Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 32 Issue 8
Author: Silvia Boltuc & Giuliano Bifolchi
The inaugural “Central Asia + GCC” Summit held in Saudi Arabia marks a significant milestone in fostering interregional cooperation between the Gulf countries and Central Asia.
Started by Saudi Arabia, the summit aims to strengthen ties in trade, economy, culture, and humanitarian affairs while streamlining investment projects.
As the Gulf countries actively invest in the region, the summit serves as a platform to solidify partnerships and create a unified mechanism for bolstering their regional presence and influence, despite the geographical distance and existing challenges.
Central Asia + GCC Summit: Information Background
On July 18th-19th, 2023, Saudi Arabia hosts the “Central Asia + Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf ” (CA + GCC) Summit. The Saudi government promoted this initiative to assess the projects that the Gulf Arab monarchies have conducted and implemented in Central Asia and to evaluate the collaboration in the sphere of culture and religion.
Indeed, being the largest and one of the most influential countries in the Persian Gulf region and a significant player in the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia accentuated the importance of the religious factor as a unifying element in establishing political, economic, and other connections between the parties.
The groundwork for the CA + GCC Summit was laid a year ago when Riyadh hosted the first ministerial meeting of the “Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf – Central Asia.”
This meeting involved foreign ministers from the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar) and Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan). The participants agreed to intensify cooperation in various areas, including restoring supply chains disrupted by the pandemic, strengthening food, energy, and water security, developing green energy, addressing environmental challenges, exchanging best practices, and establishing appropriate trade and investment mechanisms.
The current summit, held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s financial capital, aims to systematise and institutionalise the interactions between the Gulf countries and their projects in Central Asia.
- Gulf Countries’ Investments in Central Asia
The Gulf countries have been actively investing in the region, fostering economic partnerships and projects.
For instance, Kazakhstan received significant financial support from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment fund, signalling potential opportunities for further collaboration.
Uzbekistan secured investment agreements worth $14 billion from Saudi Arabia and is witnessing increasing investments from the United Arab Emirates, particularly in its energy sector. Qatar has also made substantial investments in the region, including a $100 million project to construct the largest mosque in Tajikistan.
- Emergence of the “CA+GCC” Format
The creation of this format represents a new geopolitical rally of major projects in the region, drawing the attention of external players such as Russia, the United States, China, the European Union, Iran, and Turkey.
The GCC, functioning as an external actor, is presently seeking to adopt a unified approach towards the Central Asian countries.
Historically, the Gulf states have pursued individual commercial projects and places of worship within the region, acting independently of each other. The summit provides an opportunity to strengthen the presence of the Persian Gulf countries in Central Asia through a unified mechanism.
- Religious Basis and Geographic Distance
The religious factor, Islam, plays a vital role in bringing the states of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia together. However, the geographic distance between the two regions has been a challenge, affecting the overall competitiveness of the Gulf countries’ investments in Central Asia.
Despite a strong religious base, other external actors, such as China and Russia, have been more influential in the region. Monitoring the development of the situation will be essential to understand the long-term implications of the CA+GCC format.
The inaugural summit of the “CA + GCC” marks a significant step in fostering interregional cooperation between the Gulf countries and Central Asia.
Saudi Arabia’s initiative to create this new format aims to strengthen ties in various sectors and streamline investment projects. The Gulf countries have invested in Central Asian nations, presenting new opportunities for economic growth and collaboration in areas such as energy, agriculture, and infrastructure development.
As the CA+GCC format emerges, it provides a platform for the Gulf countries to act collectively in the Central Asian region, potentially increasing their competitive advantage. The summit confirms the increasing competition among various regional and international players in Central Asia, in their quest to establish dominance and secure economic benefits.
Russia views the region as an integral part of its blizhnee zarubezhe (near abroad) and lebensraum (vital space), leading Moscow to establish and promote during the years the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to foster economic and military cooperation with local republics.
Concurrently, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, started in 2013, has prompted substantial financial investments to develop transport infrastructures and stabilise the region, solidifying Beijing’s position as a major trade partner. The first “China – Central Asia” Summit organised in May 2023 confirmed Beijing’s involvement in the region and Central Asian republics’ necessity for the Chinese financial support and investments.
Amidst this geopolitical scenario, the United States plays a crucial role, utilising its soft power and offering alternative cooperation opportunities to Central Asian republics caught between the competing interests of Russia and China. Brussels, too, has adopted a new strategy, recognising the strategic importance of Central Asia’s hydrocarbons and minerals and aiming to enhance connections and involvement in the region.
Another significant player in Central Asia is Turkey, leveraging the Organisation of Turkic States and cultural affinities with Astana, Tashkent, Bishkek, and Ashgabat to promote pan-Turkism and create an alternative bloc in Eurasia as a key goal of its foreign policy.
Iran’s involvement in Central Asia cannot be underestimated. Faced with Western sanctions, Tehran has turned its focus eastward, engaging in Central Asian dynamics to foster cooperation. The common historical, linguistic, and cultural background shared with Dushanbe provides an opportunity for Tehran to strengthen ties in that nation. However, Iran’s outreach extends beyond Tajikistan, as clear in its involvement with other Central Asian countries. Furthermore, Tehran’s recent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization may provide an impetus for more extensive projects and increased contacts in the region.
The summit organised in Jeddah provides an opportunity for the GCC countries to assert themselves as a united block with an active interest in expanding socioeconomic and cultural spheres in Central Asia. This gathering signals the Gulf nations’ intent to enhance collaboration with the Central Asian republics and foster greater interregional cooperation.
As Central Asia continues to attract attention from global powers, the region’s future will be shaped by the actions and strategies of these key players. The geopolitical landscape remains dynamic, with each actor seeking to secure their interests and influence in this pivotal part of the world.
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