Why this Middle East trip can make Utah the ‘Crossroads of the World’

Originally published in the Deseret News.

Editor’s Note: Natalie Gochnour, David Eccles School of Business Associate Dean and Deseret News contributor, traveled with a delegation of business and community leaders on a trade mission led by the World Trade Center Utah to Israel and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Here is an insider’s look at what occurred on the trade mission in the first of a six-part series. She was joined by Gov. Spencer Cox and others and here focuses on Utah’s emerging role as the Crossroads of the World.

People often describe Utah as the “Crossroads of the West.” It’s a fitting moniker given the state’s central location in the interior western United States. Utah lies halfway between Canada and Mexico and roughly equidistance from the Pacific Ocean and Continental Divide. U.S. Interstates 15, 70, 80 and 84 all pass through the state and the Salt Lake City International Airport serves as a major hub for one of the largest airlines in the world.

Even Utah’s past conveys a place of connection; the Lincoln Highway, Pony Express and transcontinental railroad all connected people through the Beehive State.

I thought about the crossroads’ slogan as I boarded a flight with a 64-person strong, governor-led delegation headed to Israel and United Arab Emirates. The delegation included Gov. Spencer Cox, legislative leadership, state government leaders and business and community representatives.

World Trade Center Utah, which handles the planning and logistics for Utah’s trade missions, has upped the ante on Utah’s tagline. They say their job is to, “Make Utah the crossroads of the world, one business at a time.”

It’s an ambitious statement, but I’m hearing it more and more and beginning to think it has staying power.

Consider Utah’s global reach
Utah exported $18.1 billion in products last year to countries all around the world. This places Utah’s exports per person well above the U.S. average.

Each year, approximately 830,000 international visitors come to Utah for our snow, red rock and other attributes.

Utah’s language proficiencies are well known, as is Utah’s cultural familiarity because of the large percentage of Utahns who have lived out-of-country for volunteer and military service.

And, Utah embodies the international Olympic spirit, having welcomed the world in 2002 and currently vying for a future Olympic Winter Games.

Utah governors actively engage with the global economy. They view trade missions as a critical component of their economic development strategy. Every governor from Scott Matheson onward has made it a priority. Over the years, governors have visited Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, France, India, Japan, Israel, Jordan, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan, Tonga, the United Kingdom and more.

These trade missions open doors for Utah businesses by adding diplomacy to the mix. It’s a lot easier and less expensive to get a potential customer or supplier’s attention when the networking event involves a governor and is hosted at the U.S. embassy, an ambassador’s residence or some other “guest of state” opportunity.

Gov. Cox is making his mark on Utah’s international trade
In April 2022, Cox accompanied 19 Utah companies to Mexico City and Guadalajara. Team Utah responded and brought home an estimated $32.4 million in trade and sourcing opportunities. Utah companies like Teton Sports, Reading Horizons and Malouf benefitted. After the trade mission, World Trade Center Utah crafted a 15-page document of notes, action items and key contacts, including follow-up items with companies involved in transportation, tourism, blockchain, outdoor equipment, education software and furniture.

The trade mission to Israel and the UAE is filled with intrigue. Israel and the UAE share important similarities with Utah. All three have dynamic innovation ecosystems, economies that outpace their peers and faith-friendly practices. They also exemplify innovation in long-term planning, water, solar, cyber, defense, health care and finance.

Utah’s trade ties with both countries are also sizable. Utah exported approximately $96.5 million in international exports to Israel and UAE in 2021. This will be Utah’s first official visit to both countries since the widely acclaimed Abraham Accords, which were signed by President Donald Trump in September 2020. In what New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman called a “geopolitical earthquake,” the accords normalized diplomatic and trade relations between Israel, the UAE and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

As we were boarding the plane, I noticed six young men with short hair, dressed in khaki pants and white short-sleeved shirts and wearing black rectangular plastic labels on their chest pockets. They were headed on missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Cape Verde. Cape Verde lies about 400 nautical miles west of continental Africa and consists of 10 volcanic islands. The juxtaposition of the missionaries headed to this remote archipelago and Utah leaders headed to Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula caught my attention.

Utah really does engage with the world.