Dubai will be hosting the World Expo in 2020. Dubai, true to its penchant for grandeur, in fact for everything grandiose, promises to make it an experience like never-never-before. A massive dome with a trellis framework is being designed as the structure that will dominate the Expo 2020 site in Dubai South, doubling up as a 360-degree screen at night, projecting images to thousands of visitors both inside and outside.
Built of light, translucent material, the dome at Al Wasl Plaza – 65 metres tall with a diameter of 150m – will hold an estimated 10,000 visitors. Filled with fountains, waterfalls, parks and palm-lined courtyards, the dome will be partly open to the sky at the top. Most importantly, while the expo area, its domes, its pavilions, its entertainment parks, its gardens and fountains get ready for 2020, Dubai already has a powerful brand ambassador hard-selling the event many months in advance. Dubai has been running commercials with India’s most stylish Khan, SRK, (inviting the world to Dubai with a heartwarming #BeMyGuest campaign that started a year ago, and has gained momentum with more renditions in the past few months.
The new King Khan-Dubai commercial is currently being aggressively pushed on social media. More so, on WhatsApp, a medium rarely tried so far by any brand. The new SRK commercial was seeded on WhatsApp about three weeks ago, and informed sources say it has already been seen 18 million times so far.
The commercial is accompanied by a short introductory write up that says SRK charged Rs. 30 crore for the advertisement; he stayed at the Burj Al-Arab hotel’s Royal Suite; traveled in a private jet from Mumbai to Dubai; his wardrobe cost was USD 25,000. The narration goes on to credit Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid’s (Ruler of Dubai) wife Rania for the concept and idea behind the Dubai 2020 commercial. Most WhatsApp users in India would have received a forward of this commercial from a friend or someone from the family.
To be honest, the SRK commercials are nice, but not really outstanding. The launch commercial of a year ago used two visual devices to good effect. The first was SRK wearing a hooded parka, in partial disguise, which worked well to hide his identity till he decided to show himself to unbelieving members of the public. The second was the excitement and surprise at meeting SRK expressed by covering the face with the palms by all who met the superstar, so unexpectedly. That expression is almost common across all sequences in the commercial. SRK is his usual genial, amiable self, playing the good host. Be it in the souk or joining the youngsters on a plane going sky-diving or meeting the aunty-ji while jogging or playing beach volleyball or shopping in the mall or serving up a meal in a restaurant, Shah Rukh is his natural self, unpretentious, somewhat mischievous and happily playful. The cinematography in the commercial is outstanding, especially the end shots of the dancing fountains at the Burj. Dubai looks warm and welcoming with SRK as the host, and ambassador.
Unfortunately, the follow-up SRK commercial is a bit ‘A’ for ‘Apple’, ‘B’ for ‘Boy’. Directed by Kabir Khan, the sequel is not half as good. The honeymooning couple looks very bored, and tensed. The young footballer looks as if he is in a daze. The girls from LA on a road trip and the boys from Singapore look a bit contrived. The parents from Mumbai and the family from NY all look as if they are getting ready for a re-make of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam or some such tear-jerker … very clichéd, very Bollywood. The camera shoot-throughs at Lego Land and Opera Dubai also look somewhat forced. The entire narrative in this commercial lacks the surprise and spontaneity of the earlier commercial. SRK looks far more forced in this version of the Dubai 2020 invitation.
You cannot blame Dubai for trying hard, in fact very hard, well in advance of the Expo 2020. The promise of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ is not going to be easy to deliver. Dubai despite its reputation for being everything that is tallest-biggest-grandest-costliest etc., may already be falling short of what was done for the World Expo, way back in 1889 when Paris hosted a similar world fair. Paris erected the Eiffel Tower, the iconic wrought iron lattice edifice on the Champ de Mars, to welcome the world to its fair. At 324 meters (1,063 feet) in height, the Eiffel then became the tallest man-made structure in the world. Ever since, over 250 million people have visited this monument. Nothing in the current Dubai plans shows anything quite as monumental or as impactful or as memorable being created for the Dubai fair. Of course there are interesting architectural creations, and possibly well done pavilions too, but somehow after the initial euphoria, Dubai 2020 seems to have lost some of its zing.
The World Expos trace their history to 1851 when the first World Expo was held at The Crystal Palace (The Great Shalimar, as it was also known) in Hyde Park, London. Titled ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ it was an idea of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. The Koh-i-Noor diamond was displayed at the World Fair as part of the India exhibit, as it had been acquired by Great Britain in 1850 as part of the Lahore Treaty. Also on display was the gorgeous, Daria-i-Noor, one of the rarest pale pink diamonds in the world. The early 8th century Tara Brooch, the finest penannular Irish brooch ever, was also put up for display by Dublin jeweler George Waterhouse. Interestingly, this World Fair also saw the first modern pay toilets being installed, with 827,280 visitors paying 1 penny fee to use them. In fact ‘Spending a penny’ became a euphemism for using a toilet ever after.
World Expos have been used to showcase many marvels of technology over the past 150 years. In the 1851 London fair mentioned above, Thomas Hancock and Charles Goodyear showcased Vulcanised Rubber to the world, precursor to the invention of automobile tyres. Again in London in 1862, Henry Maudslay showcased the world’s first maritime Steam Engines. The Philadelphia fair in 1876 saw a Typewriter created for the first time by E. Remington and Son, with a QWERTY keyboard that typed only capital letters. Heinz publicized its Ketchup for the first time at this World Fair. Alexander Bell’s Telephone too was first showcased at the Philadelphia fair.
The Chicago 1893 World Fair saw the debut of Architect George Ferris’s Wheel. The first ever Ferris wheel had a 264 foot diameter featuring 36 enclosed cabins and dominated the landscape of the fair. Also at the Chicago fair, over two hundred thousand electric light bulbs were illuminated by Tesla's polyphase alternating current system, making it the most festive looking world fair till then. The first steam powered Tricycle was demoed at Paris World Fair in 1889 by Serpollet-Peugeot. In the year 1900, at Paris again, Rudolf Diesel unveiled the world an engine that would use compressed air to ignite fuel and generate energy. At the same fair Clement Maurice showcased a short film, ‘Cyrano De Bergerac’. The film shot in colour was synchronized to a wax cylinder recording, and is the precursor to modern cinema.
A year later, at Buffalo in 1901, Dr. Sartori Kato presented to the world, a new concoction, the Instant Coffee, for the first time creating a stable soluble coffee powder. In the fair Wilhelm Rontgen unveiled the X-Ray machine. Saint Louis in 1904 saw Harvey Hubbell present his patented plug and socket electrical outlet that kicked off a tidal wave of electrification. But Saint Louis will actually be more remembered for the fact that the Ice Cream Cone was invented for this World Fair. Ham Burgers, Hot Dogs, Peanut Butter, Cotton Candy and Ice Tea too received world recognition at this fair. The rest, as they say, is history.
One can go on and on about how World Expos have been the home to many inventions over the years. I was fortunate to be at the Aichi World Fair in Japan in 2005. I witnessed Maglev unveil their revolutionary magnetic levitation, used to move objects without touching the ground. In fact I had the privilege of riding the HSST ‘Linimo’ line at the 2005 Expo. What an experience!
Dubai 2020 is still some time away. While Shah Rukh Khan is already active wooing tourists from India, the Expo itself requires to have more magnetism. All the attractions, all the events publicised so far still fall short of the grandeur that one has come to expect from World Fairs. Dubai has never disappointed. And I am sure they will maintain the same track record of innovation and discovery. The element of ‘surprise’ at Dubai 2020, will hopefully go beyond a handshake with Shah Rukh.
(Sandeep Goyal has been a Dubai fan for well-over 25 years. He has seen the city grow from a sandy lagoon to an amazing cosmosopolis over the past two decades. He has great expectations from Dubai 2020.)