Uzbekistan – a window of opportunity

President Islam Karimov’s economic program makes his central Asian country an attractive place to do business.

Yulia Kim and Anastasiya Ruzmetova of Uzbekistan perform in the synchronized swimming duet technical preliminary round at the Aquatics World Championships in Kazan, Russia (photo credit: REUTERS)
Yulia Kim and Anastasiya Ruzmetova of Uzbekistan perform in the synchronized swimming duet technical preliminary round at the Aquatics World Championships in Kazan, Russia
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Among the few Muslim countries that are friendly to Israel, Uzbekistan holds a special place thanks to its historical connection with Jews of Bukharan and Ashkenazi origin.
Recently placed on the World Economic Forum’s list of the top five countries with the fastest-growing economies and GDP growth (8.3 percent), Uzbekistan is attracting foreign investors impressed by the policy of strengthening stability and democratic reforms developed by President Islam Karimov.
Last year, the country reported $3.3 billion in investments, of which 73% were foreign. Companies such as General Motors and Chevrolet and firms from South Korea, Germany and Sweden are currently in the Uzbek market.
In a program presented in Tashkent last month, top priorities set by the Uzbek government were to increase private ownership, protect small businesses and continue to make structural changes.
Uzbekistan’s achievements come against the background of financial crisis and the tense situation in Central Asia and the Middle East. It is even more impressive that the Uzbek president has stressed the importance of reliable partnership.
“The Uzbek people are openhearted people. We strive to live in cooperation and accord with countries both near and far, preserving the spirit of mutual trust,” Karimov said in a keynote address titled “Top Priorities of the Economic Program for 2016.”
This is a clear indication that Israeli businesses are welcome. But with just $41.4 million in bilateral trade in 2015, is Israel missing out on this opportunity? Uri Bar-Lev, a security expert and former Israel Police attaché to the US and shareholder of Delek Ltd., attended the International Investment Forum in Uzbekistan.
“This country gives you a very special feeling; you feel at home. Even the food is similar to Israeli food. For me, as someone who has devoted his life to the safety of Israel, Uzbekistan today looks like an important partner in standing against the common enemy – extremism – for the sake of stability and security.
This is a stable country, and Israel should appreciate it,” he said.
“There is no doubt that there is huge potential for business development.
What interested me most was a proposal for cooperation in the energy field – such as solar energy. We are studying those ideas now. Uzbekistan is rich in minerals and offers many opportunities.
It can serve as a bridge for the countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations. Cooperation with them is a future assignment, but it would be interesting to meet with them and speak with them.
“At the Investment Forum, I was surprised to see that there were not many Israelis.
They are only beginning to explore this window of opportunity,” he added.
Prof. Eduard Yakubov, president of the Holon Institute of Technology, stressed a different point.
“Last year, HIT became the first Israeli hi-tech institution to sign a cooperation agreement with Tashkent Polytechnical University. While Israelis are hesitating, our competitors are capturing the Uzbek educational market, and they are here to stay. The European School of Management and Technology (Germany) has opened the Scientific and Educational Center for Corporate Governance in Tashkent, and South Korea’s Inha University has a branch. The ICT sector in Uzbekistan today represents only 2% of GDP, but what is encouraging is that broadening the ICT sector is now a top government priority,” Yakubov said.
Regarding education, he said, “I was very moved when, after one of my lectures at Tashkent University, a young Uzbek student approached me with a request to help him get accepted into [a] technology studies [program] in Israel. He said, ‘I’ve heard a lot about Israeli hi-tech. It’s my dream to study in your country. I am ready to learn Hebrew for this.’” Safar Ostonov is the editor-in-chief of the Voice of Uzbekistan, a newspaper published in Uzbek and Russian. Recalling the earlier days in the country, Ostonov said, “Looking back to the early 1990s, I’d like to stress an important point that not many think people about. It took us Uzbeks a lot of effort to rid ourselves of the deep-rooted Soviet stereotype that cotton was the white gold of Uzbekistan, the main source of our national pride. It was not easy to realize that cotton is cotton, and not our national pride.
“Islam Karimov, the newly elected president at the time, took a risk and cut down the cotton fields significantly to provide space to grow cereal grains and to solve the housing problem.
It was a courageous step to think more about providing food for people than about the programs of the big Soviet bosses sitting in the Kremlin. (Needless to say, according to statistics, consumption of meat and eggs per capita in Uzbekistan was less than in the other countries of the FSU.) It was a step in the right direction. He could ensure food for people, which was not so easy in a densely populated country of 31 million people.
When someone is hungry, nothing can calm him or stop him.
Today, there are no hungry people in Uzbekistan.
“That is not just my opinion,” he added.
“I just received the news that Uzbekistan was one of the 14 countries to receive the 2015 award among the member states of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization for achieving the Millennium Development Goals in the area of ensuring food security.”
He considers this the key point of the Uzbek “success story.”
“Who would come to work with us or celebrate with us if there were hungry people? Nobody. Now foreign investors are confident in our economy and in our country. I am very proud of that.
I am ready to work from early morning till late at night to show it to the world. We may not be as prosperous as Western countries, but today in Uzbekistan 42 out of 100 families have a car; 47 families out of 100 have computers; 31 out of 100 families have air conditioners; and there are 234 mobile phones per 100 families.
I think that’s not bad,” he asserted.
About cooperation with Israel, the editor said, he thought Israelis “have good opportunities to work in Uzbekistan in various fields, from alternative energy and drip irrigation to food security and archeology.”
Ostonov explained that “Uzbeks welcome Israelis on a personal level and have a very warm attitude toward the country.
Almost every adult Uzbek, particularly in the cities, has neighbors or friends who moved to Israel. When you just say the word ‘Israel,’ people immediately recall connections with a Jewish teacher at school, a famous Jewish Uzbek musician or the shoemaker who worked on the corner of the street. That is a lot,” he said.