Saudi Arabia wins bid to host 2030 World Expo

Why it’s significant and what to expect

The Saudi capital Riyadh has roundly beaten out both South Korea’s Busan and Italy’s Rome to win the right to host the 2030 World Expo.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Pandora Pictures

Hosting the Expo can bring a significant economic boon, but it is better known as a platform for the host nation to flaunt its greatest achievements. And coming in the year that Saudi Arabia’s vast, complex, and wide-ranging Vision 2030 mega plan for economic diversification comes to an end, the Gulf state is hoping it will have plenty to show off at the 2030 World Expo.

World Expo, more commonly known for much of history as the World’s Fair, was first held in Great Britain in 1851. Known as the Great Exhibition and held under the theme of “Industry of All Nations,” it was the brainchild of Prince Albert and came at the end of a long period of industrialization in Western Europe. Indeed, through until the late 1930s, the World Expo was largely focused on trade, although contemporary “celebrities” including Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, and Charlotte Brontë were on the guest list, with the allure and PR-boosting nature of the event enduring to this day.

From the Second World War until the late 1980s, World Expo served as a cultural exchange at a troubled time in world history. And from the 1988 Expo, held in Brisbane, Australia, onward, participating nations began to see the event as a branding exercise. Indeed, a study conducted into the Hanover Expo of 2000 found that the main goal of over 70% of participating nations was image branding. The age of the national pavilion had begun.

It is therefore unsurprising that Saudi Arabia—currently striving to showcase its transformed nature—put together such a compelling bid, with Busan gaining only 29, and Rome only 17, of a total 165 votes up for grabs on Tuesday in Paris. Indeed, it was the first time a candidate had won in the first round of voting. Saudi officials put their victory down to the country’s success in listening to its partners and their expectations from Expo. Delegates are said to have found Saudi Arabia “particularly proactive in approaching other countries to propose investment opportunities.”

World Expo 2030 will come in the year that Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 concludes and the timing is no coincidence. Dubai, which hosted World Expo 2020—although the event belatedly occurred in 2021 due to COVID-19—experienced a palpable boom in the years preceding the event. Indeed, one study suggested Expo 2020 generated up to USD23 billion, or just under 25% of Dubai’s GDP at the time, between 2015 and 2021, and boosted growth by 6.4% a year from 2014 to 2016 and over 10% by 2020. That is exactly the kind of shot in the arm Saudi officials will be hoping for as the clock counts down to the conclusion of the country’s biggest ever plan for diversification and social evolution.

It is also significant that the event returns to the Gulf just 10 years after it was held in the UAE, taking just a brief detour to Osaka, Japan for Expo 2025. It is symbolic of the region’s growing economic and cultural clout, but, more specifically, its ambition.

Saudi Arabia has cast a wide net when it comes to international events, hosting everything from Formula 1 to WWE in recent years. It also has its sights on the FIFA World Cup, and at the time of writing is the sole bidder for the 2034 competition after Australia withdrew its name from the hat. It now seems inevitable that Saudi Arabia will become the second Gulf nation to host the tournament after Qatar in 2022. The Expo will also come just one year after the 2029 Winter Games, which will be held at a planned mountain resort within the NEOM project, a USD500-billion flagship “gigaproject” that includes the much vaunted The Line, a linear smart city clad in mirrors.

Aside from the inevitable publicity Saudi Arabia will receive from 2030 World Expo, there are numerous direct and indirect economic impacts to hosting the event. The influx of visitors will be a boon for local businesses and the host city of Riyadh at large, while infrastructure development in the preceding years will boost jobs and growth. The hospitality sector is also likely to go into overdrive, building out capacity to ensure attendees don’t struggle for rooms in 2030. Made in Saudi, a government-led initiative to boost local products and services, is also likely to benefit from the platform, as the eyes of the world turn to the capital and trade and investment opportunities are explored.

In the coming weeks and months, expect hints and announcements about the undoubtedly grand plans that will unfold as Saudi Arabia begins the real work of planning for an event that it hopes will define its future well beyond 2030.