Dubai’s Expo 2020, the international fair hosted in the United Arab Emirates, closed last month to rave reviews. The mega event, which was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic but retained its official name for marketing and branding purposes, ran from October 2021 to March 2022. In that time, it recorded more than 24 million visitors from more than 190 countries, according to the fair’s official website, with hundreds of millions more visiting virtually. That traffic reflects Dubai’s status as an emerging global hub between the Middle East and Europe on one hand, and Asia—particularly South Asia, from where more than a third of the UAE’s residents reportedly come from—and Africa on the other.
For Africans, including the many who attended, the expo presented the continent with an opportunity to capitalize on geopolitical shifts, both globally and in the Middle East. And African participation at Expo 2020 further underscores the desire among governments and the public for broader international engagement beyond the “Big 3” of China, the United States and the European Union.
The UAE, in particular, has long been emulated for its economic transformation and development by many Africans and their governments, with the “Dubai model” regularly cited as an example for governments around the continent to follow. Dubai is a popular destination for business travel, economic migration and tourism among Africans, not least because of the UAE’s relatively liberal visa rules compared to Western countries. Emirates Airlines, one of the UAE’s two flag carriers, now flies to and from nearly 20 African countries, including cities like Lagos, Johannesburg, Casablanca, Nairobi and Luanda. Dubai’s reputation as a vibrant, economically advanced and safe city in a politically stable country contributes to the UAE’s attractiveness to many Africans, as does its status as a global city in a Muslim-majority country. Large numbers of people from Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon and other African countries also live in Dubai and the other emirates, as students and guest workers alike.