Saudi Arabia won the bid to host the World Expo 2030 in a landslide on Tuesday, delivering a triumph to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, as he seeks to reshape the authoritarian country’s international image — and his own.
The vote was held by the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris, which has 182 member countries, and the 165 delegates who were present cast secret ballots. Saudi Arabia won 119 of the 165 votes, easily defeating South Korea and Italy.
The win gives Saudi Arabia the chance to bask in the global spotlight in the year that the crown prince’s plan to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, “Vision 2030,” is meant to conclude.
The victory also demonstrates how, once again, he has been able to wield the kingdom’s power, money and influence to overcome attempts to isolate Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns and efforts to stereotype it as a desert backwater with little to offer the world. He has sought to position himself as an indispensable global leader and the kingdom as a major destination for business and tourism.
“World Expo has great appeal for the Saudi leadership,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “The Saudis are determined to have a big coming-out party in 2030 to show the success of their vision.”
The three countries vying for the 2030 event had organized splashy events in recent months to court international delegates. But none appeared to be as lavish as Saudi Arabia’s. Delegates, for example, were treated to a dinner of blue lobster tail and ossetra caviar at an event near Paris this month, according to Politico.
For its bid, Saudi Arabia unveiled an extensive campaign focusing on the futuristic megaprojects that Prince Mohammed planned to build across the country by 2030, which include a giant cube-shape structure that promotional videos call “a gateway to another world.”
Its presentation in Paris on Tuesday included a video in which the Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo — whom the kingdom recently recruited to play in its national league, in a deal reportedly worth around $200 million — said, “My family and I, we have a great time here in Saudi.”
The video also described the kingdom as a “beacon of progress and sustainability” and a young, vibrant nation experiencing unprecedented change. “Our young people are leading the change,” Princess Haifa Al Mogrin, the kingdom’s UNESCO delegate, said in the presentation.
Before the World Expo in Riyadh, another will be held in 2025 in Osaka, Japan. The most recent expo was held in Dubai, a glittering Persian Gulf emirate that Prince Mohammed has both competed with and emulated. Winning the vote in the French capital — where the Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 exposition — represents an opportunity for countries to attract global attention, millions of people, cash and prestige, as well as create jobs and infrastructure.
Saudi Arabia’s victory adds to the kingdom’s success in securing big global events such as the 2029 Asian winter games and the 2034 World Cup. It has spent lavishly to draw some of the world’s greatest players to its soccer league and to its golf circuit, which then merged with the PGA Tour.
The kingdom, which has advertised its ambitions for the expo on billboards across Paris, has said it would allocate $7.8 billion to host the event. In June, Prince Mohammed himself attended a reception in the French capital to promote the Saudi bid.
On Tuesday night, a celebratory light show illuminated the Saudi capital, Riyadh with fireworks shooting off the side of a skyscraper.
Over the past year, the kingdom had also courted deeper relationships with a number of states it previously had few or no connections to, exploring new investments and establishing diplomatic ties.
This month, Prince Mohammed hosted a summit of Caribbean leaders for the first time. In May, Colombia declared its official support for the kingdom’s Expo bid during a visit by a Saudi delegation that pledged to open an embassy in the country. And President Emmanuel Macron of France expressed early support for Saudi Arabia’s candidacy.
The Saudi bid had its detractors. Last week, 15 rights groups signed an open letter to the members of the Bureau International des Expositions urging them not to vote for Saudi Arabia because of its “history of violating basic human rights and curbing freedoms.”
Under Prince Mohammed, the conservative Islamic kingdom has witnessed a dramatic loosening of social restrictions, including for women, alongside a political crackdown on dissent that has deepened over the years.
Mayor Roberto Gualtieri of Rome — the city was Italy’s candidate to host the event — warned last week that a Saudi victory could mean a “grim, oppressive and dark” expo.
Early in his term, President Biden sought to isolate Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed over human rights violations like those in the war in Yemen and the murder of the exiled Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi.
But time and again, the kingdom’s oil wealth and geopolitical influence have made it impossible to disregard. Mr. Biden visited last year, partly to seek the prince’s help in keeping down oil prices after Russia invaded Ukraine.
In Paris, Italy began its presentation to the expo voters with speeches by a British film producer and the Italian actress Sabrina Impacciatore, best known for her role in the HBO series “White Lotus.” It also enlisted the actor Russell Crowe, who starred in “Gladiator,” as an ambassador for its bid. But Italy finished a distant third, with 17 votes.
Some Italians took to social media to express their disappointment. Claudio Cerasa, editor of the Il Foglio newspaper, wrote on X, “The vote was an “international exhibition of Rome’s (and Italy’s) ability to matter in the world (and in Europe).”
South Korea, which finished second with 29 votes, had also gone all out to promote its bid to host its first World Expo in the port city of Busan, appointing the K-pop band BTS as its ambassador, along with celebrities like the “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae.
The expo competition was not immune to the effects of the Israel-Hamas conflict and the war in Ukraine.
On Tuesday, Israeli news outlets reported that Israel — which has long wanted to establish formal relations with Saudi Arabia — had withdrawn its support for the Saudi bid because of Riyadh’s opposition to the war in Gaza. But Lior Haiat, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, rejected the report, saying that while the country did support Italy, it had never endorsed Saudi Arabia.
And during the presentations for the 2025 expo, the Russian representative announced that Moscow would not participate in the Osaka expo, after pulling its application to host the 2030 event, because of the “biased” attitude of member states.
Emma Bubola reported from London, and Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. John Yoon contributed reporting from Seoul.