A computer-graphic-soaked advertisement featuring Australian actor and Hollywood heartthrob Chris Hemsworth beckons the world to Dubai’s upcoming Expo 2020, promising a “world of pure imagination” as children without facemasks race across a futuristic carnival scene.

Reality crashes into the frame with all capital letters caption at the bottom. It reads: “THIS COMMERCIAL WOULD HAVE BEEN FILMED IN 2019”

Dubai’s Expo 2020 will open on Friday. After being delayed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2011, this city-state is now fully committed to its wager of billions of USD that the fair will help boost its economy. To support the fair, the sheikhdom created what seems like a whole city from the once-rolling sand dunes at its southern edges. This outpost will be disassembled in March.

However, questions regarding Expo’s draw power in modern times began long before the pandemic. This will be the first ever global event, after this summer’s Olympics that split Japan. It was held without spectators. Although Dubai has opened its doors to tourists from all over the world, and no vaccinations are required, it is not clear how many people will be attending this extravaganza.

Expo 2020 has become an iconic symbol for the United Arab Emirates, representing $7 billion in investment. It was built by low-paid workers from abroad to celebrate a federation sheikhdoms, where speech and assembly are strictly controlled.

Expo 2020 did not make any official available for The Associated Press to speak before the opening. The Associated Press also asked the organizers not to respond to a number of questions about Expo 2020. Instead, they sent a short statement via email.

The statement stated that “We have created an innovative, people-first community which meets the demands for a new global economy, supported with the latest advances in technology, human-centric design, and other technological advancements.”

Expos have been shining since their inception in 1850s. Modern wonders make them shine. Paris’ Eiffel Tower was unveiled at the 1889 fair. Chicago was renamed “White City” after electric lights were installed at the fairgrounds. Television broadcasts, telephones, and X-rays all impressed large crowds.

However, many expos haven’t received the same attention in recent decades. Or at least not the positive type. New Orleans’ 1984 World’s Fair went bankrupt, and the government had to bail it out. Expo 2000 in Germany attracted 18 million visitors. This was far below the 40 million expected. At the 2015 Expo in Milan, there was rioting over corruption allegations.

Dubai was the first Arab country to host the Expo after it won the right to do so in years following FIFA’s award of Qatar the 2022 World Cup. The Expo would provide a boost to the economy, which was badly affected by the Great Recession’s real estate crash.

EY estimates that Dubai will spend $7 billion on construction projects to support the Expo in 2019, according to auditors. EY projected a $6 billion increase in attendance based on the projection of 25 millions visitors. EY stated to the AP that it had not updated its Expo 2019 numbers.

However, that was before the coronavirus pandemic forced Dubai’s long-haul carrier Emirates’ fleet of jumbo aircraft to be grounded. The world was then locked down and quarantined. The airline is now restarting flights and employing thousands of cabin crew members. However, global travel is still in trouble.

China has been growing closer to the UAE in recent years. The Expo likely attracted Chinese visitors. Shanghai’s Expo 2010 saw more than 73 million people, which is a record. However, betting on China is not possible at this time as people returning to China face weeks of quarantines, testing and possibly anal swabs.

Expo officials began referring to the expected “25,000,000 visits” to Expo in recent weeks. This includes those who are able to watch events online.

Robert C. Mogielnicki is a senior resident scholar at Washington’s Arab Gulf States Institute. He said that “It’s now ‘How can we do the largest, the best Expo the world’s seen in the Middle East?’ to ‘How can we put on an Expo in a very different world?” “It seems difficult to reach 25 million visitors in the current conditions.”

The Expo was also the subject of splashy announcements by the Emirates, including their diplomatic recognition for Israel. Despite delaying the Expo last year, the UAE went ahead with the recognition.

However, the event is also entangled with politics.

Activists expressed concern about workers’ rights. Low-wage South Asian laborers have been subject to abuse for years in the Emirates and other oil-rich Arab countries. They work long hours in extreme heat and humidity. Expo officials acknowledged that two workers were killed at the site in October 2019 and that 43 other serious incidents had resulted in injuries.

It is not known how many laborers became ill with the coronavirus. Expo officials announced that visitors will have to show proof of vaccination or undergo a coronavirus test prior to entry. Despite the fact that the UAE boasts one of the highest per-capita vaccination rates in the world, this is still a significant change.

The European Parliament urged countries not to participate in Expo this month, citing human rights violations, the imprisonment of activists, and the use of spyware by the autocratic government to target critics.

The European Parliament stated that “systematic persecution is occurring against human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers who speak out on human rights issues in the UAE.”

Even though the Emirati Foreign Ministry called the statement of the parliament “factually inaccurate”, Expo staff tried repeatedly to force journalists visiting the site to sign forms that implied they might be charged with criminal offences for failing to follow their instructions.