On the ancient Silk Road, there were no geographic boundaries.
Traders travelled freely along the vast network, exchanging goods and ideas and enabling the world’s first truly globalised market. It changed the nature of commerce, culture, city-states and consequently the world. Today, a new Silk Road is being mapped out.
Though it is still in its conceptual phase, the initiative has already become part of everyday investor and diplomatic discourse in countries, large and small, along both the old and new Silk Roads.
While ports, airports and dry docks are built, railway lines are laid and roads are paved, discussions are being had on how nations and people along the historic route can once again be linked. No one can dispute the potential of such a network.
It can change the current world order and affect millions of lives. As I continue my travels from east to west I’ve seen first-hand the role nations are seizing for themselves to be a part of this future Silk Road. I can also see how, in doing so, they are often taking inspiration from the past.
The large countries such as China and Kazakhstan are investing heavily in transport and manufacturing. But, look closer at the Silk Road, and anyone from investors to diplomats will also see how smaller countries like the UAE, Armenia and Georgia are also positioning themselves as key centres for exchange. Countries like these were always something of a middle point.
They may be small, but location is at the heart of their new Silk Road strategy. UAE’s investment in world-leading airports shows its acute awareness of its role as a transport hub. In Armenia, I saw how the capital Yerevan is becoming a regional centre for digital technology and innovation, much of which is then exported.
And Georgia is presenting itself as Europe’s “shortcut” to China, signing key free trade agreements, clamping down on corruption and making it easy for businesses to set up. While the majority of goods headed from China to Europe still travel via a long sea route which takes an average of five weeks, these countries are saying that they can be the transit points – the links in the chain – that enable goods to be delivered from East to West within three weeks.
There are challenges of course. For the new Silk Road to work, these smaller countries need their larger neighbours to be on board. Regional cooperation is vital, cross border transport and connectivity still needs to be improved, and investment opportunities need to be facilitated. But in places like Tbilisi, Yerevan and Muscat the optimism surrounding the modern Silk Road is already palpable.