achieved—if we received the federal money.

On Dec. 17, 2019, Congress released its final consolidated spending package; it did not include the anticipated Expo funding. The outlook was gloomy. The State Department released a statement: “U.S. Participation in Expo 2020 Dubai in Jeopardy.” As the then project manager, I went home for the holidays and started thinking about my next assignment.

But sometimes Christmas wishes do come true. Less than a month later, on Jan. 15, 2020, the United States announced its participation in Expo 2020 Dubai “made possible by the generosity of the Emirati government.” Our new ambassador in the UAE, John Rakolta Jr., and Senior Official for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Michelle Giuda had delivered. Now it was our turn. The team had less than nine months to produce a pavilion that would be ready on opening day, Oct. 20, 2020.

At the Nov. 18, 2020, Pavilion Handover Ceremony, from left: Marc Carlson, Counselor Ulrich Brechbühl, Jim Core, Assistant Secretary Marie Royce, Consul General Phil Frayne, Expo 2020 Director General Reem Al Hashimy, Carlos Diaz-Rosillo, Caroline Casagrande, Ambassador and Commissioner General John Rakolta Jr., Deputy Commissioner General Matthew Asada.
USA Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai

A Ticking Clock, and COVID-19

Ambassador Rakolta was the right man to have in Abu Dhabi at the right time. A builder by profession, he was used to getting it done on time and on budget. Back in Washington, Secretary Pompeo had asked State Department Counselor and then Senior Official for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs T. Ulrich Brechbühl to drive the project home. I moved to Dubai on temporary duty and was permanently assigned as the deputy commissioner general.

Through biweekly video conferences and agile project management software, Ambassador Rakolta and Counselor Brechbühl tracked the project’s accelerated timetable. In March 2020, they (Ambassador Rakolta now dual-hatted as the commissioner general) poured the pavilion’s first concrete. They engaged with and reassured the UAE business community, which had grown a bit frustrated by the “will-we-won’t-we” nature of U.S. participation. (The Consul General’s 2018 event to unveil the now-discarded design from the now-discarded first partner was still fresh in their minds.) We were all moving as fast as we could, but would we make it on time?

On March 13, 2020, COVID-19 struck. Flights between the United States and the rest of the world were halted, and the UAE went into a restrictive at-home lockdown. BIE members convened virtually and voted to postpone the global mega event by one year; Expo 2020 Dubai would now open on Oct. 1, 2021, and with the same name. We, and the rest of the world, would have to figure out how to safely construct and operate the pavilion during a global pandemic, but at least we had some extra time to figure it out.

On Nov. 19, 2020, Counselor Brechbühl returned to the UAE with an interagency delegation for a pavilion handover ceremony and celebration in front of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Although we were one of the last countries to start construction of our 40,000-square-foot building, we were one of the first to finish the shell and core. It was now time for our exhibit designers to fabricate and install the 20,000-square-foot exhibition.

During 2021, alongside exhibit fabrication and installation, our pavilion operator was hiring employees and identifying contractors to staff the pavilion and its retail, food and beverage, and event teams. My colleagues in Washington and Dubai, especially Maya Ndao-Fall, were working with our cultural partner, Global Ties USA, to select the youth ambassadors who had been nominated by local chapters as pavilion guides (see the dispatch from Caitlyn Phung, “Expo 2020 Dubai: A Youth Ambassador’s Perspective,” in the March 2022 FSJ) and the cultural acts that would perform at the USA Pavilion. Our foreign commercial and agricultural teams were busy recruiting cities, states, companies, and associations to join trade delegations to visit the UAE during the expo in the midst of a global pandemic. All of us were trying to answer the question: “Was it and would it be safe to travel?”

We brought in colleagues from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from Muscat and Riyadh, along with our regional medical officer from Abu Dhabi, to create COVID guidelines for operations and events. We recognized that we could never completely ensure visitor and staff safety, but we could mitigate risk through vaccinations and testing protocols, capacity limits, and social behavior and communications. We would continuously reassess the COVID guidelines and kept the pavilion open throughout the six-month event for visitors, only temporarily suspending indoor and outdoor representational events during the January 2022 Omicron spike.

The COVID guidelines we developed would serve as a model for the U.S. Mission to the UAE’s own representational events, as well as a benchmark for other international participants. I’m still amazed that we were able to do as much as we did, without any COVID hospitalizations or serious incidents. At a time (2021-2022) when most U.S. embassies and consulates had suspended all representational and in-person public diplomacy activities, we welcomed more than 1.5 million people to the USA Pavilion.

Youth Ambassadors with (front, from left) Pavilion Director Kevin Solon, Consul General Meghan Gregonis, Commissioner General Bob Clark, Chargé d’Affaires a.i. Sean Murphy, Deputy Commissioner General Matthew Asada; (back, from left) Jim Core, Maya Ndao-Fall, Deputy Pavilion Director Sawyer Franz, and Youth Ambassador Project Manager Shannon McNaught.
USA Pavilion Expo 2020 Dubai

From the First Guest to the Last

With the January 2021 change in administration, and Ambassador Rakolta’s departure as chief of mission and commissioner general, we waited to hear from the White House about new appointees. In August, we learned that the White House intended to appoint businessman Bob Clark as commissioner general. Like Ambassador Rakolta, Clark was a builder and, again, the right man, at the right time, for the job. Clark and his wife, Jane, arrived a week before the pavilion’s opening to participate in the series of test events that the pavilion’s director, Kevin Solon, and deputy director, Franz Sawyer, had organized. When the expo opened on Oct. 1, 2021, the USA Pavilion also opened its doors with a fully functional exhibit including food, beverage, and retail, all ready for our first guests: the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, his sons, and ministers.

Unusual for a world’s fair, Expo 2020 Dubai had a very strong business program. The UAE leaned into its location as a regional hub for trade, travel, and commerce. The organizers put together 10 theme weeks to curate cultural and commercial programming, aligning the weeks with Dubai’s regional trade shows such as Gulfood and Arab Health. Our pavilion organized an average of one business event a day, including small meetings, all-day conferences, and marquee events. My deputy, Nadia Ziyadeh, organized our speakers program (53 speakers!) and put her Arabic to good use managing the local and international media (600 published pieces across 200 outlets) and the pavilion’s almost one million digital engagements (see her May 2022 State Magazine article).

One of the pavilion highlights was U.S. national day on March 6, 2022, and the nine-person presidential delegation led by Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. Throughout the six-month event, every day one or two participating countries would celebrate its national day with a series of cultural, commercial, and political events. Accompanied by the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade and then Director General of the Foreign Commercial Service Marisa Lago, Secretary Raimondo kicked off Commerce’s premier overseas trade mission, Trade Winds, held for the first time in the Middle East, with more than 100 American companies. The University of Minnesota marching band led our national day parade through the Expo grounds, raising further public awareness about the U.S. bid to host Expo 2027, a specialized exhibition on health and wellness, in Minnesota.

We deployed every single public diplomacy tool available in our toolkit to reach new audiences and tell America’s story to millions who would never make it to the U.S. We partnered with the private sector: with Disney on memorable programming, with the PepsiCo Foundation on a new young leaders program for the region, and with SpaceX on a replica 1-1 model of the Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket replica was the tallest object of any country on the expo grounds and remains in the UAE as a legacy item.

We partnered with the Library of Congress for a loan of Thomas Jefferson’s Quran and with NASA for a touchable lunar sample and Martian meteorite sample. The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities supported cultural programming and research. We created a virtual navigable USA Pavilion visited by more than 300,000 people that is still online, and we archived our cultural speakers and performers on our website (

On the ground in the UAE, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Sean Murphy and Consul General Meghan Gregonis had mobilized the entire mission so that the pavilion was a platform for sections and agencies to achieve their goals through more than 50 U.S. government visits.

A Living Legacy

Those of us who were involved will never forget Expo 2020 Dubai, a world’s fair for the ages. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction, though, is knowing that the USA Pavilion in Dubai served as a successful proof of concept and U.S. senators, representatives, and congressional staff were able to experience it and draw their own conclusions about its importance. Congress had passed legislation not once, but twice, authorizing and then appropriating funds to be spent on a pavilion at a world’s fair. It was a watershed moment. With bipartisan congressional support, planning for the U.S. pavilion at Expo 2025 in Osaka, Japan—the next world’s fair—is now underway.

The world’s fair wasn’t a trade show, our pavilion wasn’t a tent in the desert, and the entire endeavor was worthy of federal funding to tell America’s story.

Matthew Asada is a U.S. Foreign Service officer currently assigned as the public diplomat in residence at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. His research focuses on the delivery of global mega events such as the World’s Fair, World Cup, and the Olympics. He served for five years as the project manager and then deputy commissioner general of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. He is a former AFSA State vice president. The views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.


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