The Silk Roads:A New History of the World
IN MANY ways, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have represented something of a disaster for the United States and Europe as they have played out their doomed struggle to retain their position in the vital territories that link east with west. What has been striking throughout the events of recent decades is the west’s lack of perspective about global history – about the bigger picture, the wider themes and the larger patterns playing out in the region. In the minds of policy planners, politicians, diplomats and generals, the problems of Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq seemed distinct, separate and only loosely linked to each other.
And yet taking a step back provides valuable perspective as well as remarkable insight, enabling us to see a broad region that is in turmoil. In Turkey, a battle is raging for the soul of the country, with internet providers and social media being shut down on a whim by a government divided about where the future lies. The dilemma is replicated in Ukraine, where different national visions have torn the country apart. Syria too is going through a traumatic experience of profound change, as forces of conservatism and liberalism battle each other at huge cost. The Caucasus has been through a period of transition too, with multiple issues of identity and nationalism bubbling up, most notably in Chechnya and Georgia. Then of course, there is the region further east, where the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 was the prelude to a long period of political instability, and Xinjiang in western China where the Uighur population have become increasingly unsettled and hostile, with terrorist attacks now such a threat that the authorities have decreed that growing a long beard is a mark of suspicious intentions, and have begun a formal programme, known as Project Beauty, to prevent women from wearing the veil.
There is more going on, then, than the clumsy interventions of the west in Iraq and Afghanistan and the use of pressure in Ukraine, Iran and elsewhere. From east to west, the Silk Roads are rising up once more. It is easy to feel confused and disturbed by dislocation and violence in the Islamic world, by religious fundamentalism, by clashes between Russia and its neighbours or by China’s struggle with extremism in its western provinces. What we are witnessing, however, are the birthing pains of a region that once dominated the intellectual, cultural and economic landscape and which is now re- emerging. We are seeing the signs of the world’s centre of gravity shifting – back to where it lay for millennia.
There are obvious reasons why this is happening. Most important, of course, are the natural resources of this region. Monopolising the resources of Persia, Mesopotamia and the Gulf was a priority during the First World War, and efforts to secure the greatest prize in history have dominated the attitudes of the western world to this region ever since. If anything, there is now even more to play for than there was when the scale of Knox D’Arcy’s finds first became apparent: the combined proved crude reserves under the Caspian Sea alone are nearly twice those of the entire United States. From Kurdistan, where newly discovered oil reservoirs such as the Taq Taq field, whose production has risen from 2,000 to 250,000 barrels per day since 2007 – worth hundreds of millions of dollars per month – to the huge Karachaganak reserve on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia which contains an estimated 42 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as liquefied gas and crude oil, the countries of this region are groaning under its natural resources.
Then there is the Donbas basin that straddles Ukraine’s eastern frontier with Russia, which has long been famed for coal deposits estimated to have extractable reserves of around 10 billion tons. This too is an area of rising significance because of further mineral wealth. Recent geology-based assessments by the US Geological Service have suggested the presence of 1.4 billion barrels of oil and 2.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as considerable estimated volumes of natural gas liquids. Alongside this sit the natural gas supplies of Turkmenistan. With no less than 700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas estimated to be below the ground, the country controls the fourth largest supplies in the world. And then there are the mines of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that form part of the Tian Shan belt, second only to the Witwatersrand basin in South Africa for the size of its gold deposits. Or there are beryllium, dysprosium and other ‘rare earths’ found in Kazakhstan that are vital for the manufacture of mobile phones, laptops and rechargeable batteries, as well as the uranium and plutonium that are essential for nuclear energy – and nuclear warheads.
Even the earth itself is rich and valuable. Once, it was the horses of Central Asia that were a highly prized commodity, coveted in the imperial court in China and in the markets of Delhi, as famous to the chroniclers of Kiev as those of Constantinople and Beijing. Today, large parts of the grazing land of the steppes have been transformed to become the astonishingly productive grainfields of southern Russia and Ukraine: indeed, so fertile and sought after is the trademark chernozem (literally ‘dark earth’) that one NGO has found that close to a billion dollars’ worth of this soil is dug up and sold annually in Ukraine alone.
The impact of instability, unrest or war in this region is not just felt in the price of oil at petrol pumps across the world; it affects the price of the technology we use and even that of the bread we eat. In the summer of 2010, for example, weather conditions produced a poor harvest in Russia, with yields well below domestic demand. As soon as the likely deficit became clear, an immediate ban was placed on the international export of cereals, effective with ten days’ warning. The impact on global cereal prices was instant: they rose 15 per cent in just two days. Turmoil in Ukraine at the start of 2014 had a similar impact, forcing the price of wheat sharply upwards because of fears about its effect on agricultural production in the world’s third largest wheat exporter.
The cultivation of other crops in this part of the world follows similar principles. Once, Central Asia was famous for Babur’s orange trees and, later, for the tulips that were so highly prized in capital cities across western Europe in the seventeenth century that canal houses in Amsterdam were exchanged for single bulbs. Today it is the poppy that is fought over: its cultivation, above all in Afghanistan, underpins worldwide consumption patterns for heroin, and determines its price – and of course impacts the costs that result from treatment for drug addiction and rehabilitation care as well as the price for trying to police organised crime.
Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury India