A football star, caviar and a water show: Inside Saudi Arabia’s campaign to host the 2030 Expo

PARIS — Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been throwing everything into winning the race to host the glitzy 2030 World Exhibition event as a centerpiece of his sweeping reforms to overhaul the Kingdom’s reputation as a repressive oil exporter.

For anyone strolling around Paris, it’s impossible not to run into giant billboards or buses and taxis plastered with advertisements for the Expo. After all, it is in the French capital that Riyadh will face off against Italy and South Korea in a vote on Tuesday.

Far from being simply a belle époque legacy — the Eiffel tower was built for the Paris exposition of 1889 — Expos are still big-money opportunities to showcase nations, while generating cash, jobs and a global buzz. MBS’ goal is to convince the world he is pushing an absolute monarchy run by Islamic law in a more socially progressive direction, embracing cutting-edge sectors such as green technology and healthcare.

Delegates from 182 countries will choose between Riyadh, Busan and Rome during a secret ballot vote at the Bureau International des Expositions, the little-known organization which oversees World Expos, headquartered in Paris. In the likely scenario that no bidder secures over two thirds of total votes, delegates will have to choose between the two finalists in a second vote immediately afterwards. 

In the Expo race, the vote of the Cook Islands or Lesotho carries the same weight as the U.S. or China, meaning candidates have been carrying out a worldwide charm offensive — a poker game in which Saudi Arabia went all in, according to several BIE delegates and insiders who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly.

“Saudi Arabia won the communication battle by selling itself as the front-runner since the beginning,” said a BIE delegate from a small island in the Americas, echoed by other delegates. 

The Saudis didn’t need to waste any efforts on France as President Emmanuel Macron had already endorsed Riyadh’s bid last year, a move that sparked criticism from some EU countries and NGOs that slammed Saudi’s Arabia’s poor human rights record.

Paris’ endorsement comes as Macron has intensified efforts to strengthen diplomatic ties with Riyadh, including through two visits of MBS to the Élysée over the past two years. Macron and MBS built a good personal relationship which could prove strategically useful for France especially as Saudi Arabia is expected to play a key role in attempts to resolve the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Strong business and strategic interests are also crucial to the relationship, as French companies are eyeing hefty civil and military contracts in Saudi Arabia.

Milestone year 

The Kingdom earmarked no less than $7.8 billion for the landmark project, conceived under the slogan: “The era of change: together for a foresighted tomorrow.” Hosting the event would be the cherry on top of MBS’ “Vision 2030,” a master plan to diversify the economy away from oil and forge a more open society. 

“The Saudi today is not the Saudi of five years ago and Saudi in 2030 will not look like what we have today,” Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the EU Haifa Al-Jedea told POLITICO, insisting on the reforms her country is going through. 

For months, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Italy jostled against other in organizing opulent events in Paris to charm BIE delegates, an art at which Saudi Arabia excelled.  

The Riyadh 2030 reception event to promote Riyadh’s candidacy for the 2030 World Expo in Paris, on June 19 | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

On June 19, during an event designed to showcase Riyadh’s project, MBS’s convoy of 20 or so Range Rovers and Mercedes pulled up in front of the Grand Palais Éphémère. Inside the wood-framed structure conceived for art and fashion shows, the Kingdom’s de facto ruler spent two hours greeting BIE delegates. Between a traditional performance by sword-wielding dancers and an orchestral concert, MBS shook hands with several members of France’s cultural and political elite, including Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak, former EU Commissioner Michel Barnier and economist Jacques Attali.

“This was a way of showing how important it is to them politically and in terms of image,” noted one diplomat who was posted in the region.

MBS, who owns a lavish château outside of Paris, spent one week in in the French capital where he also met with Macron at the Élysée.

Another major show of force happened on November 6 in a former airship hangar in the outskirts of Paris. The Saudis, with the help of Parisian PR firm Hopscotch, threw an extravagant reception attended by several Saudi ministers and unexpectedly by former football star Didier Drogba. His presence didn’t go unnoticed by African guests who rushed to take a selfie with the Ivorian striker. Delegates dressed in a farwa, for the occasion were kindly ushered to enjoy an aquatic son-et-lumière show before being treated to a dinner with blue lobster tail and ossetra caviar. 

The bling-drenched receptions also provided Saudi ministers with an opportunity to cozy up to delegates. One BIE delegate from an EU country claimed that, during an Expo-related event, a high-ranking Saudi official asked: “What can I do for your country to vote for me?”

“The promises are very far-reaching. They are very well prepared for the meeting. They offer investment opportunities,” the delegate said. 

This type of “transactional diplomacy” is common practice in this kind of competition, noted the same diplomat with Saudi expertise quoted above. “Many countries consider this as a unique opportunity to obtain favors by this or that candidate … a number of countries monetize their vote.”

The BIE delegate from the island country agreed: “Nothing is done for nothing in this world, support is never for free.”

French support to the Saudi bid comes as Paris has been at pains to secure civil and military contracts with Riyadh.

While France’s Airbus didn’t manage to land a mega-contract with Riyadh Air, to the dismay of the French government, the company still secured some smaller contracts and cooperation deals back in June. Riyadh and Paris are also in talks over the sale of French Rafale jets, although people with knowledge of the file said the Saudis were most likely using the talks as a negotiation tactics for Germany to lift a veto on the export of Typhoon jets over human rights concerns. 

Strong ties with Riyadh could also give French companies an advantage when the Kingdom comes to award public contracts, such as those for its futuristic gigacity Neom, said the same diplomat with Saudi expertise cited above, adding France could now count on Saudi support in similar races in international organizations or competitions. 

The two other contenders are also pulling out all the stops, and organized similarly big events. Rome hired Gladiator star Russell Crowe as an envoy, while K-Pop celebrities PSY and BTS flew the flag for Busan. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol traveled to Paris for a final campaign effort escorted by top executives from South-Korean tech giants including Samsung or LG, which sponsored the port city’s campaign by paying for posters in Paris and other European capitals. 

Transactional diplomacy

Some BIE delegates, often Paris-based diplomats working on other files, said they were getting tired of attending so many events, especially as they know their vote will ultimately solely depend on instructions from their capitals, which often come at the very last minute based on bilateral dealmaking. 

“We take several factors into consideration, but in the end someone [from a candidate country] will call my head of government,” predicted the BIE delegate from an EU country. 

The campaign went far beyond Paris.

Over the past weeks, Saudi Arabia intensified its outreach with countries all over the world, hosting a series of summits in Riyadh with African, Caribbean and Arab countries. In declarations, African and Caribbean countries endorsed Riyadh’s Expo bid, although individual countries are still free to vote as they please. The Gulf country also signed several Memoranda of Understanding with Caribbean and African countries, with the Saudi Fund for Development providing funds to infrastructure and energy projects. 

“That’s part of all of these summits. What Saudi usually does is that we don’t like to have a summit or an international meeting with no particular outcome,” said Al-Jedea, the Saudi ambassador to the EU.

Riyadh is not alone in hunting votes on the African continent.

Rome’s Mayor Roberto Gualtieri, for instance, recently traveled to Africa to promote Rome’s candidacy, and made no secret of his distaste for Saudi tactics.

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Mascots representing the seagull ‘Boogi’ used to highlight the bid of the South Korean city of Busan for the 2030 World Expo, in Paris on November 24 | Christophe Delattre/AFP via Getty Images

“If money goes over everything, every global event will be held in a very small area which basically has one characteristic: a lot of revenue from selling fossil [fuels]. That’s maybe not the best way to celebrate sustainability in 2030,” Gualtieri told POLITICO as he visited Paris for a last stretch of events and meetings ahead of the vote.

Saudi Arabia will host the Asian Winter Games in 2029 and is set to host the 2034 World Cup after other candidate countries threw in the towel. 

Several delegates from other countries have complained the current BIE rules don’t guarantee the decision will be taken based on the merits of the project.

“There should be rules to make sure that there’s some equality between candidates, because otherwise you are never going to have an African or Latin-American country. If they don’t have these deep pockets, they won’t start the process,” a third BIE delegate said.