EXPO 2020, focus on the Middle East

"Connecting minds, creating the future" is the theme chosen by the organisers of Dubai 2020 for the next world Expo. The event, the organising committee writes, “will bring global focus on one of the most transformative times for humanity; a time when our human potential is completely transformed by our physical and digital connections”.

“Connected thinking – adds sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai - is the best hope for progress and for successful and peaceful existence in the generations to come”.

But what will be the meaning for the region of the event, the first expo to be held in the Middle East? We put the question to Carlo Andrea Bollino, professor of Economics at the University of Perugia and of Energy Economics at Luiss University in Rome and visiting researcher for King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“It is very significant that they have chosen an immaterial topic: traditional world exhibitions have been about hard materials -think steel for example - and manufacturing, whereas more modern editions, like the one in Italy in 2015  - "Feeding the planet, energy for life" - have been increasingly focusing on the immaterial economy. Dubai 2020 signals their intention to be at the frontier of this non-material economy, based on technology, and with that trying at the same time to position the region between the US and China.”

Saudi Arabia will have a huge presence at the Expo, with a pavilion showcasing the country's transformation and promoting its drive to attract businesses and investments...
Saudi Arabia has been the leader of the oil world, of OPEC and of the GCC region and also the religious leader of the Sunni orthodoxy. Saudi Arabia has been observing what Abu Dhabi and Dubai have done in the past few years with the oil revenues, and they have been wanting to recuperate their leadership. The bet of their vision 2030 is to diversify the economy and make it less dependent on oil. 

Around 40 per cent of the Saudi population is below the age of 14. In ten years they will be young citizens in need of jobs, salaries...and this has to be done through new ideas. I think we Italians are in a great position to help because our economy is based on small and medium enterprises, we have this experience. 

An important target is to develop the economy with the small-medium enterprises iorder to have a new class of young entrepreneur who can engage in a diversified economy, focussed on new technologies.

Do you see an increasingly strong Italian presence in the Kingdom?
The underground in Ryad is being built by an Italian company (Impregilo), there are a lot of Italian engineers working in Saudi Arabia, including those employed in banks, in the technology sector. They are hiring a lot of Italians both at medium and high level. After all, the Saudi culture is quite close to the Mediterranean culture due to the Egyptian and Turkish influence. It is the last "Mediterranean" culture in the region. After Saudi Arabia, we have Central Asia. 

Saudi Arabia has recently listed its state oil company, Saudi Aramco. What is your take on the operation?
I would say the Saudi Aramco Ipo has been a success, thanks to the a strategy allowing local citizens to buy into it thanks to generous loans. This demand has pushed the initial price up giving a signal to the world that the value of the company was on target, close to the 2 billion dollar rather than the undervalued estimate which is what was happening following the international media coverage.

What is in your view the role of renewables in the region and particularly for Saudi Arabia?
The country has been welcoming electric vehicles, but there is still not enough electric energy. Saudis have adopted a variation of what is known as circular economy: carbon circular economy, where a product of the oil industry is recycled to reduce the impact of the industry on the environment. It is a cleverer approach since having a purely carbon free economy is a much bigger challenge. In the long run, their pragmatic approach can be implemented sooner.

We were talking about diversification, another big theme at the next Expo: we are we in the region in terms of nuclear power for energy uses?
Here too the idea is to diversify. The nuclear energy would be deployed mainly for domestic use, whereas the oil would be reserved for the rest of the world and therefore for exports. At the moment one third of the oil production is used for domestic purposes. The introduction of nuclear power energy would allow for more oil to be exported.