When Barbados, population 287,370, opens its next embassy, almost anyone on the planet will be able to knock on the door.
The diplomatic compound is being built in Decentraland, an online world, or metaverse, accessible via a computer and a virtual reality headset.
Skeptics take note: A virtual real estate parcel in Decentraland recently sold for $2.43 million. Gucci, Christian Dior and Ralph Lauren are selling virtual clothes in 3D worlds. Crypto asset management firm Grayscale estimates the metaverse to be “a trillion dollar revenue opportunity.”
So a virtual embassy queue seems inevitable, said Gabriel Abed, the man behind Barbados’ digital diplomacy push.
“This is going to change the way the world works,” Abed, 35, said in a telephone interview from Dubai, where he is Barbados’ royal ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. “The embassy is a small thing. The most important thing is what governments can do together when land is no longer physical land and constraints are no longer part of the equation.”
Even before Facebook changed its name to Meta in October, the so-called metaverse was growing rapidly.
Broadly speaking, a metaverse is an immersive online environment where people can interact in real time through avatars. Decentraland allows users to buy and sell digital art and virtual land, or attend virtual world music festivals with real world acts.
But Abed said the metaverse also has more serious implications for small, deeply indebted nations like his.
“This is about diplomatic parity. We simply cannot support 197 diplomatic missions around the world,” he said. “We recognize that we are a 166 square mile island, we are small, but in the metaverse we are as big as the United States or Germany.”
The Barbados diplomatic compound will likely cost between $5,000 and $50,000 to build, but all expenses are covered by a “five-figure” grant from Decentraland. Other users of the site have also offered to donate land, he said.
“The cost is not that bad,” he said. “It’s a fraction of what a physical embassy costs.”
Emails to Decentraland seeking comment were not immediately returned.
The project is also about keeping the Eastern Caribbean island connected to global technology, Abed said.
“You don’t want to introduce the internet to your citizens in the year 2021,” he said. “Similar to the metaverse, you don’t want to wait until 2030, when this is part of everyday social interaction, to start explaining it.”
The announcement that Barbados was about to open the world’s first metaverse embassy garnered the island a lot of enthusiastic press ahead of November 30, when it abandoned Queen Elizabeth II as its token head of state and became in the world’s newest republic.
It’s no surprise that the Caribbean is leading the digital diplomacy drive, said Cleve Mesidor, public policy adviser at the Blockchain Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry trade group.
Bermuda has been actively pitching itself as a blockchain and crypto hub since 2018. The Bahamas launched the world’s first central bank digital currency, or CBDC, in 2020, just weeks before the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.
“There has always been healthy competition in the Caribbean when it comes to adopting new technologies,” Mesidor said.
The Caribbean and western Atlantic include more than 30 nations and territories making it fertile ground for “regulatory arbitrage” — island-hopping in search of governments open to innovation, he said.
As Abed said: “When a government says ‘no,’ you get on a plane and fly 10 minutes to the next island.”
Abed seems well suited to be one of the world’s first digital diplomats. After graduating from the University of Ontario, where he studied cryptography and network security, in 2013 he co-founded Bitt, a financial software company that helped Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank create their digital currencies. The company is currently helping the Central Bank of Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, to launch its own central bank-backed digital currency, eNaira. He is also the founder of Digital Asset Capital Management, which, as the name implies, manages digital assets for institutional investors.
Abed said the success of the Barbados embassy could ultimately depend on other nations joining in, so his government is actively sharing what it is learning about the metaverse experience with others.
This isn’t the first time there have been embassies in the metaverse: Sweden and Estonia opened virtual embassies in Second Life, a precursor to Decentraland, at the turn of the millennium without shaking up the world order.
“Can it fail? There is a probability of that. Can you succeed? There is a higher chance of that,” Abed said of the experiment. “But as a nation, we seek to pioneer and reimagine our future. So we have to try these new things.”