The race is hotting up to be host to the next World Expo 2030. Four countries have now submitted their bids to the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) which has until March to go through with a tooth comb the feasibility of each of the candidates. 

The four potential host countries are Saudi Arabia (Riyadh), the Republic of Korea (Busan), Italy (Rome) and surprisingly, Ukraine, (Odesa). (Russia was also a contender but voluntarily withdrew its bid last May.)

What happens next is that the BIE’s 171 member countries get to vote on which host they like best in November this year: it’s one country, one vote. 

And if you thought squabbles among countries fighting to win the rights to hold the Fifa World Cup were boisterous, then expect a fight every bit as fierce. The World Expos may not have such big popular appeal as football but the glamour – and kudos – attached to being the winning host is every bit as important and often brings historic legacies. The Statue of Liberty was first shown at the Paris Expo in 1878, the Eiffel Tower at the Expo in 1889 while the TV had its first public outing at the New York Expo in 1939.

So winning is a big deal, and good for business and tourism. Delayed because of the pandemic, the World Expo 2020 in Dubai attracted more than 24 million visitors. 

So far Saudi Arabia is well out in front, claiming to have support from more than 60 countries. It’s also been the most outspoken in its desire to be the winner. As the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, has made clear in his letter to the BIE: “The 2030 World Expo in Riyadh will coincide with the culmination of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.” MBS, as he is known, has outlined three priorities for his Kingdom’s Vision: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation. Being host to Expo 2030 would help with all three aims. If Saudi Arabia won, it would be only the second country in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia region to play host in Expo’s near-180-year history. And the second Arab nation.

 Arab News reports that MBS has support from China, importantly from France, as well as Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Cuba. There are also dozens of African nations, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and 15 member states from the Caribbean Community backing its bid. 

If the Kingdom is selected, then the authorities say they will turn the capital Riyadh – as well as the rest of the country –  into a world-class venue for global culture, connectivity and climate action. 

In second position is Busan which behind the scenes is pushing hard, even appointing South Korea’s world famous boy band BTS as the honorary ambassadors.  In contrast, Rome is making a big play on being the most “diplomatic capital” – with 430 embassies – and that the “eternal city”  is easy to reach for dignitaries and visitors attending from around the world. 

As you might expect, Odesa – another beautiful city sitting on the edge of the Black Sea in Ukraine – is at something of a disadvantage in pitching. Hopefully, the conflict should be over by 2030 – and hosting the event could be a big boost to helping the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Yet voting countries may fear for visitor safety. 

Like so many of these international events, decisions may well come down to who has the deepest pockets to hold such an event which brings its own riches: South Korea estimates that if Busan wins, the country would benefit to the tune of $44 billion and create 500,000 new jobs.

No wonder Saudi is out in front: it certainly has the bucks and the vision. The bigger question is whether member countries will be put off by the outcry over FIFA’s choice of Qatar for last year’s World Cup? After all, Saudi’s human rights record is every bit as patchy

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