Swiss mountains in the Emirati desert
Expo 2020 opens in Dubai on 1 October for six months. A strategic region, a pavilion with an ambitious design, and an opportunity to showcase Switzerland's openness to the world: Manuel Salchli, who has been appointed commissioner general of the Swiss Pavilion, explains the key points of the event, which runs until 31 March 2022.
A red carpet on the outside and a façade with mirrors and scarlet-hued panels aim to create a bridge between Switzerland and the Gulf nations. © FDFA
In 2021 Manuel Salchli will be performing a typically Swiss role at the world exhibition in Dubai. Salchli was appointed chairman of Expo 2020's steering committee in 2019 – a labour of love that sees him representing the 192 participating countries and deploying his natural talent for mediation. He acts as an emissary between the Emirati organisers and the local representatives.
Manuel Salchli is a man thoroughly at ease in large organisations and institutions. He joined Presence Switzerland in 2002, running a Swiss pavilion for the first time at the Aichi Expo in 2005. Salchli hasn't missed a world exhibition since, and was responsible for the Swiss pavilions in Shanghai, Milan, Astana and now Dubai. Having worked in the field for nearly twenty years, he is one of the most experienced figures among the country representatives present in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). "Joining the steering committee felt like a natural next step," he explains. "It's a more important position, and a more demanding one, too."
His role also makes him the best person to explain why this year's Swiss pavilion in Dubai is even more special than its predecessors. "For the first time, we have the opportunity to address a vast audience spanning an entire region: the Middle East."
A strategic region for Switzerland
Switzerland was the first country to confirm its participation in Expo 2020, the first world exhibition to be held in an Arab country. The UAE is a key part of the Middle East and a strategic region for Switzerland in terms of sustainable development and the maintenance of close relations in the fields of economics, finance, scientific research, and new technologies. "Our objective in Dubai is to present Switzerland as a reliable partner in these fields," explains Salchli, the Swiss pavilion's commissioner general. The UAE is also of strategic importance for Swiss tourism and the cooperation with the Swiss embassy in Abu Dhabi is very strong.
The Swiss pavilion: uniquely ambitious
The Swiss pavilion has opted for a groundbreaking and exceptionally ambitious architectural style. The project, entitled 'Reflection', was created by a team of Swiss architects, scenographers and landscape architects. It aims to create a highly visible and formal presence for the country, showcasing its qualities as a land of culture, nature and innovation.
"The pavilion's ambitions have garnered significant interest in Dubai," Salchli explains. "We want to show people the Switzerland they've dreamed of, but we also want to surprise them." The visitor experience for the Swiss pavilion is divided into three acts, much like a stage play.
In the first act, we note the pavilion's surprising appearance: a red carpet on the outside and a façade with mirrors and scarlet-hued panels aim to create a bridge between Switzerland and the Gulf nations. The second act awaits inside: the disarming beauty of Switzerland's landscape is shrouded in an artificial mist. The third act surprises the visitor again, immersing them in a sustainable and creative urban environment that aims to present Switzerland as a land of innovation, as well as one of the world's most competitive countries.
The goal is to create a unique emotional experience for visitors, as well as for this year's partners, Swissnex and the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) (see box). "Swiss pavilions are locations and emotional platforms for presenting Swiss innovations," Salchli explains. "We can allow ourselves to become emotional in situations like these - there's no need to feel embarrassed about it."
Switzerland: a nation open to the world
In his twenty years of commitment to Swiss pavilions, Manuel Salchli has lost none of his freshness and enthusiasm for his work. "I love these projects," Salchli says. "We try to learn lessons from every pavilion so that we can do even better next time round. It's truly enriching to work in a new setting every three to five years." The pavilions provide both Salchli and Switzerland with an ideal opportunity to forge connections around the world.
His vision also involves establishing continuity between new pavilions and their predecessors. "One of Switzerland's strengths is its ability to create continuity," he explains. By way of example, the Swiss pavilion will be one of the Expo's most multicultural, with temporary employees from a range of countries working there alongside the many Presence Switzerland employees throughout the exhibition. Some of these people have already worked at Swiss pavilions at the Astana Expo in 2017 and the Rio Olympics in 2016.
The Swiss pavilion is also the only one in Dubai that was able to hire Emiratis. "This was particularly well received in the UAE, as the country is keen to deliver a boost to its workforce. Ours is without a doubt the most multicultural pavilion in Dubai – something that's surprised a lot of people here." Over two decades, Switzerland's pavilions have successively cultivated the image of a welcoming country that is open to the world.
Swissnex: a window on Swiss innovation in Dubai
At Expo 2020, the Swiss pavilion is aiming to present the country as an innovation hub. To that end it has partnered with SERI and Swissnex, the global network connecting Switzerland and the world in education, research and innovation.
Swissnex will present content adapted to the Expo's theme weeks and directly linked to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. It is also aiming to bring Switzerland's partners together with those of the UAE, the Middle East and of other countries represented at the pavilions. "This alignment of Switzerland's image with the innovation race is vital," Salchli explains. "We're working hard to promote a philosophy of sustainable development in what is fundamentally an ephemeral pavilion."
In that spirit, the Swiss pavilion will act as a framework for the creation of new collaborative partnerships.