- The New Silk Road: How a Rising Arab World Is Turning Away from the West and Rediscovering China
Ben Simpfendorfer, in his new book, The New Silk Road: How a Rising Arab World Is Turning Away from the West and Rediscovering China, takes a lively and reader-friendly journey through the streets of China and the Arab world with their narrow neighborhoods to illustrate a strong undercurrent of trade and ideas. The gist of his tale, told through conversations with academics and taxi drivers, salesmen and traders, average citizens and government officials, is that two historic powers—China and the Arab world—are reclaiming their economic and cultural global primacy. The author uses his journalistic writing talent, as well as his ability to converse in the languages of the regions, to create an eminently readable account of his observations and numerous conversations based on a decade of living in China and the Arab world. This unique perspective comes from a unique author. Not only is Ben Simpfendorfer the chief China economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland in Hong Kong—as opposed to a traditional academic—he has also lived in Beijing, Cairo, Dubai, and Riyadh. He uses his language abilities in Chinese and Arabic to focus much of his attention on ordinary people, although he does not neglect the usual economist’s data sources. Ben Simpfendorfer, by occupation an economist, does this by footnoting economic trends and statistics, but this is not a book of statistics. It is a book of ideas and observations that creates a convincing scenario that is too often overlooked by the West.
The new path worn between China and the Arab world is being trod by ordinary people who are trying to better their lives through trade and [End Page 379] manufacturing, by looking for new customers and consumer goods. He identifies the new economic strength in both China and the oil-rich Arab world and the increasing relations between them. He sees this trend growing stronger. The author argues that these changes are not necessarily a result of governmental policies, although it helps that the Chinese and Arab governments only minimally interfere, but as a result of grass-roots changes. The poor and middle-class citizens in China and the Arab world, who are trying to better their lives through trade and education, are creating this new Silk Road.
In addition to the independent actions of people, three factors are identified by the author as being particularly important to the durability of this story over the coming decades. The first factor is the rise of the Chinese economic model with its emphasis on rapid growth and stability. The second factor, a result of the increasing need for and cost of energy, is the rise of the Arab wealth funds. The third factor is geography, in particular, the rise of an “Islamic Corridor,” or the more colloquial term “New Silk Road” (p. 160).
The China economic model, built on the principle of rapid growth with social stability, has become a robust alternative to the Western model. A Chinese thirst for oil, primarily from the Arab world, directly results from a Chinese governmental decision to grow prosperity through manufacturing and exports. The China model has credibility because it has proven successful. As Ben Simpfendorfer illustrates through his charming but earthy stories, one need only to walk around China to see the impressive results. Of course, what China offers is a tailored version of what Western countries have been offering for generations, but without pushing for huge democratic reform that would leave current leaders and reformers without benefits from the changes they advocate. Western need for political change to parallel or proceed economic change places China in the enviable position of cheering on economic reform in the Arab world and elsewhere regardless of the pace of political reform (pp. 160–161).
The second major factor that goes beyond the actions of individuals is the...