Uzbekistan – a landlocked country nestled at the heart of the Silk Road. Fertile lands of the wise khanates, hard negotiators controlling powerful trade routes, where imperial powers once hustled for influence in the Great Game – and now once more attracting the interest of the world.
For generations, the country has been almost entirely closed. The previous regime was obsessed with control and suspicious of success. International investors were routinely burnt, with giants such as General Motors and BAT clinging on through gritted teeth and constant harassment. In an economy dominated by the state, entrepreneurs had to be creative in order to grow.
Yet since 2016, the picture has been changing and the economy has been opening up. New freedoms of movement allow ordinary Uzbeks to see the wealth of Turkey, the Middle East and Europe. A motivated government seeks to achieve a century’s worth of development in a decade and emulate the best of all possible worlds.
Sprawling state-owned companies are the first targets. If ambitions are realised, shares in a raft of national assets will soon be in private hands. These include a creaking state airline, bloated oil and gas companies and some of the world’s most exciting mining deposits. Consultants are working around the clock to prepare them for the international market. For investors, low-hanging fruit will offer quick returns.
Reforms are also unpicking years of legislation that has been hostile to entrepreneurs. Private sector champions are reorganising to become transparent, efficient and sustainable. Companies such as Artel – possibly the country’s largest corporate – are graduating to international financing, and maybe one day a London listing.