SHANGHAI // The traditions of the Arabian peninsula and the breathless pace of development that has transformed the region are key themes of the pavilions of regional countries at Expo 2010. The Shanghai event, which runs through October, is themed around the idea of sustainable urban development and includes pavilions or displays from most countries of the world, provinces of China and industries and official organisations.
Several Gulf countries are using the multibillion dollar expo to introduce themselves to a Chinese public they admit knows little about them, although the tensions linked to modern-day development are not shied away from. The loss of traditional architecture in particular is highlighted in the Qatar pavilion, which although built to resemble a historical fort, inside highlights concerns that too many recent buildings are based on western architectural styles.
In a film that forms the centrepiece of the pavilion, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, the wife of the Emir of Qatar, said, "The development of traditional architecture in the state of Qatar has stopped. Therefore we began to import everything associated with western architecture." Sheikha Mozah insisted the country must not turn back the clock on development, but should reinvigorate traditional design in a modern context.
In particular, she cites as an example the Musheireb project, previously called the Heart of Doha, which began in January and involves a US$5.5 billion (Dh20bn) redevelopment of part of the city using what has been described as a more community-based architecture, rather than skyscrapers. "It converges tradition and modernity," Sheikha Mozah said. "The philosophy is based around architecture that serves an individual and society.
Qatar's $10 million pavilion, like those of some other Gulf states, also reaches back to describe the country's history, seagoing traditions and Bedouin lifestyle of the interior. Displays showing handicrafts and dhow building. Qatari nationals demonstrate such skills as weaving, and there are areas set aside where the desert sounds and bird song play. Oman's pavilion has much in common with Qatar's, using traditional fort architecture for its design, albeit combined with a dramatic blue bow section of a traditional boat. And the similarities extend inside, where the history of Oman and the changes it has undergone, as well as the projects set to develop the country further, are outlined. But, in a display, the pavilion insists that by controlling development, Oman has managed to maintain its character and prevented the loss of identity.
"We're trying to show this is what we preserved," said Hassan al Lawati, the pavilion's deputy commissioner general. "By showing this unique architecture, we're showing the efforts of preservation." While Kuwait does not have a pavilion, Bahrain has one in a shared building, and in keeping with the pavilion's modest size, organisers say their theme is "small is beautiful". While the pavilion describes the island nation's history, and includes a dramatic sculpture of a pearl diver as its centrepiece, it emphasises Bahrain's attributes as a place to do business.
"We've come here to promote the country in its various aspects - industry, culture, information, media," said Hesham al Saken, the pavilion director. "China is so closed a country, they are cherishing these moments to know these countries around them." Traditional architecture informs Yemen's pavilion, which displays façades from the country's distinctive buildings, and has stalls selling handicrafts, while the natural landscape provides the inspiration for the UAE's sweeping golden sand dune building.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia has taken a modernist approach, building a "moon boat" that contains an Imax cinema with a 1,600 sq metre screen that has made the pavilion one of the most talked about - not least for its $164m cost. The film showcases life in the kingdom in scenes filmed underwater and in the deserts, the capital and Mecca. It has proved a big draw with the mostly Chinese expo visitors, with those wanting to enter having to queue for several hours.