Uzbekistan has an interesting story to tell at Expo 2020 Dubai of a country emerging from self-imposed isolation into one that is welcoming tourists and attracting inward investment.
Bakhtiyor Ibragimov, Uzbekistan's ambassador to the UAE, said the country had undergone an enormous transformation in the last five years, with ambitious plans to introduce further changes in the next five to ten.
When President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power 2016, he said ambassadors had to understand business, trade and investments.
“The first things he said is ‘I don't need politicians to be my ambassadors. I need ambassadors to change their mentality - so I need ambassadors who will be looking at promoting economic and investment relations’,” said Mr Ibragimov.
“He said he didn’t need politically appointed diplomats. He needed people on the ground who understand about trade and investments.”
The ambassador said a lot has changed since Mr Mirziyoyev came to power, including the quality of life for Uzbekistan's 35 million population - the most populous country in Central Asia.
He said Expo 2020 is the perfect opportunity to tell the story of a country that is keen to attract foreign investment and tourists.
“Five years ago we put for us a bottom line – the real story. We told the world that this is our starting point and from here we start moving, we start improving, we start getting our aims, and you can assess what we have announced,” he said.
Silk Road at Expo 2020
Uzbekistan has participated in previous world’s fairs but this is the first time the country has built its own pavilion.
At 1,739 square metres, the pavilion is divided into three sections - detailing the country's history in one, where it is today in another and its expectations for the future in the third.
The three elliptical structures also symbolise the historical Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
“We have done it in a way to show people what Uzbekistan was, what it is now and what Uzbekistan will be,” said Mr Ibragimov.
“Through this strategy we wanted to show to the world that Uzbekistan has something unique to offer – cities on the Silk Road: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva.
“God gave it [Silk Road] to us; there is no need to build any infrastructure and no need to harm by polluting it. We have just to preserve these beauties, show them to the world and benefit from this.”
Tourism is a newfound industry for Uzbekistan. Five years ago, the country was closed to tourists.
Pre-pandemic figures reveal that Uzbekistan had six million tourists in 2019, one million of which came from countries beyond the Commonwealth of Independent States region.
Uzbekistan allows visa-free entry for 80 countries, including UAE citizens and residents.
Mr Ibragimov said the country is of particular interest to Muslims.
“The two holy places to visit in the life of any Muslim are the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. But a third destination is the tomb of a great scientist Imam Al Bukhari," he said
“He wrote the hadith, which is the guidebook that translates what is written in the Quran to ordinary language that anyone who is reading it would understand.
“He was born, lived, worked and died on the territory of modern Uzbekistan. His mosque is just 20 kilometres outside of Samarkand.”
During Soviet Union years, his tomb fell into disrepair and was restored in 1998. It is housed in a mausoleum complex where construction work started at the beginning of this year to increase the capacity to 10,000 people.
“We're doing a very big, ambitious, upgrading job, because more and more Muslim tourists are coming,” the ambassador said.
The Expo pavilion introduces the potential Uzbekistan has to offer in terms of trade, economy and to attract potential investors or partners - textile, agricultural and tourism all have “untapped potential”, he said.
“When I came to the country [UAE] as an ambassador in February 2019, the amount of FDI from UAE to Uzbekistan was almost zero – maybe $50,000.
“Today, the amount of FDI from UAE to Uzbekistan is $4.5 billion.”
The majority of that is a project with Masdar, which is building four solar plants with a combined capacity of one gigawatt. One of these has already been built and was commissioned on August 27.
Agriculture is another important industry and the pavilion showcased Uzbek cuisine and fruits.
“We want to introduce visitors to Uzbek cuisine. We’re pretty sure once they taste it, they would fall in love with it and then find a good reason to go to Uzbekistan,” he said.
Next week, Uzbekistan will kick off its Expo 2020 cultural programme - led by Saida Mirziyoyeva, deputy chairperson of the Council of the Arts and Culture Development Foundation - with the international premiere of the ballet Lazgi – Dance of Soul and Love at Dubai Opera on November 27.
The show includes a new interpretation of the Khorezmian dance with a demonstration of the original traditions of the Uzbek people.
At Expo, Uzbekistan will host a discussion at the Women’s Pavilion on Wednesday November 29 entitled The Role of Women in the Modernisation of Social Life.
Famous Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov will play a concert at the Jubilee Stage on November 30, performing a programme of popular classical works by Liszt, Beethoven, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.
Uzbekistan will host its Expo country day on December 8, coinciding with its constitution day and a high-level delegation is expected to be in attendance. Each of the country’s 14 regions will also bring their dancers, music, and costumes.
Mr Ibragimov said Uzbekistan will keep its pavilion after the world's fair in March next year, with an initial plan to have it as a focal point for its activities in the region.
By that stage, he hopes the millions visiting Expo would have been encouraged to visit and invest in his country.
“We want to show the current Uzbekistan to the world and to get people acquainted with our rich history," he said.
"And we want to show them what we’re going to do for the next five to ten years.”