Arabia takes the New Silk Road to China, spurning the West

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With hindsight we can see that two events occurring within days of each other in late 2001 brought about an epochal change in the world's strategic system, drawing China and the Mid-East oil powers into each other's arms again after five centuries of estrangement. The old Silk Road came back to life.

The Twin Towers attack of 9/11 – and the backlash that followed – caused the Arab world and its money to turn away from the US. That much is well known.

Six days later, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) concluded talks on China's accession, opening the floodgates of Chinese exports. The country's breakneck growth over the next seven years lifted the price of oil from $18 (£11) to a peak of $148 a barrel. In synergy, Beijing and the Gulf capitals amassed a vast share of global currency reserves. That too is well known.

It is the link between the two that is not immediately visible to the distracted Western eye. You have to know both regions intimately, and speak both Arabic and Mandarin. One of the few to combine these skills is Ben Simpfendorfer, China economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland and author of The New Silk Road.

Simpfendorfer says the New Silk Road is much like the old one, then a network of trade caravans moving dates, spices, medicines and cloth east in return for oranges, roses, jade, musk, satins and silks, along countless routes stretching across Central Asia. In the West we think of Marco Polo: the Arabs have their own Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan Berber who roamed much of the known world in the 14th century and reached imperial Fujian in a junk.

The trade dried up in the 1600s with the collapse of the Timurid Empire in Central Asia. China's Ming dynasty turned inwards, afraid of revolts. Portuguese, Dutch, and English sea captains captured the coastal trade.

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