At the end of the day on Tuesday, the Saudi Gazette newspaper relayed on X (formerly Twitter) the images of the Saudi delegation bursting with joy at the announcement of the results of the vote of the Bureau International des Expositions (EIB) for the award of the 2030 World Expo. The Saudi capital won by a wide margin in the first round of voting, beating Rome and the South Korean port city of Busan. Riyadh will thus become the second Gulf city to host the event, after Dubai in 2021 (for the 2020 Expo).
#VIDEO: #Saudi official delegation's jubilant reaction to winning the bid to host World Expo 2030 in Paris. #RiyadhExpo2030 pic.twitter.com/PJYwd43yfk
— Saudi Gazette (@Saudi_Gazette) November 28, 2023
All the candidates in the running prided themselves on carrying out green, high-tech projects to win the World Expo – an event that attracts millions of visitors – and had embarked on intense lobbying campaigns in recent months.
And despite criticism on human rights issues, Riyadh prevailed, touting "world-class natural landscapes" and "the first carbon-negative exposure" in an arid country that is among the world's largest oil producers and the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita.
The year 2030 will thus be a busy, even pivotal one, for the Saudi kingdom, since the organization of the 2030 World Expo in Saudi Arabia will also coincide with "Vision 2030", the name of the vast reform and development program led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as "MBS") aimed at reducing the kingdom's dependence on oil.
But how does this victory resonate politically and diplomatically for Saudi Arabia, and especially for the Saudi crown prince? David Rigoulet-Roze, editor-in-chief of the journal Orients Stratégiques (ed. L'Harmattan), a researcher attached to the French Institute for Strategic Analysis and the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
France 24: Is Saudi victory a surprise?
David Rigoulet-Roze: It's not really a surprise. In fact, there was a very large vote in favor of Saudi Arabia, which reinforces the kingdom's strategy of positioning itself as an organizer of major international events. At the beginning of October 2022, Saudi Arabia had already benefited from the organisation of the Asian Winter Games in Trojena, in the mountain range adjacent to the Neom site [in 2029, editor's note]. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was adamant about making his bid for the 2030 World Expo a reality. It's a bit of an apotheosis for him, as it directly echoes his emblematic project of "Vision-2030".
Among the elements that could differentiate the Saudi candidacy from that of the others, there is obviously the financial aspect, with budgetary capacities allowing it to support an ambitious file, as well as an intense lobbying campaign on the part of Riyadh with significant support, including that of France. In the validation of this candidacy, there has also been an increasingly marked affirmation by countries of what is often described in a somewhat caricatured way as "South-global", Saudi Arabia having also recently been accepted into the BRICS, with effective integration in January 2024. The idea is to promote new powers in the <>st century.
Does this victory symbolize Mohammed bin Salman's definitive return to the forefront of the international diplomatic and political scene?
Mohammed bin Salman has already made a comeback on the world media scene for several months, thanks to the evolution of the geopolitical situation. We saw this, for example, with US President Joe Biden's visit to Riyadh on 16 July 2022, after treating the crown prince as a pariah. Then with the visit to Paris on June 16, 2023, in the wake of the geoeconomic and geopolitical consequences induced by the war in Ukraine. A war in which he quickly offered his services as mediator by having a dozen international prisoners released on September 22, 2022. This was also seen at the meeting in Riyadh on August 5, 2023, on the consideration of a possible ten-point Ukrainian peace plan after having spectacularly received President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Arab League summit held in Jeddah on May 19.
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This restoration of image had been favoured by the recognition of the kingdom's status as a central and unavoidable player against the backdrop of the energy crisis following the war in Ukraine. Strictly speaking, this is an actor that cannot be "dispensed with" since it is the main pillar within the OPEC+ global alliance [the 13 member countries of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, plus ten other producing countries, including Russia, with which Saudi Arabia forms a kind of condominium, editor's note].
Mohammed bin Salman has undeniably returned to the centre of the international game and is taking advantage of this rehabilitation to put into perspective what he has been roundly accused of in the past [in particular his responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, editor's note].
The desire to organise the 2030 World Expo or other events of global importance obviously contributes to the restoration of Mohammed bin Salman's coat of arms, but it is probably not the underlying motive. There is often a tendency to think that it is simply an instrument designed to make people forget a certain number of human rights turpitudes. But the fundamental issue goes far beyond this and cannot be reduced to this question. There is undoubtedly a strategic ambition to make the kingdom a key state of the 21st century, of which the sending into space, on May 2023, <>, of two Saudi astronauts to the International Space Station – including a woman, Rayyanah Barnawi – is the emblematic expression. And the victory of the Saudi bid to host the World Expo is part of this global strategy.
By wanting to organize a whole range of events in the coming years (the Asian Winter Games in 2029, the 2030 World Expo, "Vision 2030", even the 2034 Football World Cup that it aims to host), doesn't Saudi Arabia have its eyes bigger than its stomach?
This is a reproach that has already been levelled at it, notably with the pharaonic Neom project, whose financing is estimated at some 500 billion dollars and which is the flagship project within the framework of its "Vision 2030". "MBS" is accused of having a kind of delusion of grandeur. He is actually very ambitious for the kingdom and believes that it is necessary to be proactive in making dreams come true. But not all projects are so disproportionate. The development of Al-Ula, a major archaeological site, is much more feasible and already advanced. The same is true for leisure park projects, such as Qiddiya [whose surface area would cover the equivalent of three times the city of Paris] or for the organisation of major sporting events such as the Dakar.
Saudi Arabia is the world's leading oil exporter, which allows it to reap a considerable financial windfall, in the order of several hundred million dollars per day, which feeds its public investment fund, the financial arm of this strategy of development and diversification of the kingdom. Mohammed bin Salman is also someone in a hurry. He has a very tight timeline until 2030 and he knows he has little time for his plan to come to fruition. And the success of his plan is a real obsession for him.
In this resolutely proactive posture, there is sometimes an impression of confusion in the promotion of all-out and simultaneous projects, but this does not undermine the coherence in the declared ambition of "MBS". And this, even if not all the projects will probably come to fruition, at least within the given deadline.
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