During the last years of his governorship, Gov. Gary Herbert led trade missions to Taiwan (2018) and Japan (2019). The global COVID-19 pandemic spoiled plans for a similar initiative in Saudi Arabia and Dubai during the spring of 2020. These individual forays to promote trade to Asia strengthened relations individually with their respective governments and private businesses.

What remains to be seen is whether these trade missions, those taken and those planned, might form part of a coherent, forward-looking policy for Utah’s economic growth well into the mid-21st century.  

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Global demographic trends for the 21st century forecast extreme growth across Asia, west from India, as well as throughout the African continent. This surge of population will take place at the very same time that East Asia, Europe and Latin America experience significant decreases in population growth rates as well as a greater percentage of silver-haired citizens. According to one study, the 10 largest cities in the world by 2100 will include (in descending order), Lagos, Nigeria; Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Mumbai, India; Delhi, India; Khartoum, Sudan; Niamey, Niger; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Kolkata, India; and, Kabul, Afghanistan.

In addition to surges in fertility across African and West Asian landscapes, migration from rural to urban areas will contribute to the emergence of scores of megacities (with populations in excess of 10 million inhabitants) throughout the world. This trend will also confer greater importance upon the global role of cities throughout the world as nodes of economic and political significance, among which Salt Lake City would figure as a veritable city-state, where the city is the de facto center for decisions affecting the majority of citizens in the state.  

If Utah policymakers and business owners interested in expanding the state’s global reach, as well as tapping into emergent markets thirsty for tech and biomedical solutions, can integrate recent state-led trade missions into a singular strategy, they might shape a competitive advantage reaching well into the mid-21st century in these soon-to-be emergent markets.  

In recent years, Japan has established private and public links to India and Africa, countering the oft-times controversial expansion of Chinese businesses and state-led development efforts known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Believed to operate on a less coercive and fiscally responsible model of extending developmental aid, partnering with Japanese enterprises might open opportunities not only in East Asia, but also West Asia and Africa as the century unfolds.   

Likewise, the state’s unrealized trade mission to Dubai fits within this paradigm of a shift in global economic opportunities towards Africa and West Africa as well. While many consider Dubai’s outsized skyline and opulent island neighborhoods a flash in the pan, the strategic role of the Persian Gulf, where dhows have been plying the seas of the Indian Ocean, connecting Asia and Africa for thousands of years, will endure as a trading center even should the tourists quit calling.

One measure of this is the increasingly strategic role of Dubai’s International Airport as the home of Emirate Airlines, which connects most of the African capitals and much of India’s outgoing passenger traffic to each other and the rest of the world. In many cases, traveling from African megacity to a neighboring megacity through Dubai is easier than traveling directly between those two African cities.  

Just as the 21st century will see a marked shift in power away from states and towards cities, urban areas will be tiered according to the economic goods and services they are able to offer on the global market. As a result, emergent cities will look to highly skilled cities, including the likes of Salt Lake City, to provide technologically sophisticated goods and services for growing markets. Silicon Slopes may increasingly look to collaborative intermediaries in East Asia (through alliances with partners in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) or marketing conduits in Dubai to establish opportunities in the quickly shifting terrain of 21st century business landscapes.  

Gov. Herbert’s ambitious trade missions were important in and of themselves in making a place for Utah in new global markets. Yet linked together, they might point the way to a more coherent and competitive entry to places of highest growth during the balance of the 21st century.  

Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history. His views are his own.