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Investors, Look East?

After the peaceful 1991 collapse of the USSR foreigner investors flooded into the former Soviet Union, seeking deals. The majority of foreign capital was directed at the post-Soviet space's hydrocarbon assets and largely centered on the Caspian, especially in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. During the period 1991-2011 Azerbaijan has attracted more than $60 billion in FDI and its northern Caspian neighbor, Kazakhstan, more than $120 billion.

Uzbekistan during the same period has had a more modest FDI inflow, estimated at around $10 billion, but that it about to change as Tashkent aggressively markets itself to the global financial community.

Last December in London at the 17th session of the Uzbek-British Trade and Industry Council Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, Investment and Trade Elyor Ganyev told his audience that Uzbekistan plans to attract over $50 billion of foreign investment in next five years in over 500 projects. For steely-nerved investors the potential opportunities are significant.

There is certainly much to tempt the adventurous investor - Uzbekistan is the third largest natural gas producer in the former USSR after the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan and is one of the top ten natural gas-producing countries in the world, with proven natural gas reserves of 1.58 trillion cubic meters. Although its current oil production is consumed indigenously, Uzbekistan also contains around 594 million barrels of proven oil reserves and there are 190 discovered oil and natural gas fields in the country.

Hydrocarbons not your thing? Uzbekistan also contains significant mineralogical deposits of lead, zinc, silver, molybdenum and coal. The State Committee for Geology and Mineral Resources (Goskomgeologia) oversees the mining industry in Uzbekistan.

It is Uzbekistan's gold reserves that have up to now attracted the most foreign attention, with gold now second most important foreign exchange earner at 22 percent, hardly surprising, as Uzbekistan is the world's seventh-largest producer, mining about 80 tons per annum, and holds the fourth-largest reserves in the world. The Muruntau deposit alone contains eye-watering reserves of an estimated 4,000-6,000 tons of recoverable gold. Over 2,700 mineral deposits and a variety of 100 different natural resources have been discovered in Uzbekistan which are mostly unexploited as Uzbekistan's role in the Soviet era was primarily as the USSR's "cotton plantation."

So, why the relatively modest of FDI in Uzbekistan up to now?

One of the country's problems is geographic - being one of the world's two landlocked nations (the other is Liechtenstein), pipelines are a more problematic issue than for nations like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Another issue is the country's strict conservative fiscal policy, though this is in transition. The post-Soviet space, with the exception of the Baltics, was ravaged by hyperinflation for several years after 1991. Tashkent's highest priority was to attempt to shield its populace from worst effects of inflation, which in 1992 exceeded 2,000 percent. The caution has continued to the present day and the country's caution extends to the fact that the national currency, the soum, is not yet fully convertible. Uzbekistan has also pursued a cautious policy with international fiscal institutions, but the wisdom of such an approach has been vindicated during the global recession, which largely bypassed Uzbekistan.

Another issue is that such caution extends to the government maintaining a significant presence in the economy. Combined with corruption, which is a problem throughout the post-Soviet space, though no worse in Uzbekistan than anywhere else, and many "get rich quick" foreign investors have up to now looked elsewhere. Again, the wisdom of Tashkent's cautious approach was underscored in April 1997 when George Bush, as Governor of Texas, personally pushed Enron Corp.'s business interests with the Uzbekistan ambassador, Sodyk Safayev, with Enron chairman Ken Lay writing to Bush, "Enron has established an office in Tashkent and we are negotiating a $2 billion joint venture with Neftegas of Uzbekistan. This project can bring significant economic opportunities to Texas as well as Uzbekistan." Despite such high-level lobbying, Uzbekistan wisely chose not to ingest the Enron Kool-aid.

Those who have stayed the course however, such as General Motors, have begun to prosper, as its GM Uzbekistan joint venture with Uzbek OJSC UzAvtosanoat, which began production in November 2008, is now producing 250,000 vehicles annually. Boeing, Coca Cola, Baker Hughes, Honeywell, Nukem and Hewlett Packard are some of the U.S. companies that have entered the Uzbek market.

The leaked Wikileaks treasure trove of U.S. diplomatic cables is an overlooked source of useful investment information. Regarding Uzbekistan, as one cable from the U.S. embassy in Tashkent dated 20 January 2010 noted, "However, any business arrangements should be entered into with open eyes, and the Embassy is prepared to advise and try to assist any American company that feels subjected to aggressive business tactics in Uzbekistan." For investors with strong stomachs, patience and 20/20 vision, Uzbekistan may yet prove to be a profitable stop along the fabled Silk Road.

By OilPrice.com Analysts

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