- - Sunday, July 22, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I arrived to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, late at night and what struck me most was how it resembled Paris at night. The broad, well-lit, tree-lined boulevards reminded me of the “City of Light” and I could not wait to begin my first visit to this historic country along the old Silk Road.

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 reform-oriented 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.

• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.

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