I write this looking out over the foothills of the Kopet Dag, which are lightly frosted with snow, a week after the Turkmenistan UK Trade and Industry Council (TUKTIC) in London: a good time to reflect on the relationship between our two countries.

TUKTIC alternates between Ashgabat and London. It takes place at approximately 18 month intervals. It signals the clear desire on the part of the UK and Turkmenistan to expand and strengthen our commercial ties. We are both trading nations, though Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, conceded last week that Turkmenistan has the longer track record in international trade. The city state of Merv was a regional centre and major transit point on the Silk Road in the 12th century. It was among the largest cities in the world at the time, second only to Kaifeng in China. And although it is technically still a young country, the territory which Turkmenistan now covers also had a capital city some time before we did. The fortress and settlement at Nisa, on the outskirts of present day Ashgabat, was the capital of the Parthian empire in the middle of the third century BC. As Sir Simon pointed out, that makes London, which was founded by the Romans only in 50 AD, look a comparative latecomer. Nor can we compete with Ashgabat’s marble buildings. London looked very brown by comparison. And of course it rained. Our welcome was warm, however.

Turning to business, British companies have wide-ranging expertise to offer in areas where Turkmenistan has expressed an interest or a need. These include the oil and gas sector, financial services, engineering, agriculture, utilities and education. We are pleased and proud that it was a British company, Trivandi Chanzo, which helped organise the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat last September. We are also delighted that Cambridge University has now signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Turkmen Ministry of Education which will enable them to work together to develop the English language curriculum for schools in Turkmenistan. We look forward to reproducing these successes in other fields, in particular with those companies which were represented at TUKTIC, and which all have a serious interest in doing business in Turkmenistan. We also had representatives from the Department for International Trade (DIT) there, including Arslan Garryyev, the International Trade Officer in our Embassy in Ashgabat. DIT promotes British trade and investment globally, and can link foreign companies to companies in the United Kingdom in their sector. Conversely it can, through Arslan, provide reporting for British companies on opportunities in Turkmenistan in their field. In some cases export finance is available to British companies trading with Turkmenistan through UK Export Finance.

We can tell you about that, too.

Beyond trade, 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Turkmenistan. The year saw visits to Ashgabat by the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy, Baroness Nicholson, and also by Sir Simon McDonald himself, the first visit to independent Turkmenistan by a Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary of State. This underlined our common interest, not just in trade, but more widely, in both the prosperity and wellbeing of the Turkmen people and the peace and security of the Central Asian region. We have noted, and value, Turkmenistan’s engagement in helping Afghanistan work towards a stable and prosperous future. We commend plans to expand transport links to its Central Asian neighbours and the country’s contribution to the equitable sharing of regional water resources through its chairmanship of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. We look forward to continuing our dialogue with the Turkmen government on these. We have much to learn from Turkmenistan’s understanding of the dynamics of Central Asia from its geographical position at the heart of the region.

And there is a broader message to take away. It is that Britain is, and will remain, a reliable partner and an honest friend to Turkmenistan. We are a European country, proud of our European heritage and values. That will not change when we leave the European Union next year. But we have always looked out beyond Europe to the wider world. We see our global role as a country which promotes good governance, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, and which seeks to prevent and resolve conflict and to build stability, peace and prosperity. We will, in the words of the Prime Minister last year, now become even more “a country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies.” Turkmenistan is among those old friends, and last week’s meeting marked a further stage in that friendship.
President Berdimuhamedov has designated 2018 the year that Turkmenistan commemorates its place at the heart of the Great Silk Road. With the development of a 21st century Silk Road from China across the world, Turkmenistan will once more be at the heart of the continent, a link in the chain, a connecting road. We hope that Turkmenistan will let us walk that road with them.

Thorda Abbott-Watt
British Ambassador to Turkmenistan
29 January 2018