The State Fetish: Producing The Territorial State System at a World’s Fair

Natalie Koch, Syracuse University
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2022.65.2p
Figure 1: Belgium pavilion

If you really want to feel like a dedicated world traveler at EXPO 2020 Dubai, you need a passport. But this is no ordinary passport. This is a bright yellow EXPO passport that everyone can buy for a mere 20 Dirham – the UAE equivalent of about US $5. In one sense, having this passport makes you part of a cosmopolitan class of global citizens. It does not privilege or disadvantage anyone based on where they were born or the nationality of their parents. Holding this passport does not bar you from some places, or give you easy access to others. Everyone with an EXPO passport is treated equally.

Figure 2: Expo Passport

There is nonetheless a sort of prestige that some visitors try to get from this passport: collecting stamps from the many pavilions at EXPO. Of these pavilions, the vast majority are countries – 192 UN-recognized territorial states to be exact. Not long after the event began in October 2021 (delayed because of Covid), a local newspaper, the Khaleej Times, celebrated the Dubai-based architecture student, Mili Parmar, who set a record of getting 188 passport stamps in just nine hours. In fact, she needed five passports to collect them all. When I visited the Dubai EXPO in January 2022, I didn’t observe anyone going to the same lengths as Ms. Parmar, but many people in my company were extremely anxious about getting their stamp, and getting it quickly. True to any collecting endeavor, collecting stamps in your EXPO passport is defined by a simple logic: the more, the better.

While all this may sound like a bit of fun, it is an example of how the curious spectacle that is a World Expo – a top-tier World’s Fair that happens every five years – reinforces the contemporary state system. The state is the building block of the dominant geopolitical architecture, which organizes political space around territorial borders, citizenship, and indeed, passports. Of course, there are and always have been different ways of organizing political space. The territorial state just happens to be the most dominant political structure today, not least because it controls our mobility through the passport system.

How and why the system persists is something that has long perplexed political geographers like myself. The global fetish for the state can be explained in many ways, but one explanation that rarely gets sufficient attention is the fact that events organized around the territorial state system, like EXPO or the Olympics, make it into something that can be enjoyed. That is, the state fetish can be fun. I knew this from my earlier research on spectacle in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere, but I found EXPO 2020 Dubai to offer a surprisingly new vantage point on the spectacle of the state system.

Sprawling over 4.38 square kilometers at the southwest edge of Dubai, the EXPO grounds include a mix of dynamic and static spaces, which allowed me to witness and participate in the spectacle firsthand. As I quickly learned, though, the essential building blocks of the site are not just static in the sense of being solid structures, but also in a second sense – that is, state-defined pavilions were the central nodes that structured space and time at EXPO.

Figure 3: Misc. pavilions (Russia, Thailand, Switzerland, Pakistan)

Pavilions at EXPO are not all territorial states, though most are. Countries all took a different approach to the exterior design of their pavilion, with some being more extravagant than others. Many of the more ostentatious ones, like those of Russia, Thailand, Switzerland, and Pakistan, used bright colors, shimmering facades, and ornate designs. Inside, the pavilions tended to highlight the country’s national culture and scientific achievements, tourist destinations, and natural features. In many cases, such as Switzerland, the pavilion exteriors were far more impressive than the interiors, where there was little to see or do. In other cases, there was a more elaborate set of activities, films, or displays that visitors had to go through in a structured manner.

Figure 4: Thailand’s Film

Thailand’s pavilion, for example, introduced visitors to the country through a series of videos in separate rooms – guided by the two mascots, pictured in front of the pavilion and on the passport stamp (Fig 02 above). This video shows how Thailand was packaged and presented as a modern country with a range of technological innovations and smart cities, as well as a place for medical tourists. Later videos in the pavilion focused on other aspects of life that would make it appealing for foreigners to visit, retire, or invest in Thailand. While I found the mascots to be almost ridiculously funny, I wasn’t sure if the pavilion’s designers intended the kitsch factor to be as intense as it felt to me and the European visitors in the halls with me. Regardless, the idea of the films and the mascots was to present the country as a modern, exciting place, and in so doing, recruit visitors (and their money) to Thailand.

Figure 5: Saudi Arabia pavilion

The Saudi Arabia pavilion was also heavily geared toward recruiting tourists and investors by presenting the country as hyper-modern. The ticker feed on the building’s exterior is telling – scrolling text in English and Arabic included many of the touchstone ideas of contemporary green modernity narratives: “sustainable cities”, “building cities of the future”, “explore new wonders”, “preserving the future”, “working towards a better tomorrow”, and of course, thrown into the mix, “discover Saudi.”

Figure 6: Saudi pavilion interior

Inside the Saudi pavilion, it was the same message: Saudi Arabia is a modern, progressive country, with a rich, dynamic culture, and so many beautiful places to visit. Like many of the larger pavilions, this pavilion included a rich and dynamic use of visuals, projecting images and videos on different surfaces, often in a surprising and arresting manner. In one central hall, for example, visitors could look down on a central dome, where birds-eye images of a particular place were depicted, while behind them, rich, colorful images of that place were projected next to a map of Saudi Arabia, indicating where the site was located – here, the Shaybah oil field, Al-Ahsa oasis, Thee Ain ancient village, and the Holy Mosque in Mecca. Since Saudi Arabia created a new tourist visa in September 2019, the country’s boosters have been actively promoting tourism in the country and the EXPO pavilion was a strong investment in this effort. Indeed, even beyond the confines of the EXPO site, the city of Dubai was dotted with countless posters and billboards advertising the Saudi pavilion at EXPO and with it, the same enjoinder: “Visit Saudi.” Altogether, the promotional campaign has a core message similar to the Thailand example above: Saudi Arabia is a modern, exciting country, where visitors and their money are most welcome.

Figure 7: UAE Pavilion

As the host of EXPO 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had a privileged position to promote its own brand of modernity and unique national attraction. The UAE pavilion was one of the most architecturally daunting structures on the EXPO grounds. After an international competition, the winning design by the Spanish architecture firm Santiago Calatrava blends modern aesthetics with traditional references to a falcon in flight. Like the exterior, the interior of the UAE pavilion was largely impressive because of its minimalism. It was not brash and loud like many of the other country pavilions. It had no kitschy mascots like those at the Thailand pavilion. Instead, its organizers used a more austere messaging around unity through diversity, which is a core thread of Emirati civic nationalism. Besides the pavilion itself, Emirati national pride was broadcast throughout the EXPO site, ranging from smaller interactive displays about Emirati culture, to a placard praising the UAE’s modernity, to a series of medal plates in the ground marking historic moments in the country’s history.

Figure 8: UAE's Film

But nationalism in the UAE has two main storylines. One is a more inclusive, civic strand that embraces its foreign national residents, who comprise about 90 percent of the country’s entire population. A second strand is a more exclusive ethnic Emirati identity narrative. These themes of this second storyline are neatly encapsulated in the short film, which all pavilion visitors had to first watch before then moving to freely explore the exhibition spaces. The film, which was projected on an auditorium wall where our seats rumbled at points, captures all the major tropes associated with ethnic Emirati identity: sand dunes, date palms, camels, falcons, oryxes, men and women in national attire, traditional dance and music, and dhow boats and the mix of desert and maritime heritage. Toward the end, the film subtly marks the 1971 establishment of the UAE as a federation of seven emirates when the seven founding emirs of shown in a row, before then spotlighting elements of modernization that followed, including education, automobiles, and an oil plant. But per the standard national narrative, even with this modernization after independence, Emiratis are shown to never leave their traditions or their homeland – they remain rooted in the place and their ethnic identity.

Figure 9: Syria pavillion

While ethnic Emirati nationalism storyline was important throughout the event, the cosmopolitan storyline in Emirati nationalism was the dominant one at EXPO 2020 Dubai. This was expressed in many ways, but promoters stressed that the event should be the most inclusive World Expo in history – defined by including the most countries possible. To that end, the Emirati government paid for many countries to develop a pavilion where otherwise, they would not have had the financial or political resources to participate. Syria was one such case, thanks to its long-running civil war and economic dire straits. Other countries that required UAE funding and diplomacy to ensure their participation included Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Bahamas. While Syria’s Economy Minister Mohammad al-Khalil took the opportunity to encourage tourists to return to the country when opening the pavilion, the Emirati organizers took the opportunity to showcase its tolerance and generosity by involving all countries at EXPO – international pariahs included. Except, of course, for North Korea.

Figure 10: Qatar Pavillion

Less an international pariah and more a regional pariah, Qatar was included at EXPO in no small demonstration of the Emirati hosts’ tolerance and enthusiasm for the state system. The UAE and Qatar governments were embroiled in a nasty feud that lasted from June 2017 until January 2021. Spearheaded by Emirati and Saudi leaders, this involved the rupture of diplomatic ties with Qatar and an air, land, and sea embargo to try to cut the country off from vital goods and resources. In the end, the split was smoothed over with the Emiratis and Saudis winning essentially no concessions, but personal and political tensions are still high between people and politicians in all the countries. The fact that Qatar was represented at EXPO was a statement in and of itself – if nothing else of a tepid regional tolerance for Qatar’s sovereignty and independence from its neighbor’s efforts at exerting influence over its conduct of domestic and international affairs.

Figure 11: Qatar pavilion interior

Inside, the Qatar pavilion was conspicuously quiet about the geopolitical crisis that had defined much of its recent concerns. Rather, the Qatari approach largely followed that of their Emirati rivals – preferring a quiet austerity that focused on more innocuous images, like borderless maps and the requisite images of the country’s Emir and Father Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa. Beyond the entryway’s simple presentation of geographic facts about the country, other displays included simple videos on repeat about the FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted in Qatar in fall 2022. When it comes to an uncertain recovery of diplomatic relations, especially after the country’s sovereign statehood is in question, it probably is safe to assume that even at EXPO, less is more.

Figure 12: Turkmenistan pavilion

Other countries with a troubled international status took a similar approach of simplicity and innocuous banality in their EXPO pavilions. Turkmenistan, for example, has been firmly closed off to the outside world since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Its ostentatious pavilion exterior referenced Turkmen national symbols related to horses and rug designs. Similarly apolitical, its interior included projected video on loop showing maps of Turkmenistan as part of the Silk Road, images of beautiful and depopulated natural landscapes, and at the center of the ground level room, gloriously illuminated wheat – its leading agricultural product. If visitors ventured upstairs, they would encounter various aspects of the personality cult that surrounds the current dictator, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. On the ground floor, where I presume most visitors stopped, however, Berdymukhamedov’s cult was masked by a cult of the Turkmenistan state and nationalist symbolism instead.

Figure 13: Iran pavilion

Iran’s pavilion was yet another display that involved visually-arresting exteriors and little substance inside. Unlike Turkmenistan, though, one would not find any refence to the political leadership in this pavilion. The preference here was to focus on culture and especially Iranian rugs.

Figure 14: Iran pavilion eagle

I found the Iranian pavilion to be strikingly beautiful, and it was easy to get lost in the art and historical relics on display. And yet, I was also struck by the quiet foreboding of a particularly martial-looking eagle with a globe, set at the entry to the pavilion. As a political geographer, I understand that when I look at a statue like this, I will invariably filter it through my own awareness of current events – in this case, the troubled international status of Iran, the difficulties faced by ordinary citizens there, and the violence of its authoritarian system. But can all this be put onto a small statue at EXPO? Who put this here and why? We may want answers, but geographic images are invariably going to raise more questions than to answer them.

Figure 15: Kazakhstan pavilion

Kazakhstan’s pavilion was the opposite of some of those described above, in that it had a relatively simple exterior, but a very rich interior. I have spent many years traveling and researching in Kazakhstan, so I was not expecting to be surprised by the messages and themes on display. However, I felt an urgency to go on the day that I did.

Figure 16: Kazakhstan's Film

In early January 2022, a wave of protests began to swell, finally crashing in explosive violence and the government’s decision to shut down all internet and telecommunications network in the entire country on January 5. The next day, the country was still completely cut off from the world and no one knew what was happening, except that a complete revolution could be underway at that moment. I visited the Kazakhstan pavilion straightaway on the morning of January 6. I considered it possible that the Kazakhstan delegation may have simply closed down the pavilion for the day, but it was open when I arrived. I didn’t expect to see anything changed in the display – and it wasn’t. But it was different in the sense that I was filtering it through a new awareness that the country was in the middle of a massive upheaval. With this in my mind, I watched the pavilion’s concluding performance about the “future” with a new sheen of uncertainty – for the future of the country and my many dear friends who give life to the state, willing and unwilling subjects of a tragically authoritarian system. As the film waxed poetic about the human relationship with technology, it was hard not to think of how these friends were at that moment cut off from the outside world. And yet, it was the territorial state system that facilitated this sudden technological rupture, as the government used its political and institutional power to halt internet access at Kazakhstan’s borders. I acutely felt the tumultuous uncertainty of this moment pulsing in the room during this performance – in the visuals, the acrobat’s face, internally, and with the many Kazakhs seated near me.

Figure 17: Campus Germany pavilion

The official Germany pavilion at EXPO 2020, “Campus Germany,” was a hulking structure. It had one of the most elaborate interior sets of activities and displays – some structured and unstructured, but all centering on environmental issues and sustainable living. The overall tone and message of the pavilion was strongly didactic, telling visitors in no uncertain terms that we all need to come together to secure a sustainable future for the planet. There were many references to German industry and the country’s leadership in the field of sustainability – here indexing the country’s modernity and national uniqueness like all other state-defined pavilions at EXPO – though the focus was arguably more on the global, environmental story than the national story.

Figure 18: Baden-Württemberg pavilion

One of the federal states of Germany, Baden-Württemberg, might not have been satisfied with the generic story about environmental sustainability at the Campus Germany pavilion. Or boosters in Baden-Württemberg could have simply wished to go one step further by having their own pavilion. Branding the state as “The Länd: the source of innovation”, the displays focused on companies and business opportunities in Baden-Württemberg. Innocuous as it may seem, the fact that a sub-state entity, a federal state, should have a standalone pavilion slightly disturbs the organization of EXPO around UN-recognized countries. Baden-Württemberg’s representation in this way would be the equivalent of Alaska or Texas having pavilions separate from the United States, or the emirates of Ras al-Khaimah or Fujairah having pavilions separate from the UAE. It is difficult to imagine the EXPO leadership from the USA or UAE agreeing to this, but it also raises many potentially sensitive questions about separatist regions or breakaway states seeking legitimacy through having their own pavilion. To be clear, Baden-Württemberg has no such separatist inclinations and its organizers likely argued that they were just interested in recruiting more business and tourism to their region – which is probably why its application was accepted. As long as it didn’t seek to disturb the state systems norms, Baden-Württemberg could stand alone and even give visitors like me a unique Baden-Württemberg Haus stamp in their EXPO passports.

Figure 19: Palestine pavilion

Unlike the more banal Baden-Württemberg representation question, the status of Palestine represents one of the most obvious challenges to the territorial state system. Subject to the settler colonization of Israel for decades, Palestine claims to be a state – as their pavilion exterior makes clear in its unique label, “State of Palestine.” As we have just seen, EXPO’s focus on “UN-recognized” states as the benchmark for its inclusiveness is not limited to these countries. Palestine, which has non-member observer State status with the United Nations, is recognized by 138 of the member countries. Its presence at EXPO was, in fact, an important statement of its determination to achieve full international recognition and to realize territorial sovereignty in a way that other countries of the world can. And yet, inside the pavilion, the displays were largely quiet on the issue of settler colonialism. Interactive displays designed around the five senses – seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting the wonders of Palestine. However, upon entering into the entry foyer, visitors were directly told that we were in Jerusalem, “the capital of Palestine.” And in leaving, a long descending corridor took us past stunning paintings from a Palestinian artist, Lamis Abu Khalil, with titles like, “Patience”, “The Pledge”, and “The Art and Sorrow of Waiting” that all spoke to the suffering of living under occupation.

Figure 20: Aotearoa/New Zealand pavilion

Settler colonialism was an issue that some countries’ pavilions more directly addressed. In the case of Aotearoa, Māori claims to the land configured in today’s state system as “New Zealand” were directly recognized. Māori knowledge and culture were incorporated throughout the interior exhibit, which was focused on water. And unlike many other settler colonial states where the settler language is privileged, Māori language was prioritized in the various written displays of the pavilion.

Figure 21: Australia Pavilion

Australia was another pavilion that made explicit its settler colonial status. The exterior was adorned with typical settler symbols of Australian nationalism, including kangaroos draped in national flags, but First Nation peoples were featured prominently in the colorful entry foyer paintings that depicted them joyfully standing together with other Australians. There is a much more complicated story about Indigenous politics in Australia that such an image obscures, but recognizing the country’s diversity was at least one way that this pavilion nodded to the colonial pasts and presents that the contemporary state system is built upon.

Figure 22: Australia's Pavilion

Upon entering the Australia pavilion, visitors were guided through a long hall to reach a circular auditorium, where we then watched a film projected on the ceiling like a planetarium. The whole film was focused on First Nation Australians, who are described there as “the original astronomers.” Here again, many political layers are at work in the production of this film, but the fact that all visitors to the Australia pavilion were required to sit through the film in its entirety ensured that the message about First Nation groups’ important place in this state clearly reached us all.

Figure 23: USA Pavilion

In stark contrast to the Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia pavilions, that of the United States of America was completely silent on its settler colonial status. Primarily focused on Outer Space exploration and technology – even including a real SpaceX rocket in the back – there were no references to Native Americans in the pavilion. One section was dedicated to the U.S. National Park Service, but true to the founding vision of the park system, Indigenous peoples and their claims to the land and its resources were stripped from the story. The territorial state system is built on the erasure of competing claims to sovereignty and, if the EXPO pavilion offers any perspective on mainstream thinking in America today, this system continues to serve the US imperial project well.

Figure 24: UK Pavilion

If the United States pavilion was silent on its settler colonial status, the United Kingdom pavilion was even more silent on its colonial history. The pavilion was primarily designed around an interactive exercise, inspired by the work of Steven Hawking. Visitors were asked to choose a single word, which we then typed into a small digital tablet, and were then given an AI-generated poem. Our words were then shown on the inside and the outside of the building, with the words constantly changing and moving. The English language is, of course, a major part of the colonial structures that continue to shape contemporary geopolitics. So in some sense, the pavilion was a proud claiming of this linguistic dominance. But the pavilion guide told me, the AI program was strict about the language choices made by visitors – refusing their entry if they spelled a word incorrectly. Most frustratingly, though, she noted that the AI would only accept American spellings, and not British spellings. This technological glitch was a hilarious, if small, subversion of the British colonial project. Yet it did not fundamentally alter the broader agenda of the pavilion, which was to shift our attention away from the past to a high-tech future instead. On the exterior of the pavilion, a 2016 quote from Steven Hawking speaking at the Royal Society in London made this future orientation explicit: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

Figure 25: Spain Pavilion

The Spain pavilion was more explicit about its role in colonialism, though this colonial history was treated exclusively in a celebratorily fashion. Like the UK pavilion, it included a section about “Spanish, an international language.” In addition to proud statistics advertising the number of Spanish speakers in the world (approx. 493 million), a wooden orb paid homage to the EXPO 2020 location in the center of the Arabic-speaking world by highlight the flow of Spanish and Arabic words. Other sections of this display highlighted the role of Spanish explorers and technology in “bridging continents” and sparking the first wave of globalization. In this pavilion, Spain’s early architects of the empire and its successor, the territorial state system, were no villains but heroes to be celebrated.

Figure 26: Morocco pavilion

The European colonizers were not the only ones to celebrate exploration at EXPO, though. Morocco’s pavilion included diverse references to the country’s rich history of valuing and producing geographic knowledge, which is seldom recognized in the West. One hall, for example, was dedicated to the major contributions of geographers and explorers like Ibn Battuta and Muhammad Al-Idrisi. Unlike its former colonizer Spain, however, the Moroccan vision of geography on display here was more about cataloging facts and producing cartographic knowledge than about setting up a new political structure, which the Spanish pavilion generously labeled as “globalization.” And yet, the complicated linguistic politics of colonialism silently emerges here too – there are no Tamazight (Berber) translations in the pavilion displays, despite growing recognition of Morocco’s Amazigh heritage in the official sphere and the amended 2011 Constitution recognizing Tamazight as “an official language of the State.” Like the settler colonial countries discussed above, this is another example of a fundamental paradoxes of the state system today: Indigenous erasures are both created by and supposedly rectified by the state system. This is not a system gone wrong, I would argue, but the system working as it was designed – trapping our thinking and our structuring of space in a cycle of self-perpetuation.

Figure 27: Oman pavilion

The Oman pavilion offered yet another articulation of colonialism, albeit around a more future-oriented vision of Outer Space exploration that was seen in the US pavilion. In this case, though, the Omani story was focused on one of its nationalist symbols, the frankincense tree. Frankincense trees were planted outside the pavilion and many rooms inside made some connection to the tree, described as the “mother tree” in some sections. In a room entirely dedicated to plants, a frankincense display spoke to its potential role in colonizing Mars.

Figure 28: Oman pavilion Mars

The frankincense display about Mars was bookended by an Arabic and an English version with the same picture and text reading, “The long voyage to Mars Poses Physical & Psychological risks to Future Settlers of the Red Planet. Frankincense has a known positive effect on overall mental health, as well as a powerful immunity-aid due to its ability to destroy pathogens like bacteria, fungi, viruses, and even cancers, which could make it a great candidate to take to Mars besides other plants.” With images appropriately illustrating the idea here, we see an astronaut staking a claim to Martian land, planted with frankincense trees. Traveling to and settling on Mars was a common theme in many other pavilions at EXPO 2020 and indeed, colonizing Mars seems to be all the rage these days. What these stories obviously obscure, of course, is the inherent violence of colonization – not just to the place that is treated as a new site of greedy extraction, but also in justifying the persistence of greedy extraction here on Earth. And even where the territorial state system seems to be erased in the image of the borderless world where the rocket ship is departing, it is not a world free from borders. I am, after all, standing in the Oman pavilion, situated in a country called the United Arab Emirates, holding an actual passport from the United States of America.

Figure 29: Belgium pavilion interior

Going back to the Belgium pavilion, where this essay started, visitors inside were reminded at every turn that Belgium is “moving ahead” and that it is focused on exciting new developments for 2050 or, more generally, the “future.” Future narratives are seductive because they help pull our attention away from unsavory realities of the past and of today – whether those are political, environmental, or today, invariably a combination of the two. It is easy to lose sight of the political structures that simultaneously define these problems and set the parameters for their resolution. The territorial state continues to be the hegemonic system structuring global politics, so it is important to reflect on how and why it persists, as well as what kind of perspectives and claims to sovereignty it erases. The spectacle of EXPO is just one place where the state fetish gets turned into something fun and enjoyable, but it is not the only one. EXPO 2020 Dubai is a vivid illustration of the need to look to realms of pleasure and wonder to understand the persistence of the state system – and its silences and violences.