The first summit between the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and five Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) was held recently in the Saudi city of Jeddah, and generated considerable media interest in the Middle East. Observers in the region have described the summit as “historic,” “promising” and “having a great potential.”
They cite the joint declaration approved in the final session of the summit. In this document the two groups of nations emphasize “their commitment to building a strong and ambitious partnership covering a wide range of issues of topics of mutual interest.” Saudi Arabia’s decision to hold an investment forum between the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and the Central Asian countries in the fourth quarter of this year was welcomed.
As the respected Arabic online newspaper Elaph puts it, in today’s rapidly changing world the benefits of cooperating with the Central Asian countries are becoming increasingly evident, given their strategic location between Russia and China, the major powers of Asia and Eurasia, and the fact that they are members of two key alliances, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The Summit also reflects the GCC’s determination to revitalize its policies in this area
As commentators see it, at the heart of this concern is an interest in a transformative trading relationship and economic synergy. The key role played by the Gulf grouping in the world’s energy supply chain is complemented by the rich natural resources of Central Asia, which include oil and other minerals. In view of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Arab states are also interested in investing in the Central Asian agriculture sector in order to boost their food security. The Central Asian republics have a surplus of manpower, and workers from the region could be in demand in the Gulf states.
As concerns the current ties between the two groups of countries, a Saudi source estimates that the bilateral trade between them amounted to $3.1 billion in 2021. This is a relatively modest amount, representing just 0.27% of the total combined foreign trade of the GCC countries, which exceeded $1 trillion. In the sphere of investment in the Central Asian economies, there has been a noticeable growth in recent years. The UAE has invested in developing the region’s energy infrastructure, especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Dubai company Dubai World Transport is involved in the construction of a port in Kazakhstan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and the development of the Khorgos free trade zone. And Dragon Oil of Dubai has invested in building oil reservoirs and the production of oil and gas in these areas.
In March this year, the Saudi company ACWA Power signed a contract with organizations in Kazakhstan to build a wind farm with an starting capital of $1.5 billion. Uzbekistan has also entered into a number of investment agreements worth a total of $14 billion.
The media in the Gulf region have highlighted the transportation and logistics difficulties involved in trading with the Central Asian republics, which lack access to the sea (other than the landlocked Caspian Sea). Thus, for the purpose of creating transportation routes, third countries play an essential role as intermediaries.
In this context, observers have suggested that as part of efforts to improve relations between the six members of the GCC and Tehran, Iran could serve as a link in the supply chains. The main catalyst for these efforts was an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the normalization of relations between the two countries, which was brokered by China and supported by the other GCC states. Saudi Arabia’s partners in the GCC also have expressed an interest in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The Gulf Cooperation Council was founded in 1981, and provides a mechanism for coordinating the member states’ political agendas on a wide range of issues, including foreign policy, oil and gas policies, etc. The development of shared approaches within the Council is a multi-stage process involving both breakthroughs and setbacks.
The six members of the Council are hoping to turn their growing economic power and internal; financial resources to good use. They have a combined GDP of almost $2.3 trillion which gives them enough political heft to diversify their economic and geopolitical relations without having to kowtow to the West.
The recent summit between the GCC and the Central Asian countries reflects the Gulf monarchies’ interest in a general “turn towards the East.” As used in the Arab world, this phrase suggests both a geographical and a political and ideological shift in priorities. This repolarization is in line with the sovereign interests of these countries, which are consistent with the general global movement towards a multilateral international system.
The Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh has expressed the hope that the summit, and the resulting declaration on a partnership between the GCC and the Central Asian countries, may be a milestone on the way to moving towards the establishment of joint institutions in the Eurasian space. But first it will be necessary to solve the challenge of creating transportation routes and logistics chains to connect these two separate geographical regions.
Yury Zinin, senior researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.