Visiting the United Arab Emirates after a gap of 15 years was a very worthwhile and a good learning experience, with the rapid transformation that is evident in a country that today leads the Muslim World in ideas, innovation and initiatives. The visit to the Dubai Expo was awe-inspiring, given the logistical feat and the technological marvel of this Expo. Coinciding with the Dubai Expo was also the opening last week of a unique ‘Museum of the Future’ in Dubai.
It is heartening to know that the Pakistan Pavilion at the Dubai Expo is rated amongst the top 5 of the 192 countries represented in the Expo. During my stay in Dubai, on February 27, the Pakistan Pavilion crossed the magical mark of one million visitors.
Three elements of the Pakistan Pavilion stand out: first, it is an excellent example of teamwork and homework, where creative artists like Noorjehan Bilgrami, Rashid Rana, Mazhar Javed, Jami and Nisar Malik combined their talent to coordinate with different government departments under the Ministry of Commerce’s Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP) to put up a Pavilion that brings out the best of Pakistan; second, the Pakistan Pavilion is testament to the rich history, culture and the unity in diversity of Pakistani society, and it is an exhibition about the achievements of the Pakistani people in various spheres; third, a key hallmark of the Pakistani Pavilion is inclusivity, which incorporates an excellent example of private-public partnership.
The theme, ‘Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure’, reveals graphically the amazing natural beauty of our country with unique footage done by professional photographers. Of the $28 million that has been spent on building the Pavilion, there was a $16 million generous grant from the UAE government, while $7 million were raised by private donors, especially businessmen in Karachi, and another $5 million were provided by the Government of Pakistan.
Talking to Rizwan Tariq, Project Director of the Pakistan Pavilion at the Dubai Expo, and his talented creative team led by Ms Afroz Abro, who is responsible for public relations and strategic communications, one is able to appreciate how competently and comprehensively this intricate process led to fruition, notwithstanding impediments like bureaucratic red-tape, the change of government in Islamabad in 2018 and the Coronavirus pandemic of the past two years. I was told that a Creative Review Committee was formed, which roped in Noorjahan Bilgarami as the Principal Curator, and then the vision turned to reality and architecture into art.
The facade of the Pakistan Pavilion is exclusively designed with 24,000 aluminium panels of different shades and sizes, and it stands out as a welcoming, prominently located Pavilion at the Dubai Expo, whose architects have physically divided the country’s Pavilions into 3 thematic thrusts: Opportunity, Sustainability and Mobility, under the overall theme of “Connecting Minds: Creating the Future”. Pakistan Pavilion’s theme is appropriately titled: Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure.
Rizwan Tariq said that the Pakistan Pavilion was seeking to promote two key goals through the showcasing of 21st century Pakistan: Pakistan as a destination for tourism, and Pakistan as a country of opportunity for investment, particularly in the wake of the CPEC’s success story, which has provided an enabling environment, primarily through energy and infrastructure, for outside investors to discover Pakistan as an alluring destination.
Since the Dubai Expo runs for six months, till March 31, 2022, the Pakistan Pavilion has a month dedicated to each of the 4 provinces and the 2 regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir.
Additionally, under the theme: “Pakistan: land of melodies”, top artists have been invited to perform at the Dubai Expo concerts, which have also been spectacular successes. Then, additionally, sub-themes have also been added, which are in congruence with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the United Nations for the 21st century. These themes include agriculture, climate change, urban and rural development, tolerance and inclusivity, knowledge and learning, water, travel and connectivity.
The Pakistan Pavilion opens with the first of 5 videos starting with the 7000 years old Indus Valley Civilization, a journey that takes us through different historical phases with the Mughal period aptly dubbed as the ‘Kingdom of Gardens’. It culminates with the end of the British colonial rule, and the creation of Pakistan under the dynamic leadership of the Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Nisar Malik’s breathtaking photography covers the length and breadth of Pakistan, including onsite visits and helicopter journeys, traversing the beaches of Southern Pakistan to the mountains of the North, including the confluence of the three mountain ranges, namely the Himalayas, Hindukush and the Karakoram.
There is also a fascinating documentary by Jami on the Sufi traditions of Pakistan, as well as the various religious denominations, whose presence in Pakistan enriches the diverse religious and social landscape of the country. Heritage is intertwined with culture, which includes the various festivals of different regions and religions, plus a slick documentary about industrial modernization in Pakistan. Cuisine is an important feature of the Dubai Expo: the Pakistan Pavilion has its own eatery, ‘Dhaabha’, while the best hot chocolate can be found at the Swiss Pavilion, the best coffee at the Australian Pavilion and fine waffles at Belgian Pavilion. A hole-in-the-Wall Palestinian restaurant, ‘Measham’, serves the best Middle East cuisine, with long lines waiting to order the delicious dishes at dirt-cheap prices. When the Dubai Expo opened on October 1, 2021, on the very first day, the Pakistan Pavilion drew 8000 visitors, which was the second highest tally of any country Pavilion at the Expo.
The Pakistan Pavilion was also the second to cross the 100,000 visitors mark within the first 18 days of the opening of Dubai Expo.
Rizwan Tariq terms the building of the Pakistan Pavilion and the promotion of Pakistan through this multi-faceted approach as a “labour of love”, and he lauds the success of the Pakistan Pavilion at the Dubai Expo, since this was “Pakistan’s first ever participation in a world expo”. The Minister for Commerce, Razzaq Dawood, oversaw these efforts as the Chairman of the Steering Committee. Philanthropists and stalwarts from Karachi were always there to provide generous financial support, a tribute to the trait of large-heartedness and generosity and the ‘Culture of Giving’ amongst Pakistanis.
As a result, the Pakistan Pavilion has made all Pakistani visitors proud of their country and its talented people’s achievements. The best part of the Dubai Expo is that it has showcased the true picture of Pakistan, which is not about its officialdom or the government, but more about the people of Pakistan, the girls and boys, young and old, Sufis, saints and scholars, and its rich religious diversity. The Ambassador of Pakistan, Afzal Mehmood, was there to receive the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, visited the Pavilion on February 26 and left highly impressed with the way the Pavilion had showcased present-day Pakistan.
The Pakistan Pavilion at the Dubai Expo is a good case study of how leadership, seamless coordination, fine teamwork and the creativity and dynamism of the private sector combined with the patronage of the government have successfully promoted a better image of Pakistan. While visiting the Pakistan Pavilion as well as other countries’ Pavilions, the pride of Pakistanis was evident in their country’s Pavilion, proving that Pakistan can compete with the best at any international fora.
Dubai Expo also proves that while, in certain respects, the structure of the state in Pakistan may be outmoded, bureaucratic and rigid, Pakistani society is vibrant, creative and dynamic. By offering the best at such a major international event such as the Dubai Expo, the Pakistan Pavilion brought out its creative best and tapped into its rich wealth of talent. Kudos to the architects, creators, managers and organisers of the Dubai Expo! It has made Pakistanis proud of its hidden treasures, some of which are now on display in all their glory, splendour and creativity at the Dubai Expo.