The Latter-day Atlas who helped hold up World Expo

As it became clear that Expo 2020 would be postponed a year due to the pandemic, Giovanni Criscione’s efforts took on a greater significance

The morning Giovanni Criscione heard President Russell M. Nelson’s announcement of a Latter-day Saint temple in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, he was quarantined in a hotel recovering from a serious case of COVID-19. It was nearly 2 a.m. on April 6, 2020, and the Italian convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wept for joy.

He’d been isolated in his hotel room for nine consecutive days, away from his co-workers at the Expo 2020 Dubai, and away from his wife and three children, who were secluded in their apartment 15 minutes away. And yet he was overcome with gratitude and hope.

Just weeks before, news had poured in from all over the globe of a growing pandemic. Borders were closed, businesses shut down and medical professionals rushed to find answers and cures. Fear, doubt and even panic set in. 

Criscione is no stranger to staying calm and carrying on. Having worked as an advisor to the General Assembly of the United Nations representing Italy, a dignitary program specialist for the organizing committee for the 2006 Olympic Winter Games and protocol manager for Expo 2015 Italy, as well as an international relations officer for the mayor’s Cabinet in the city of Milan, Italy, Criscione has spent a career navigating protocol and cultural nuances often under high stress. 

But now, with Criscione’s assignment as the senior protocol director for Expo 2020 Dubai, which was set to open in October 2020 and intended to host the world for 182 days, everything was changing — on an hourly basis.

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Protocol was being tossed out the window.

“What is protocol?” Criscione asks rhetorically. “My mentor, professor Massimo Sgrelli, former head of protocol in the Italian Prime Minister’s Office, used to say, ‘Protocol is the particular art or science that when it works nobody really notices it, but when there is a problem it can become a major obstacle to conquer.’”

But, he continued, it can also be an opportunity.

Criscione had never faced a worldwide pandemic, let alone while preparing to open a worldwide expo. He suddenly found himself riding a wave of desperation. His team was discouraged as science seemed to be 10 steps behind the fast-acting virus. Concern for his extended family in Italy, concern for his wife and young children, and concern for his co-workers' morale and health were weighing him down.

But one morning in March, at 5 a.m., he had an idea — put a piano in the cafeteria. It seemed a rather minor thing, but the impact was immediate. “I don’t play well, but I play. My favorite composers are Chopin and Rachmaninoff. But I knew that music could bring light back into the dark uncertainty that had become our lives.”

Criscione emailed his boss and proposed his plan. Not only did Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy agree, but she also wrote back, “This is the most beautiful idea I have heard in a long, long time. Promise me something. Buy the piano, but buy it today.” Then she added that she wanted the piano to be purchased at her own expense.

“Magic happened,” Criscione said. “Everyone took turns playing the piano, and our hearts, souls and minds were lifted.”

As it became clear that Expo 2020 would be postponed a year due to the pandemic, his team’s efforts took on a greater significance: Expo 2020 was no longer just about showcasing nations or themes, but also about modeling resiliency in the face of global catastrophe.

Attendees walk through the United Arab Emirates pavilion at the Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Attendees walk through the United Arab Emirates pavilion at the Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Sunday March 27, 2022. The expo comes to a close this week as the World Government Summit kicks off. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A mixture of the desert sand and gulf air tends to obscure the sun in Dubai, even as temperatures can climb well past 100 degrees. But this afternoon in late March, it’s a relatively mild 80 degrees. Criscione is dressed in a gray suit with a textured blue shirt and an Italian-designed necktie. He’s navigating a snaking line in front of the Expo entrance almost by muscle memory.

It’s Expo’s final week — and Criscione has guided more dignitaries through the futuristic city-in-miniature than he can easily tabulate. Today, crowds have come out in force to get a final last glimpse inside the 200 pavilions — representing participation from 191 countries — each categorized into one of the Expo’s three themes: opportunity, sustainability and mobility.

Expo 2020 was no longer just about showcasing nations or themes, but also about modeling resiliency in the face of global catastrophe.

But, as The New York Times observed in its review of expo, global unrest and the pandemic catastrophe made the “story of Expo 2020 Dubai” equally about “communication, healing and building a better world.” An estimated 24 million visitors came to Expo 2020 — a triumph considering that it seemed almost on the verge of collapse as the pandemic put global travel to a halt.

When it became apparent that Expo 2020 would not be opening in October 2020 as previously planned, Criscione and his family were told to return home to wait things out. They would work through virtual means for the time being. A few days later, another call came. One of Criscione’s co-workers had contracted COVID-19, and Criscione had been exposed.

He was instructed to come in for testing. 

“I went back to the House of Volunteers at the Expo where the Dubai Health Authority had organized a testing site. It was completely transformed. It was like a medical center with doctors and medical staff wearing all-white protective gear from head to toe. I felt I’d stepped into a world of Martians or astronauts.”  

After testing, he was sent to a hotel to isolate and wait out his results. Fortunately, his wife, Rachael, and their three children tested negative. When Criscione’s results came in, he was already battling symptoms, and the positive result didn’t surprise him. 

Each day, Criscione’s boss and co-workers called him, checking on his condition. Twice, Her Excellency Al Hashimy recommended an ambulance be ordered. And twice, Criscione turned down the medical services. “I knew that I could enter the hospital, but I didn’t know if I would leave alive.”

He clung to the hope that he would recover without hospitalization. Hope was all he had left as his body fought to survive the disease that was ravaging a now very different world than the one expo hoped to display. “It was like the world had fallen,” he said. The earth had been swept both literally and figuratively from beneath Criscione’s feet. “I had a painful cough that wracked my chest and left me very weak, and I couldn’t sleep at night.”

Attendees walk through the Swiss pavilion during the World Expo in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on Sunday March 27, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Criscione’s job offer to work for the 2020 Expo Dubai came in an unexpected way. In 2011, he was serving in the mayor’s Cabinet, as international relations, public affairs and protocol manager for Expo Milano 2015. He’d traveled to Paris for the semiannual general assembly of the Bureau International des Expositions — the group that selects the city for future expos.

On the agenda were the presentations of the five candidates who were bidding to host Expo 2020, one of which was Dubai. 

“I knew that I could enter the hospital, but I didn’t know if I would leave alive.”

“Suddenly, a very classy and elegant lady dressed in a black abaya took the floor and started speaking in fluent French, switching after to perfect English and then again to French.” Criscione, who is also fluent in English and French, followed along. 

“She delivered an amazing presentation about Expo 2020 Dubai. Before she even finished, I knew inside that they were going to win the bid.”

Later, after the end of the session, Criscione took the opportunity to introduce himself to Her Excellency Al Hashimy, minister of state for International Cooperation and director general of Expo 2020. They talked for a few minutes. Criscione would see Her Excellency Al Hashimy several more times in the next two years, and Criscione came away from the conversation feeling impressed because she’d remembered his name.

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When Expo Milano 2015 opened to the world, Criscione once again had the opportunity to welcome Her Excellency Al Hashimy and associates to Expo. He also accompanied her and the security team to the Milano Malpensa airport on the date of their departure. 

Before boarding the aircraft, she turned and offered Criscione a job.

He was so shocked, that he didn’t know what to say at first. He was still working for Expo Milano. He could only stumble on his words and say, “Your Excellency, I would be honored but I am still working for the Italian Government, for Expo 2015. ...”

She was quick to cut him off, knowing what his argument would be. “Yes, Giovanni, I know, I know, but at the right time. ... In the meantime, please ask your wife. She is going to love it as well as your kids.”

Attendees walk through Saudi Arabia pavilion during the World Expo in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Sunday, March 27, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Criscione had been an adviser and member of the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations, representing Italy. He’d worked as protocol and public relations program specialist for the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy. He’d successfully completed his tenure for Expo 2015 Milano.

He told himself he could do his new job in Dubai well, but if he wanted to expand his reach and be useful in an entirely different country and culture, he’d need direction and grace. And, as it would turn out during the pandemic, he’d need much larger helpings of both to pull off the ambitious task before him.

As he began living and working in Dubai, Criscione received stunning news. Leaders of his own faith tradition, including Elder David A. Bednar, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would be visiting Dubai in January 2019 and wanted to meet with UAE leaders and top management of Expo 2020. Criscione was able help organize the meetings. But one issue arose: Due to their travel schedule, church leaders would only be available on Friday and Saturday.

This, Criscione knew, would pose a challenge since Friday was the Sabbath in Dubai, and Saturday was considered a weekend day off of work. A letter was sent to Her Excellency Al Hashimy, but it wasn’t until two days before the proposed visit that Criscione received confirmation that it would all work out.

“Giovanni, do not worry,” Her Excellency Al Hashimy said. She had made other plans, but she was committed to doing whatever she could to help meet with Criscione’s “priest.”

This first meeting opened the doors to further communication, and in October 2019, Elder Larry S. Kacher, a General Authority Seventy of the Church, and his wife, along with others, visited for a site tour of Expo 2020. It was during this visit that Elder Kacher paused alongside Mohammed Al Olama, director of Her Excellency’s Office. He offered a personal prayer. They couldn’t hear the precise words, but both men were moved by the gesture.

As the year 2020 began, Criscione could have never foreseen the pandemic that was about to ravage the world. He was filled with hope about a future temple and a successful Expo 2020 that would bring together people from all over the world.

April 6, 2020, was also the day that Criscione finally tested negative for COVID-19. He was able to reunite with his family once again. While he was relieved, he was also appreciative of the time he had in quarantine to ponder, meditate and pray. When Criscione was asked by church leaders what led the UAE government to allow the church to build a temple in Dubai, he received an answer from Her Excellency Al Hashimy who said it was a government decision.

It was, in her words, “the only real and right decision out there.”

As the year 2020 began, Criscione could have never foreseen the pandemic that was about to ravage the world. He was filled with hope about a future temple and a successful Expo 2020 that would bring together people from all over the world.

Criscione often quotes His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, “We don’t wait for opportunities, we create them.”

This was the mantra that brought the team together after the pandemic and helped one of the world’s largest in-person events to succeed and become a moment of unity and healing for the world in the wake of a once-in-a-generation challenge.

Despite being presented with opportunities to continue working on future world expos — the next one is in Japan — the Criscione family is comfortable contributing in Dubai for the foreseeable future, and Criscione is currently operating a boutique consulting firm.

But he admits that other opportunities might come knocking. Giovanni Criscione, after all, seems to have a habit of creating them.

Hal Boyd contributed reporting.