Since the countries of Central Asia gained independence in 1991, the Arab world has devoted most of its attention to the region promoting the revival of Islam and thereby promoting the fundamentalist Islam characteristic of much of the Arab East. The effort has prompted the West to oppose Arab involvement in Central Asia in favor of Turkey with its supposedly more secular approach (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 19). Trade and investment between the Central Asian and Arab states over this period have remained rather small—representing less than 1 percent of the Arab world’s total foreign economic activity abroad—and all indications allude to these flows remaining relatively small in the immediate future (Kommersant, July 19).
Yet, even the influx of smaller amounts of Arab money could help the Central Asian states not only meet their needs but also serve as a counterweight to the influence of other outside powers, including Turkey, Russia, China and the West. The latter’s goals appear to be the more important as the five Central Asian countries clearly consider a common policy in this area will contribute to the formation of a regional bloc and give them leverage against outsiders, as well as a greater chance to come together on issues such as the division of water resources among themselves (Ritmeurasia.org, July 18,24; Kommersant, July 19)
All these issues were very much on public display last week when the five presidents of the Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—came to Riyadh to meet with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, the first-ever summit meeting between the two regions (Kommersant; Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 19; Ritmeurasia.org, July 20; Eurasia Today, July 24). Each Central Asian president came prepared with a list of plans to expand Arab trade and investment in each of their respective countries. The Arab leaders listened politely and encouraged thinking about inter-regional cooperation; however, despite hype from some quarters, no major deals were concluded that would dramatically boost the Arab economic footprint in Central Asia, at least anytime soon. What the Arabs did talk about, and what the Central Asians were clearly interested in, was the promotion of a common Islamic world and the simultaneous countering of outside powers in geo-economic and geopolitical terms to ensure that the transit plans of these powers will benefit the entire region, rather than only one or two of its members (Trtrussian.com, July 21; Ritmeurasia.org, July 24).
Indeed, the most thoughtful observers in Moscow doubt that what occurred in Riyadh will have a negative impact on the influence of China or Russia in Central Asia, though they do suggest that the interest of the Arabs in promoting fundamentalist Islam in the region may challenge Turkey, worrying the United States and the West. Among those taking that position is Aleksandr Kynyev, a specialist on the Middle East at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s training center and think tank. He argues that the Riyadh session may not work out as many seem to expect and contends that the Arab world’s interest in the expansion of its economic and political influence and its simultaneous equal interest in promoting its brand of Islam are now even more likely to come into conflict with one another. “There are examples when the Arabs’ religious policy in the region has come into conflict for example with Turkish influence,” Kynyev continues, especially in Kyrgyzstan but elsewhere as well. Moscow and Beijing must be sensitive to such possibilities, he adds; nevertheless, they need not be alarmed, as in the Russian analyst’s view their positions are not significantly threatened by what the Arabs are doing, at least not at present. Indeed, cooperation between Central Asia and the Arab world may have the effect of improving the chances for developing Moscow’s favored north-south trade routes, given the common interests in accomplishing this goal (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 19).
Moreover, according to the MGIMO analyst, any expansion of an Arab presence in Central Asia will work to the benefit of Moscow and Beijing in another way. It may reduce Western influence in the region because the Saudis, specifically, and the Arabs, more generally, may succeed in promoting messages that will undercut those of Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally. Kynyev suggests that this is only a possibility, of course, and that what is most likely is that, regardless of what the Arabs do, the relations that active major powers in Central Asia share with the countries there are likely to remain relatively unchanged. However, if these aspects are unlikely to change, two others clearly will—and the Riyadh meeting has made those more obvious.
On the one hand, as Kynyev points out, Saudi Arabia comes out of this summit as the big winner because the meeting itself and the format it creates significantly “raise its authority in the region.” As a result, Riyadh will be in a stronger position than before and more able to take steps that could change regional geopolitics, possibly in ways that will challenge both the East and the West. On the other, though the Russian scholar does not discuss this possibility explicitly, the Central Asian countries can use this format to create a regional bloc, something critical for the development of their common relationship with outsiders rather than allowing one outside power to play this or that regional state against another. Moreover, the promotion of a sense of community among the five countries may allow them to overcome their current differences and make progress on issues of common concern, such as water shortages or even reaching final agreements on border disputes (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 19).
If that should prove to be the case, then the Riyadh meeting will truly represent a turning point for the region; it just will not be the one many had expected. Instead of tying the Central Asian states more closely to the Arab world, it may first and foremost unite them as a bloc, something that almost certainly complicates the lives of all outside powers, most of whom have a history of playing one Central Asian country against another to achieve their goals in the region.