On July 18 and 19, the Saudi city of Jeddah hosted a historic geopolitical event—the first-ever summit between the leaders of Central Asia and the Arab world. The presidents of the five Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—met with the heads of state from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait, all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The overall goals of the first Central Asia–GCC summit were to expand political dialogue and develop interregional cooperation, with trade and the economy taking center stage during the talks. In particular, joint investment opportunities were discussed, with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Turkmenistan President Serdar Berdymukhamedov and Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon all presenting initiatives for the creation and operation of an investment council between the two regions. Additionally, Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov and Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev discussed options for increased energy cooperation, including working more closely with major energy companies in the GCC countries (Fergana.ru, July 20).
The summit ended with a joint statement in which the participants expressed a shared intention to work on strengthening political and strategic relations, achieving regional and international stability and addressing challenges related to food, energy and water security. The Central Asian and Arab leaders also agreed to coordinate their actions in maintaining regional security and stability. Institutional interregional cooperation will take place within the framework of the Cooperation Plan for 2023–2027. Annual investment forums will take place at the end of 2023 in Saudi Arabia and in Kyrgyzstan or Turkmenistan for 2024. And the next summit of heads of state will be organized in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in 2025 (Polit-asia.kz, July 23).
The most recent summit is yet another example of the growing interest of global actors in Central Asia. The Arab states are following in the footsteps of the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, India and the European Union who have all voiced plans to expand their involvement in the region (see EDM, May 4, 2022, May 24; Inform.kz, July 26). Amid growing instability and uncertainty, largely as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Central Asia’s vast natural and energy resources and its strategic position at the center of crucial trade and transit routes between Asia and Europe have become ever-more geopolitically attractive (see EDM, July 27).
The Central Asian and GCC states have been working toward institutionalizing their cooperation for the past two years. In 2021, GCC Secretary General Nayef Falah M. Al Hajraf held a meeting with the Central Asian foreign ministers in Astana to express the organization’s desire to establish a strategic dialogue with the countries in the region. In 2022, the foreign ministers from the two blocs met in Riyadh to discuss the details of organizing this platform. That meeting’s agenda also included discussions on joint efforts to restore disrupted supply chains, strengthen security and stability, as well as establish mechanisms for mutual trade and investment (Radio Azattyk, July 20). In parallel, bilateral cooperation between the GCC and Central Asian countries is gaining steam.
Bound by their shared religion, Islam, the countries of these two regions have been moving closer to one another ever since the Central Asian states became independent in 1991. Over the years, their cooperation has expanded from mostly cultural to the political and economic spheres. In June 2023, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani arrived on his first-ever visit to the region, leaving behind a noteworthy investment trail. For example, in Uzbekistan, he signed investment projects worth $12 billion in energy, infrastructure, agriculture, tourism and other fields (Ia-Center.ru, June 12).
In 2022, the UAE invested $420 million in various projects in Kazakhstan. During his visit to Saudi Arabia in 2022, Mirziyoyev signed investment contracts worth $12.5 billion, a large part of which involved green energy projects and the modernization of energy infrastructure (Kommersant, July 19). With all these projects nearing their implementation and the GCC states’ plans to expand their cooperation with Central Asia, institutionalized engagement in the form of regular high-level summits was only a matter of time.
Ultimately, the Arab states are only a handful of the international actors attempting to court the Central Asian states. In 2022 alone, the presidents of the five countries participated in three different strategic dialogue meetings with the leadership of China, the US and the EU (Radio Azattyk, July 20). Add to that consultations with India, Russia and the Organization of Turkic States, and the trend is clear: global interest in Central Asia is rapidly growing (see EDM, November 17, 2022).
Located along key east-west and north-south transit routes, Central Asia has the potential to yield a great deal of influence in Eurasia and beyond. The war in Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia have disrupted supply chains, challenging countries to explore alternative routes and partners. In this regard, it is critical for international actors to curry the favor of the Central Asian governments for developing and utilizing the International North-South Transport Corridor, with special focus on its Trans-Caspian branch, to optimize regional transit (see EDM, August 4, 2022; Karavansarai, December 19, 2022; Ritm Evrazii, May 30).
The uncertain future for the Black Sea Grain Initiative and a shortage of energy resources due to sanctions against Russia have also turned international actors toward Central Asia with its vast energy and natural resources. The region’s potential for hydro, solar and wind energy production is attracting increased investments from China, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, regional demographics play a central role in attracting increased investment to the region. Central Asia is one of the fastest-growing and youngest regions in terms of population (Asiaplus.tj, July 29, 2021). This translates into an affordable and capable workforce, as well as growing market potential.
Perhaps the Central Asian states’ greatest obstacle in harnessing opportunities presented by this increased international attention is their limited ability and experience in speaking with one unified voice on shared regional interests. Some progress has been made here by holding regular annual consultative meetings between the five presidents. If the regional leaders can indeed come together, the spoils of their union will greatly benefit each of their respective countries, as well as their international partners.