Dubai, United Arab Emirates – Each nation wants to boast and each pavilion, to stand out. Host of the Expo 2020 (2021-2022, as a result of the pandemic), Dubai is currently home to one of the largest showcasing events of achievements and possibilities offered by the nations of the world.
Among them, Team Poland focuses on creativity inspired by nature, with guests lured in by the remarkable architecture of the pavilion and design dominated by a unique sense of wooden sensuality. That being said, the primary goal of the Polish presence at the Dubai Expo 2020 remains to promote economic diplomacy and find new partners for homegrown companies.
In his 1924 novel “Przedwiośnie”, Polish writer Stefan Zeromski gave its main character Cezary Baryka a deluded vision of “glass houses”, which were to await this young Polish patriot upon his return to his homeland – a supposedly developed, industrial and, above all, wealthy country. Utopian “glass houses” were a symbol of modernity, bordering on fantasy. Arguably more so than with Zeromski, a positivist and realist, this vision would find a natural home in novels by Polish sci-fi guru Stanislaw Lem.
All eyes turned on Dubai
The 20th century turned Zeromski’s daring visions into reality. Glass metropolises have grown out of deserts, with dozens of mirror-like skyscrapers towering, in the most extreme cases, almost a kilometer above ground. The city-symbol of this spectacular transformation is Dubai, where the 1924 desert landscape built up around small fishing villages gave way to glass skyscrapers piling up on top and next to each other. Built as a testimony to the power and wealth of the sheikdom, as a testament to the technological and engineering possibilities of man, as an element of competition for the title of the most avant-garde metropolis in the world.
Dubai’s global aspirations are confirmed by the privilege of hosting the 35th edition of the World Expo. A cyclical event which since 1851 and the first held in London, has been an opportunity for the nations of the world to present their technological achievements and industrial prowess in a wide array of sectors: technology, nature, culture, cuisine, visionary, science, handicraft, or architecture.
The latter has a special role in making each edition of the Expo timeless – it is for the needs of the Exhibitions that the following were created: Crystal Palace (London, 1851), Eiffel Tower (Paris, 1889), Atomium (Brussels, 1958), Space Needle (Seattle, 1962) or the newest Al Wasl Plaza in Dubai. To this day, architecture and design give the Exhibition a unique formula, and each country-exhibitor tries to surprise and bewilder visitors through the look of their pavilions.
In this regard, the Expo 2020 provides a welcome break from the sometimes-cheesy architecture and overwhelming sentiment of the city of Dubai to plunge into an oasis of calm and harmony: feel the natural backwoods covering the Singapore pavilion, wade knee-deep in the water surrounding Brazil’s edifice or listen to the African wilderness in the Gabon one.
The Polish Pavilion is also close, very close to nature. The building itself encourages the visitors to stop, to look and to touch. It is not just a packaging for exhibits, an object from which one enters and exits. It is an integral and pragmatic part of the presentation of Poland and its resources. Even more so as it is made of natural building material which in this part of the world is a distinguishing feature of wealth – wood. Trends are reversed, with the wooden structure now attracting attention – in an “extremely sensual manner”, according to commissioner general of the Polish section Adrian Malinowski – while the surrounding glass houses evoke kitsch.
Sustainability and mobility at the heart of the Expo 2020
“We see glass, metal, concrete all around, and we come with something natural, beautiful and sensual. With a material that is rare in this part of the world and is perceived very prestigiously. In addition, wood is a renewable resource with the lowest carbon footprint, which fits perfectly with the focus of the entire Expo on sustainability,” Malinowski tells Kafkadesk, reminding us that sustainability along with mobility and opportunity are the leading ideas of the Dubai Exhibition.
The Polish Pavilion offers over 2,000 square meters of exhibition space scattered on three floors, two of which are open to visitors. The highest one – with a business center, conference room and VIP lounge – is intended for entrepreneurs, businessmen and official representatives. The consortium of Science Now, Stellar Fireworks and Tellart is responsible for the creative concept and detailed narrative concept of the Polish Pavilion. The architectural design of the building – its shape, materiality, functional layout, the concept of kinetic sculpture and the thematic concept of the exhibition – was prepared by the Warsaw studio WXCA together with Bellprat Partners.
The architecture of the building is a clear reference to the underlying philosophy of mobility: it creates an open, modular structure that grows upwards, topped with a wide roof. Here, above the guests’ heads – both inside and outside the pavilion – gently flutters a kinetic sculpture consisting of several hundred lights, waving in the wind in a way reminiscent of birds’ flight.
“Our concept knowingly fits into the leading slogan of the exhibition. Referring to the symbolism of migrating birds, we want to show the dynamics of the development of the modern world, cultural exchange, trade, and social migrations,” says Marta Sekulska-Wronska, partner at WXCA.
“Nothing arouses interest more than elements that connect and are close to our minds. Poland is one of the world’s largest habitats of migratory birds, which for hundreds of years have been following the same route, connecting Poland with the Middle East and Africa,” adds Commissioner Malinowski.
Wooden sensuality and local smells: Poland bets on the senses
The internal exhibition is a universal message about Poland, a collection of stories that distinguish Poland and Poles. The full saga consists of five chapters, corresponding to the five zones of the Polish Pavilion, which form a series of experiences and content linked to one another.
Visitors can take a walk around the Polish Pavilion accompanied and guided by one of the 150 students selected for this role from five Polish universities. Thanks to this form of involvement in national diplomacy, Polish youth get a first-hand experience in promoting the image of their country.
The central element of the exhibition is the installation called “Polish Table”, which has become a place for intercultural meetings and welcoming guests, through an interactive, light projection, a place of contact with the Polish language, created from the raw materials characteristic of Poland: copper, glass, wood, ceramics, or aluminum used in space technologies.
“The experience from the main hall, next to the building’s facade, is one of the first stimuli that shape the impressions of wandering around our country. The hosts of the exhibition, Polish students who show the guests around the exhibition, received a multidimensional medium: the Polish Table, a symbolic artifact enabling them to tell a nuanced and in-depth story about Poland and its resources,” explains Lukasz Alwast, representative of the Science Now, Stellar Fireworks and Tellart consortium.
A strong feature of the pavilion is its sensuality, including through a subtle play with fragrances. Inside, the wood gives off its intense and pleasant smell. Outside, the sense of smell is influenced by the flora characteristic of individual regions of Poland – heather, blower, fir, nettles, carnations, and cashews. The greenery grows from large pots, installed along the entrance, forcing every visitor entering the building to become acquainted with the smell of Polish nature. “It’s such a nice return to nature, it makes you want to touch everything”, a visiting couple from the US told us.
“The Polish Pavilion is to be a sensory experience. From the queuing zone, we show the possibility of communing with Polishness in an organoleptic form. We can see five Polish landscapes. We show plants that we brought from Poland, but also soundscapes, thanks to which, when approaching the Polish pavilion, each guest can hear wild game, birds singing or the sound of the Baltic waves crashing against Polish beaches through loudspeakers placed among the plants. At the same time, we enrich this sound impression with Polish culture – with the universal music of Chopin and with our literature translated in English and Arabic,” Malinowski explains to Kafkadesk.
Contrary to many other exhibitors, Poland took great care to make use of the otherwise-boring queuing time to feed its guests with Polishness even before the start of the tour. It is however a pity that a similar pragmatic solution was lacking when bidding farewell, with the Polish exhibition abruptly ending on the second floor, failing to provide the visitor with a clear and final memory of Poland to take home.
Taking a piece of Poland home
“I like the inside. It’s good that you organize Chopin concerts, because Chopin is my first association with Poland. It grabs the attention and that’s the reason why I came to the pavilion,” Gamila from the UAE told us. “Final association with Poland after leaving? A strong country with many resources,” summed up for his part Rand from Canada.
“It is a pity that it is quite small, because I went through it in just fifteen minutes, and would not come back a second time. But on the other hand, you show just one, selected example of your strengths, you don’t mix everything up”, reacted Russian visitors.
The enormity of the stimuli that the Expo, including the Polish zone, provides to its guests, cannot lead to unanimity and quick takes. Like the other ones before it, held every five years, Expo 2020 in Dubai is visited by dozens of the most senior politicians and monarchs, hundreds of leading artists and people of culture, thousands of businessmen and entrepreneurs, as well as millions of tourists.
The main goal of the promotional activities of each exhibiting country at the Expo is however the business effect – in the medium and long term. What idea did Poland have for using the Expo in promoting its economic diplomacy? And how is the implementation of that idea – after taking the first 310,000 guests in October and November – rated by the head of the Polish mission in Dubai?
“Building a country’s brand on many levels – cultural, social, artistic life – has an impact on its business perception. It’s difficult to find a contractor or even sign a contract if the partner knows nothing about a given country. The axis of Poland’s presence at the Expo is, therefore, economic promotion, and in the entire Expo project we have the involvement of over 2,500 companies from Poland, which will either show up as part of the Expo itself, symposia, discussion panels, B2B meetings, or during fairs and accompanying events,” indicates Malinowski.
“Today, Dubai is a global trading center, this is where companies looking for new partners appear, and the fairs with the highest attendance take place here. For the 2,500 Polish companies that are here with us, the Expo provides exposure all over the world,” adds the Commissioner.
The economic program is a key element of Poland’s participation in the Expo. The offer consists of 13 support tools, aimed at Polish entrepreneurs who want to develop business in the Middle East and African countries. Polish companies can take advantage of partner programs, subsidies for the promotion of product brands in the UAE, booking space for business meetings or regional promotions. Companies that will be physically absent from Dubai can use the B2B App Expo application, which helps to establish business contacts with partners from all over the world or take part in thematic webinars educating Polish entrepreneurs on the practical aspects of doing business in the region.
This kind of support is specifically addressed to industries identified as sectors with the highest export potential to the Middle Eastern markets – including medical equipment and pharmaceutical, cosmetics and fashion, construction, yachts and recreational boats and electromobility.
Business first and economic diplomacy
The concept of the pavilion’s narration proposed by the consortium of Science Now, Stellar Fireworks and Tellart also takes into account the economic role of the entire project.
“World Exhibitions are a very important tool for the cultivation of cultural and economic diplomacy. By offering the guests a credible story about Poland – about our creativity, people, projects, and achievements – we testify to the potential that becomes the basis for new business and economic contacts. With these activities, we strengthen our soft power,” Lukasz Alwast tells us.
The Polish Pavilion serves, at least for half a year, as the business representative of Poland. The Polish zone was visited, among others, by Iran’s ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Germany’s Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Muller, and Botswana’s Minister of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security, Lefoko Moagi.
“Botswana is an exotic destination with which – if not for the Expo – we might not have been able to establish a relationship. Hence, such a meeting for Polish companies from the energy and related industries opens the door to Botswana or, more broadly speaking, the African market. This meeting has already resulted in further steps. I do not want to treat this type of meeting as a beauty festival, but I want to see the nitty-gritty: contracts, investments, profits,” comments Malinowski.
The Middle East and Africa still represent a small share of Poland’s foreign trade. In 2019, Poland sold services and goods to UAE worth $975 million, accounting for only 0.4% of total Polish exports. Poland has other trading partners in the region, including Turkey ($2.3 billion in exports), Saudi Arabia ($0.9 billion) and Egypt ($534 million). Reciprocally, the scale of foreign direct investment coming to Poland from the countries of the region is marginal so far. Something that the Expo, which hosted among other events the Polish-Arab Economic Forum and the Polish-African Economic Forum, could try to change for the sake of trade diversification.
Lasting for six months – from October 2021 to March 2022 – the Dubai show will provide for many visitors, the first if not only tangible contact with Poland and Polishness. Including with Stanislaw Lem, whose classic science-fiction novel Solaris is given a prominent space in the part of the exhibition devoted to Polish space literature. Would Lem and Zeromski find inspiration at the Expo 2020 and in Dubai?
“Lem is here with us, we let our guests see the works of our genius writer. But Zeromski would also feel great at the Exhibition. And just as he could look at Dubai through the prism of “glass houses”, he could look at our national pavilion through the prism of positivist ideas. What we do in our pavilion as representatives of Poland is classic grassroots and organic work. Hour after hour, throughout 182 days, we educate visitors on what Poland is, how Poland influences the fate of the world and how often – even unconsciously – each of them interacts with Poland and Polishness,” Malinowski concludes.
Pictures credits: PAIH. Article by Nikodem Chinowski.