On July 19th, Saudi Arabia hosted two important events: the 18th meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders and the inaugural Gulf-Central Asia Summit. The joint statement from these forums emphasized the need for stronger strategic and political ties between Central Asia and the GCC, opening avenues for dialogue and partnerships across economic cooperation, investment, culture, and trade. The event was deemed significant in the larger geopolitical context, indicative of shifting global dynamics. This sentiment was mirrored by Uzbek Deputy Foreign Minister Bakhromjon Aloev, who described the summit as a historical milestone in the interregional collaboration between two geographically and geopolitically significant world regions.
Partnership in Energy and Security
Multiple instances of such dialogue were witnessed throughout these events. The unfolding geopolitical competition among Europe’s powers has highlighted the Gulf region’s economic and political importance. This came into stark focus with the impending Ukraine crisis, as the U.S. turned to Qatar, a gas-rich nation, to meet Europe’s energy requirements in the event of a shortage. As early as March 2022, Germany had secured a gas agreement with Qatar, helping to end dependency on Russian gas imports. Concurrently, other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the UAE—all three members of OPEC+ alliance with Russia—chose to curtail oil production to keep oil prices high.
In a similar vein, geopolitical maneuvering underscored Central Asia’s political relevance. As mid-tier powers, these countries also present advantages for GCC nations. Sanat Kushumbayev, deputy director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies (KazISS), argued, “Previously, the center of gravity was primarily in the European Union and North America, but now Asia, along with the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkey, carries immense potential. Tectonic shifts have occurred, and Kazakhstan is certainly a focal point.”
Additionally, international support from Central Asian countries is crucial in practical terms. During the meeting, Saudi Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman expressed his appreciation to Central Asian nations for supporting Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the World Expo 2030. This action aligns well with the emerging trend of a multi-vector strategy in Saudi foreign policies.
As the Gulf’s energy importance and related economic power, the Gulf states are central for developing renewables in Central Asia. For example, recently the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power Company (ACWA) signed $ 174 million worth of loans to build two wind power plants in Uzbekistan. The GCC’s economic investment potential is significant to Central Asian countries. Opportunities for enhancing these numbers lie in strategic development plans such as Saudi Vision 2030, Oman’s Vision 2040, Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030, and Central Asian documents like Kyrgyzstan’s National Development Strategy 2018-2040 and the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy. The value of GCC exports to Central Asia totals $2.06 billion in 2021, with an overall exchange between the GCC and Central Asian states reaching $3.1 billion. Yet, through targeted strategic programs, investments could further expand, enhancing the economic prosperity of Central Asian countries, which present secure and appealing business environment.
Another intriguing dimension is the diversification of security partnerships. While the GCC states have traditionally relied on Western powers for security, and Central Asian nations have historically been significantly influenced by Russia in security, economics, politics, and other fields, it seems that more potential exists within the GCC-Central Asia framework. The President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, addressed this and emphasized the importance of enhancing security cooperation with the Gulf states to foster stability in Central Asia. Non-traditional security concerns such as global food supply chains and energy security are particularly relevant. These concerns have become pressing due to Russia’s recent termination of grain deal, a situation with severe implications that calls for developing new strategies.
Pragmatism is Key
Despite recent active engagements, numerous limitations still need to be addressed. For instance, Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, suggests that the GCC should appoint a special envoy for Central Asia. Such a move could provide a better platform for regional operational activities. A joint concept for developing relations between the two regions could be considered, with clearly defined short-term, mid-term, and long-term objectives. Gulf states should also prioritize interconnectivity between the two regions.
“The Gulf states could leverage this project to connect with markets in the South Caucasus and Central Asia using the Middle Corridor, a tried-and-tested trade route that links Turkey and Central Asia, bypassing Russia and Iran,” Coffey explains. There are already initiatives in this direction.
The importance of connecting Asia’s different regions is growing. For example, one of the main themes at the recent Kazan Summit was the development of the international North-South transport corridor (Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Astrakhan, Bandar Nazali). A meeting between Marat Khusnullin, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi was held on the sidelines of the Kazan Forum to discuss the development of the North-South project and signaling opportunities for GCC countries to become involved in alternative trade routes.
The GCC-Central Asia Summit has substantial significance in various respects. Notably, it marks a turning point in the two regions’ economics and geopolitics. Both regions are strategically crucial due to their location and resources, which appear mutually beneficial. However, further pragmatic steps must be taken to develop these relations. This will enable both regions to effectively benefit from all opportunities created by this shift, taking into account the transforming geographical, political, and economic landscape amid the competition among great powers.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.