The U.S. pavilion at the Milan expo in 2015
Flickr/Laika ac/Creative Commons License The U.S. pavilion at the Milan expo in 2015

U.S. participation in this year’s world expo in Dubai has been shaping up in much the same way as previous U.S. expo appearances—which is to say, not well. That's because the State Department couldn't scrape together the cost of even a bare-bones pavilion. Both a private fundraising effort and the department’s pleas to Congress to appropriate the necessary $60 million failed.

Finally, last week, with less than nine months to go before the expo opens on Oct. 20, Americans got some (relatively) good news: the Emirati government announced that it would pay for the U.S. pavilion—an unconventional arrangement that allows both countries to avoid a major embarrassment: namely, an empty lot where the American pavilion would have been. Danny Sebright, president of the US-UAE Business Council, blamed Washington partisanship for the failure of the U.S. to pay for its own pavilion but said he was relieved and grateful that the UAE had stepped in.

Other countries are using public funds to pay for their pavilions at the Dubai expo, which will run through April 2021 and is expected to attract 25 million visitors. The government of New Zealand, with a population of just 5 million, allocated almost $40 million; China is reportedly spending more than $100 million.

As for the U.S., Congress decided in the 1990s that no taxpayer funds should be used for expos (also known as world’s fairs and held every five years in cities chosen by the Bureau of International Expositions). As a result, the U.S. stayed away from the 2000 Expo in Hanover, Germany, where 185 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, helped usher in the new millennium. Five years later, the U.S. failed to organize a pavilion for the Aichi, Japan Expo, until the last minute, when an unhappy Japanese government persuaded Toyota to pay for one.

The U.S. pavilion at the Shanghai expo in 2010
Flickr/Motohiko Tokuriki/Creative Commons License The U.S. pavilion at the Shanghai expo in 2010

Shanghai, the host of the 2010 expo, was determined to put on a show as impressive as Beijing’s Olympics. But the U.S. didn’t commit until Hillary Clinton, pressured by furious Chinese officials, persuaded U.S. companies to fund a rudimentary pavilion. (Festooned with advertising, it was deemed “a humiliation” by one American trade association president.) The U.S. pavilion in Milan in 2015 was somewhat better, but its nonprofit organizing committee was forced to declare bankruptcy, leaving the people who designed and built the pavilion short millions of dollars.

That seemed to presage another U.S. debacle in 2020. (Who, after all, would help build a pavilion if the builders of the last one weren’t paid?) In 2018, the State Department issued a request for proposals for a pavilion. But bidders had to be willing to cover the costs of designing, building, operating, and demolishing the structure. Not surprisingly, response to the RFP was lukewarm. Eventually, a team that included Fred Bush, who led the disappointing U.S. presence at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, and Greg Houston, a State Department contractor, was chosen. But, the team, which the Daily Beast described as chaotic and riddled with conflicts of interest, disbanded last spring after Bush and Houston had a falling out.

Unable to rely on private funds, the State Department turned to Congress. In October, the House passed a bill authorizing the use of public funds for the pavilion. But then it failed to appropriate the money. (To be equitable, any appropriation should include the $20 million owed to the creators of the 2015 Milan pavilion—who kept the U.S. flag flying abroad when nobody else would take the risk.)

In a Nov. 8 letter to House Appropriations Committee chairwoman Nita Lowey, first reported in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote: “There is simply too much at stake for the United States to fail to participate in Expo 2020. In the absence of the United States, global rivals would tell our story for us, ultimately damaging our reputation, disappointing our allies, and emboldening our adversaries.” The letter had little immediate effect: On Dec. 17, the State Department put out a press release titled “U.S. Participation in Expo 2020 Dubai in Jeopardy.”

That’s when the UAE decided to step in. “It was very clear that the biggest show in the world could not occur without a U.S. pavilion,” Sebright told the National, the Emirates’ English-language newspaper. “There had to be some kind of a credible, quality U.S. pavilion at Expo 2020 and the Emiratis decided they had to do what was necessary to work with the U.S. to make that happen. There just weren’t any other options or alternatives.”

Now the trick is getting the pavilion built. The Bush-Houston group had hired Fentress, the Colorado architecture firm, to design the U.S. entry. But when that group broke up, Fentress dropped out. According to various sources, the pavilion’s new architect is an Australian firm with offices in the U.S. The company declined to comment.

According to James Ogul, who for 30 years was the State Department’s “point person” on expos (he retired in 2011), “Architectural design and planning, exhibit design and fabrication, building construction, exhibit installation, and development and implementation of an operations program” normally require at least two years. The race is on.