A Story, A Bio, and the Birth of This Blog

Blogs, I have been told by people who know blogs, are intensely personal, so a few words about myself and the origins of this blog are likely in order here.

The official bio will tell you that I am a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a non-resident research fellow at the New America Foundation, where I co-founded the World Economy Roundtable. The official bio may also link to articles and essays I’ve written for Businessweek, Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Journal of Commerce, National Geographic, Foreign Affairs, etc, etc. But enough of the official bio. If you are interested, you can go here to see more.

But more personally, I guess the seeds of this blog site germinated nearly 25 years ago when I began my career, fresh out of college, as a newspaper man in the early-mid 90s working for an English language daily in Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, called the Arab News. I was on the business and general assignment beat, covering everything from Korean and Japanese trade delegations to Filipino and Pakistani expat communities to Saudi trade and businesses. I was sent to the Arab News as part of a wonderful program run by the National Council on U.S-Arab Relations. My editors in Jeddah were veteran Indian journalists, a smattering of Australians and an urbane Saudi editor-in-chief from Jeddah who spoke Pashto and recited Persian poetry. I traveled a bit in the region, to Dubai, to Muscat, to Bahrain, to Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi, and then to Amsterdam, Athens, and London. It was probably then – nearly a quarter century ago – that this blog was conceived, long before anyone even knew what a blog was.

An idea germinated: there’s a whole world of intersections, of Indian merchants in Bahrain, Iranian traders in Dubai, South Asian professionals in Saudi Arabia, of Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean and South China Sea trade networks, of an Eastern order of merchants and political elites linking East Africa, India, the sub-continent, Asia, and the Iranian plateau and onward to southern and northern Europe. In a sense, there was a New Silk Road forming, recalling the original Silk Road of trade and traffic that lasted – on and off – for more than 1500 years before it went silent in the mid 15th century.

I later worked as a contributing writer/researcher for the Financial Times in Washington while in grad school at Johns Hopkins SAIS covering everything from Louis Farrakhan’s Million March to sweatshop labor and US-Caribbean banana trade disputes, before becoming a Reuters man in Dubai in the late 90s when the wires were really wires, and just before Dubai became Dubai.

If the idea for this blog was unwittingly planted during my stint in Saudi Arabia and subsequent travels, it began to flower during my time in Dubai in the late 90s – a place that was a cosmopolitan meeting place (even back then) of South Asians, Arabs, Iranians, and increasingly Chinese and Africans and southeast Asians. Clearly, Dubai was emerging as a New Silk Road hub of growing importance.

But that story would have to wait…Iran, my ancestral homeland, beckoned in the late 90s (a reform movement had excited the populace – and me), and I flew to Tehran with a letter from a Washington Post editor seeking my accreditation. The story I covered was mostly political and domestic, and the book I wrote was of a journey, of shrines visited, and poets read, and histories interpreted, and interviews with war veterans and revolutionaries and aspiring middle classes and frustrated youth. I spent New Year’s eve 1999 on the cusp of the millennium in a hard-liner mosque in south Tehran listening to a cleric sing the old, old songs of mourning with a group of Iranian veterans of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The next morning, I was in the belly of the Tehran bazaar, taken to the elegant suite of a carpet dealer with trade networks spanning across Asia and Europe. The idea resurfaced.

Next, I was off to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, the private sector development arm of the World Bank group, where I worked on the corporate research and communications team handling the Middle East North Africa region and Southern Europe and Central Asia (MENA and SECA, as we called them then) and wrote research reports based on travels to Bosnia, Turkey, Serbia, and beyond. The IFC has been successfully investing in emerging markets for more than five decades and working there gave me a new vantage point (not a front row seat, mind you, but a vantage point) into the world I first encountered in the transnational trade networks in Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian Plateau, Central Asia and East Asia, the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Over the next decade and some, I spent time at think tanks, the Woodrow Wilson Center, The New America Foundation, Oxford Analytica, and the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute (present), did some consulting work and teaching, began traveling to Asia and across North Africa and the Levant, and attended some of the World Economic Forum events that gathered some of the elite of this transnational order I was witnessing. The 2007 WEF conference in Dalian, China was particularly formative: there, I met some of the leaders of the emerging markets multinationals that are challenging the big Western corporates regionally and worldwide. I probably should have started the blog then.

Or maybe I should have started the blog when I was sitting in a café in Tunis with an Egyptian businessman who sourced goods from China, and sold them in bazaars across North Africa and stores in Europe. He was a colorful character – precisely the kind of person I want to feature in these pages. In 2007, I wrote this column in the Washington Post about the New Silk Road, in which I worried that the U.S foreign policy establishment is missing this important trans-regional phenomenon. I continued to peck at this theme over the years, speaking on the New Silk Road at the World Bank, World Affairs Councils in the US, or investment conferences from New York to Florence to Hong Kong.

In the last few years, on the conference circuit, I heard the new acronyms – the CHIME corridor (China, India, Middle East) or CHIMEA (adding Africa to the end), or “The New New Silk Road” or the witty quips from bankers: “Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai, or Good-bye.” I even coined one myself: HUBSS (Hong Kong, UAE, Bombay, Shanghai, Singapore) to describe the key hub cities/states of Asia. I saw a global emerging middle class and lots of interesting mash-ups, like Lebanese pop diva Nancy Ajram doing ads for Chinese smart phone maker, Huawei, to Arab consumers (Read the article on that in the Compass section).

In the year 2016, I was delighted to join hands with my colleague and friend, Mishaal al-Gergawi, to co-launch the emerge85 Lab, an effort to grapple with the key themes of rapid urbanization, unprecedented connectivity, and emerging middle classes that are transforming Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America — collectively home to 85% of the world’s population. I am particularly proud of the joint essay we wrote, The 85 World, in which we laid out these ideas. I remain devoted to supporting the work of the emerge85 Lab as I’ve handed over the reins to new leadership and moved back into research and writing mode full-time, and I encourage everyone to check out its podcast, the 85%, and follow its Twitter feed and the important next generation work that emerge85 is doing.

During the past two years, while my attention was focused on emerge85, I had less time for this blog, but now that I have more time, you’ll see it updated more often. 

A Revival

I still see myself as something of a journalist, so I hope to tell stories here in this blog, and I also hope you will read some of the valuable business journalism in the sites I have listed here. I think one of the most under-valued resources for researchers and scholars are English language newspapers, from Shanghai to Mumbai and, yes, Dubai. I cite liberally from these sources and include full links to encourage you to explore them yourselves.

I launched this blog in 2015 and have not tended to it as I should. That is changing, and a more user-friendly and blog poster-friendly revamp is in the works. I will also be launching a Twitter feed.

A note on sections:

The Compass section will include features and analysis of New Silk Road stories. The compass, of course, was a Silk Road invention, from the Han Dynasty. It will be the place for outside contributors to showcase their work when I revamp the site.

The Caravanserai section will serve as an information hub much as the old roadside inns of the Silk Road did in the past. There, you will find links to articles, videos, photos, essays, recipes, vintage advertisements, songs, and whatever else catches the fancy of NSM (yes, that will be the acronym for this site). The Caravanserai section will also be a great place to showcase the work of some of my colleagues who are doing extraordinary work analyzing and chronicling the New Silk Road.

But anyway, that will all change with a simpler blog that I can update more regularly with quick hitter news items, videos I love, podcast links, and the like.

Over the past five years, the trend lines of South-South trade, growing emerging markets middle classes, and rapid urbanization have all been shifting up and to the right. While the emerging markets hype has been frothy, the current negativity is also missing the point: the demographics will drive the story and the demographics combined with new forms of connectivity will literally reshape the world. Yes, there will be lows, and there will be losers, but the New Silk Road has long ago been revived.

This humble blog aims to tell some of the stories of this revival — and it aims to be less humble as I expand it.

Updated on July 25, 2018