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 through a computer and a virtual reality headset.
Skeptics take note: A plot of virtual real estate in Decentraland recently sold for $2.43 million. Gucci, Christian Dior and Ralph Lauren are selling virtual clothing in 3D worlds. The crypto asset management firm Grayscale estimates the metaverse is “a trillion-dollar revenue opportunity.”
So a virtual embassy row 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’ real-world ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. “The embassy is a small thing. The big thing is what governments can do together when land is no longer physical land and limitations are no longer part of the equation.”
Even before Facebook changed its name to Meta in October, the so-called metaverse was growing quickly.
In broad strokes, a metaverse is an online and immersive environment where people can interact in real time through avatars. Decentraland allows users to buy and sell digital art and virtual parcels of 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’re a 166-square mile island — we’re tiny — but in the metaverse we’re as large as America or Germany.”
Barbados’ diplomatic compound will likely cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 to build, but all the expenses are being covered by a “five-figure” grant from Decentraland. Other users on the site have also offered to donate land, he said.
“The cost is not too bad,” he said. “It’s a fraction of what a physical embassy costs.”
Emails to Decentraland seeking comment were not immediately answered.
The project is also about keeping the Eastern Caribbean island connected to global tech, Abed said.
“You don’t want to be introducing the internet to your citizens in the year 2021,” he said. “Similarly of the metaverse, you don’t want to wait until 2030, when this thing is part of everyday social interaction, to start explaining it.”
The announcement that Barbados was poised to open the world’s first metaverse embassy earned the island reams of glowing press ahead of Nov. 30, when it ditched Queen Elizabeth II as its symbolic head of state and became the world’s newest republic.
It’s no surprise that the Caribbean is leading the digital diplomacy push, said Cleve Mesidor, public policy adviser at the Blockchain Association, an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C.
Bermuda has been actively pitching itself as a blockchain and crypto hub since 2018. Bahamas launched the world’s first central bank digital currency in 2020 — just weeks ahead of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.