ISSY-LES-MOULINEAUX, France — Saudi Arabia will host the 2030 World Exhibition after winning a vote in Paris on Tuesday.
Riyadh’s candidacy was endorsed by delegates from 119 countries during a ballot organized by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the Paris-based organization which oversees World Expos.
Riyadh was competing with South Korea’s Busan and Italy’s Rome, which got 29 and 17 votes respectively out of 165 total delegates who showed up for the vote.
When the outcome was announced at the venue, supporters of the Saudi candidacy cheered and started singing.
Saudi Arabia secured more than two-thirds of the total votes, meaning that under BIE rules there was no need to organize a second round of balloting. It was the first time in 20 years that a candidate has won on the first round of voting.
Riyadh’s victory comes after a long campaign to convince BIE delegates via a diplomatic offensive and opulent events. Saudi Arabia was particularly proactive in approaching other countries to propose investment opportunities, according to BIE delegates who were granted anonymity to tell POLITICO the inside story.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud told reporters that his country was successful as it managed to “go and engage with our partners, listen to them, understand what their expectations are from Expo” and to anticipate “what should be delivered in order to get their trust.”
He said the vote was an “expression of the trust of the international community” in its Expo bid but also to its Vision 2030 strategy, a master plan to diversify the economy away from oil and forge a more open society.
French President Emmanuel Macron declared last year France’s support for the Saudi candidacy, a move which earned him criticism from some EU countries and NGOs campaigning against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
Italy implicitly accused Saudi Arabia of making economic offers to countries in exchange for their vote and regretted that EU countries did not align to support Rome’s bid.
“Immediate interest prevailed,” said Giampiero Massolo, president of the committee promoting Rome’s candidacy for Expo 2030, as he warned against a “mercantile drift” in this type of votes. “This is the danger,” he said, adding that, if this trend continues, one day non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council might also be on sale.
The World Expo is a big-money opportunity to showcase nations, while generating cash, jobs and a global buzz. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 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 health care.
This story has been updated.