Why Amer­ica must wel­come the «Uzbek Spring»

The ar­ti­cle be­ing pre­sented be­low is au­thored by Rob Sob­hani, b. 1960, Chair­man and CEO of Caspian Group that works with com­pa­nies with busi­ness in­ter­ests in the United States, the Mid­dle East and the for­mer Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan Today (English) - - FRONT PAGE -

The Wash­ing­ton Times, 22.07.18 As Pres­i­dent Trump and his for­eign pol­icy team tackle the chal­lenges of sta­bil­ity and peace in Afghanistan, Pak­istan’s in­creas­ingly anti-Amer­i­can and un­der­handed be­hav­ior, the con­tin­u­ing war against global ji­hadists, and find­ing new eco­nomic part­ners to bal­ance the ris­ing power of China in Asia, they can turn to Uzbek­istan as a re­li­able ally.

This sec­u­lar Mus­lim coun­try of 30 mil­lion that is slightly larger than Cal­i­for­nia is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what can only be de­scribed as an “Uzbek Spring” un­der its re­for­mori­ented new pres­i­dent, Shavkat Mirziy­oyev. Af­ter years of self-im­posed iso­la­tion and poor eco­nomic per­for­mance, Mr. Mirziy­oyev, who came to power in 2016, has de­cided to turn his strate­gi­cally im­por­tant coun­try in the heart of Cen­tral Asia into a bea­con of pros­per­ity in the re­gion.

The next day at a con­fer­ence hosted by the Uzbek gov­ern­ment on eco­nomic re­form and di­rect for­eign in­vest­ment, the mes­sage was clear: Uzbek­istan is open for busi­ness and pre­pared to roll out the red car­pet for com­pa­nies that can as­sist this re­source-rich coun­try at­tain sus­tained eco­nomic growth.

This new-found burst of en­ergy and rein­vig­o­rated na­tional pride was on full dis­play at the post-con­fer­ence party, where I wit­nessed the warmth of the Uzbek peo­ple anx­ious to share their coun­try’s rich cul­ture and his­tory and tal­ented Uzbek artists shar­ing their beau­ti­ful voices and dancing with their for­eign guests.

What also struck me was the open­ness I wit­nessed in terms of re­li­gious free­dom. My young host who gave me a tour of the Tamer­lane Museum ex­plained that the Is­lam prac­ticed in Uzbek­istan fol­lows the Hanafi con­cept of ju­rispru­dence. This Sunni in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam is both flex­i­ble and mod­er­ate.

It was there­fore not sur­pris­ing to see young cou­ples hold­ing hands and tak­ing pic­tures in pub­lic and to see a Sa­cred Heart school in Tashkent. In fact, 9 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is Chris­tian and de­spite mov­ing to Is­rael when Uzbek­istan be­came in­de­pen­dent in 1991, the Jewish com­mu­nity main­tains its pres­ence in the his­toric city of Bukhara (the Bukhara Jews are the old­est ethno-re­li­gious group in Cen­tral Asia).

A re­newed push to­ward eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism and a tol­er­ant cul­ture are good foun­da­tions for Amer­i­can com­pa­nies to re­con­sider in­vest­ing in Uzbek­istan. Al­though the vol­ume of trade be­tween Uzbek­istan and the United States is still rel­a­tively small ($121.8 mil­lion in 2017 and $178.8 mil­lion in the first six months of 2018), the op­por­tu­ni­ties for Amer­i­can com­pa­nies are truly lim­it­less.

For ex­am­ple, Uzbek­istan’s po­ten­tial as a tourist des­ti­na­tion is enor­mous. Home to the his­toric cities along the Silk Road of Sa­markand, Bukhara and Khiva, Amer­i­can tour op­er­a­tors and ho­tel com­pa­nies would be well-ad­vised to con­sider in­vest­ing in Uzbek­istan that saw 2.5 mil­lion tourists in 2017 but has the po­ten­tial for 10 times this num­ber.

One of the great­est op­por­tu­ni­ties for joint U.S.-Uzbek co­op­er­a­tion is in the area of so­lar en­ergy. Uzbek­istan has more than 300 days of sun­shine and most of it is dry heat that makes it suitable for gen­er­a­tion of so­lar en­ergy. In view of Uzbek­istan’s highly ed­u­cated work force, a U.S.-Uzbek part­ner­ship to build world-class so­lar pan­els and cap­ture a share of the $443 bil­lion global mar­ket is well within reach.

Be­yond its po­ten­tial as an Amer­i­can in­vest­ment hub within Cen­tral Asia, Uzbek­istan’s geopo­lit­i­cal im­por­tance to Mr. Trump’s South Asia strat­egy can­not be over­stated. The re­cent visit of Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo to Afghanistan high­lights the im­por­tance of Uzbek­istan. Peace talks with the Tal­iban that were part of Mr. Pom­peo’s con­ver­sa­tions with the Afghan gov­ern­ment are be­ing fa­cil­i­tated by the Uzbeks.

In ad­di­tion, 30 per­cent of Afghanistan’s elec­tric­ity is pro­vided by Uzbek­istan. In short, with­out Uzbek­istan, Afghanistan would lit­er­ally plunge into dark­ness. And, as Pak­istan plays an in­creas­ingly desta­bi­liz­ing role in the re­gion, Uzbek­istan’s crit­i­cal role as a sta­bi­liz­ing, strong and re­li­able force should re­main a fo­cus of Wash­ing­ton.

Fur­ther­more, Uzbek­istan can play a key role in Amer­ica’s goal of un­in­ter­rupted ex­port of en­ergy re­sources from Cen­tral Asia. In fact, Uzbek­istan can be­come the an­chor of a nat­u­ral gas pipe­line that tra­verses to Turk­menistan (with the world’s fourth-largest re­serves of nat­u­ral gas), Afghanistan, Pak­istan and into In­dia. The State Depart­ment should work with in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions and Uzbek­istan to fast track this nat­u­ral gas pipe­line that can play a sta­bi­liz­ing role in the re­gion.

When Pres­i­dent Trump met with Pres­i­dent Mirziy­oyev at the White House ear­lier this year, he de­scribed the Uzbek leader as “a highly re­spected man in his coun­try.” Af­ter my first visit to this strate­gi­cally im­por­tant coun­try, the weight of avail­able ev­i­dence sug­gests that not only is Mr. Mirziy­oyez re­spected, his peo­ple wel­come and sup­port their leader’s de­ter­mined ef­fort to once again al­low their great coun­try to play a con­struc­tive role on the global stage.

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