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Volume 21, Number 4July/August 1970

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The Arabs at Osaka

Written by Paul F. Hoye
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

OSAKA. — Three weeks after Japan opened Expo 70, officials in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, received a puzzling cable from the kingdom's Commissioner General to the exposition. "SEND MORE SAND STOP PAVILION PROVING POPULAR."

Sand? Send more sand ten thousand miles to Japan? Can the Commissioner General be serious?

Yes, the Commissioner General, one Bakri S. Shata, was serious. He wanted sand because a small, almost incidental display of sand from the famous red dunes of Dahna was boosting attendance figures to quite unexpected levels. Indeed, by 3:50 p.m. April 14, less than a month after Expo opened, one million people had visited the pavilion. "We counted," reported Mr. Shata happily, "as many as 40,000 people a day weekends and not less than 24,000 weekdays. That's four times our most optimistic estimate."

With refreshing candor Mr. Shata acknowledged that was due more to good fortune than brilliance. The location was excellent. Newspapers had carried a story about Mr. Shata's five-year-old daughter learning some Japanese at kindergarten. And the Kansai Telecasting Corporation chose Saudi Arabia's pavilion as one of ten "unique and outstanding" pavilions to be featured on a three-hour telecast of Inauguration Day ceremonies. That meant that with most of Japan glued to their Sonys for Asia's first international exhibition, the Saudi pavilion, red sand and all, went out in living color to nearly 100 million people. The next day the crowds began to come.

For Saudi Arabia, making its debut on the international exposition circuit, it was a welcome windfall. In line with King Faisal's efforts to channel more funds into the kingdom's basic needs, the allotment for the fair was comparatively modest—certainly not enough, most people thought, to pay for more than a token display.

In choosing their architects, however, the kingdom's representatives chanced on two teams of professionals who refused to simply go through the motions. The Kawashima Architectural Design Office and the Dainip-pon Printing Co. Ltd., the decorating firm, dispatched two teams of researchers to Saudi Arabia to ground themselves in Islamic thinking, compile data and accumulate the materials they would need to capture, in a meager 4,800 square feet, the flavor of a country in which dynamic social changes and an ancient religious code go hand in hand.

At first sight, admittedly, the pavilion that came out of that planning appears to express much more of the old than the new. Amid the chaotic collection of bizarre structures tilted drunkenly against the wild and wildly colored Expo skyline, the Saudi pavilion with chaste white arches, green domes and pale golden panels, seems inappropriately austere. Inside, however, past the attendants busily stamping the Saudi Expo seal on pads and programs, the exhibition is as modern as a missile, as busy as an assembly line. Lights flash. Drums throb. King Faisal speaks. Bedouins chant. On television screens Arabian horses gallop across the desert. In the center of the displays an oil drilling string turns endlessly in a glass casing and dark gouts of oil bubble out of a seething pool.

The layout is simple: an entrance hall with a mural and a portrait of the King, the central exhibit circled with lighted panels stressing educational, industrial and agricultural progress and, off to one side, an angular bank of red Dahna sand with visitors filing past, stooping to touch it, run it through their hands and surreptitiously drop a few grains into their pockets.

The last hall is a display of Koranic extracts in Japanese, an enormous reproduction of a National Geographic transparency showing pilgrims circling the Ka'bah—Islam's holy shrine in Mecca—at the peak of a pilgrimage and, adjoining it, part of the huge sacred covering of the Ka'bah, a hand-sown cloth covered with large strips of calligraphy in gold and silver. It's a reminder, according to Mr. Shata, that whatever else it may become, Saudi Arabia will be first and foremost the cradle and heartland of Islam.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is not the sole voice of Islam at Expo '70. Nine other Islamic countries are represented, four of them Arab states: Malaysia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey; Algeria, the United Arab Republic, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. However, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, sharing a common building, settle for simple displays of handicrafts; Malaysia focuses on industry; the U.A.R., housed in a simple replica of a pyramid, displays such items as plastic hassocks and bottled wine, and Algeria, in a handsome, Paris-designed building, stresses the progress it has made since it broke free of France.

Of the five Arab pavilions the Algerian building is easily the most elaborate. Done in handsome, free-form stucco, it includes a cool, chic French restaurant and a swift escalator that lifts the visitors from the ground floor to a theater showing one of the multi-projector, split-screen documentaries that are such an integral part of nearly every major exhibit at the fair. Algeria's, like New Zealand's, Ontario's and Ireland's, is superb, In what is no longer than a 10-minute film, a series of brief, brilliant, overlapping yet complementary vignettes and scenes, the size, beauty and potential wealth of an entire nation is captured—without a word being spoken.

Unhappily, Algeria, for all its excellence, wound up, as did the neighboring United Arab Republic, too far from the major exhibits. The results are much smaller crowds: not more than 22,000 according to their public relation director, at the time that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, all close to the popular Canadian exhibit, were winning a small but satisfactory victory for the Arab East.

For their themes, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi turned—more successfully—to the history and geography of the Arabian Gulf. Khalid al-Far, a Cairo-trained government architect, designed, for Kuwait a low, square structure with 82 fiber glass domes painted gold, 10 tiled panels in green and gold depicting life in Kuwait, and a pool in which floats a model of a pearling dhow. Inside the pavilion hostesses in pale orange miniskirts and capes guide the crowds through a one-story series of exhibits that include 340 flashing color slides, Arab swords and pistols, packaged shrimp from Kuwait fisheries and one enormous brass coffee pot big enough to hold a dancing girl.

Abu Dhabi, right next door, is equally simple. From a palace in the country of Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan and an old fortress called Alain, city planner Abdul Rahman Makhlouf has duplicated a fortress which
combines the square crenelated parapets and tall cylindrical towers so common to old Arabian Gulf mud brick forts. Inside are two central exhibits, one a carpeted Arab room, the other a handsome display of brass lanterns hanging from the inside of the cylindrical tower and splashed with iridescent patches of soft color pouring through stained glass apertures at the top. It's a memorable display and, according to the Commissioner General, Abdullah Daoud, a symbol of the bright future awaiting Islam and the Arab world.

Paul F. Hoye Editor, Aramco World Magazine.

Burnett H. Moody Chief Photographer, The Arabian American Oil Company.

This article appeared on pages 1-3, 32-34 of the July/August 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1970 images.