Rome lost the race to host the Expo 2030 world fair to overwhelming favorite Riyadh, which got 119 votes. The Italian capital got only 17, surpassed even by Korea’s Busan with 29.
The scene that had been unfolding since the morning with the 182 diplomats who arrived at the gates of Paris, at the Palais des Congrès in Issy-les-Moulineaux, to cast their votes (of which 17 would abstain) had something of the grotesque: they had to pass between two wings of lobbyists and were stormed by representatives of the three countries vying for the event.
The contest between Rome, Riyadh and Busan was obviously an unequal one, especially from an economic point of view. It’s enough to point out that the Italians estimated (generously, to say the least) that if the event was held in Rome, it would bring in about €50 billion in business. But the Saudis, who are playing with real money, have already invested €8 billion just to prepare for the event.
The Roman site for the Expo would have been in Tor Vergata, on the eastern outskirts, in the area of the Calatrava Sail that had been put up to host the 2009 World Swimming Championships. The project had broad support across the whole political spectrum. Giorgia Meloni sent in a video message in which she explained (fruitlessly) that the Italian project was dedicated “to the relationship between people and territories. It gives voice to the identity of each nation.”
Also in Paris was the mayor of Rome, Roberto Gualtieri, who had made Expo 2030 one of the pillars of his election campaign (along with the 2025 Jubilee), billing it as an opportunity to renew Rome and reform the city. It would have been no small challenge, given that in the vast majority of cases, such big events leave behind over-optimistic ruins and a mountain of debt for the public coffers.
Meanwhile, CGIL, through its secretary for Rome and Lazio, Natale di Cola, had a message for Gualtieri after the defeat of the bid: “We need to turn the page, building dialogue with the city, starting with the management of the Jubilee and the upcoming discussion on the municipal budget.”
“We have put forward a beautiful project of redevelopment of an entire part of the city, projects that we want to pursue just the same, although in different forms,” Gualtieri stressed.
His predecessor, Virginia Raggi, also appeared very involved in the bid; not usually inclined towards such broad alliances, she was nonetheless appointed chair of the Capitol’s Expo Commission. Speaking before the vote, she said that choosing Rome would mean saying no “to a system, that of Riyadh, based on money basically, on economic power, on force. We stand in contrast to a regime in which civil and human rights are trampled.” Indeed, the awarding of the Expo represents a victory for Mohammed bin Salman’s regime, which, according to estimates by Amnesty International, has executed 112 people between January and October this year alone and continues to suppress all dissent and restrict women’s freedoms.
What went wrong, beyond the obvious factor of investment firepower? It’s certainly true that the Italian government seemed a little unenthusiastic as of late. Behind the facade of institutional collaboration and patriotic cheer – with Lazio Region President Francesco Rocca even announcing, to ward off all superstition, that if Rome won he would shave off his goatee on live TV – on Tuesday the absence of the Prime Minister in Paris was noticeable. Apparently, she first delegated the task to Undersecretary Maria Tripodi and then ended up sending Sports Minister Andrea Abodi to France.
If we try to compare the international network of relationships woven by Meloni during this year in government and the map of Tuesday’s vote, things don’t really add up. For example, Albania and Tunisia didn’t vote for Italy. Still on the subject of diplomacy, Israel announced the day before the vote that – against the spirit of the Abrahamic Accords – it would vote for Italy instead of the Saudis. But one has to wonder whether their endorsement (as a country waging war) didn’t hurt Rome after all.
The votes of some of the European representatives also went somewhere else, so much so that some have gone so far as to argue that Rome’s flop is a failure of Europe.
“Rome is the city that came out on top at the inspection stage,” said the mayor, “but here the BIE inspectors don’t get a vote, the ambassadors do.” In short, what Gualtieri euphemistically called “bilateral relations” referred to the persuasion work carried out by Saudi lobbyists with individual delegates. Ambassador Giampiero Massolo, chairman of the Rome Expo 2030 Committee, was more direct: he accused a “mercantile drift” in the awarding of the Expo bid.