Belatedly, Gulf Arab countries and the five Central Asian republics are discovering each other. While the discussions are about economic investments and trade routes, both the context and the timing of the new relationship being forged are raising geopolitical concerns.
On 19 July, the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Central Asia took place in Jeddah. Leaders of the six GCC countries and heads of the five Central Asian states — comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan —met to discuss enhancing relations between the two regions.
This is unprecedented for the last three decades, when after 1991 the five formerly Soviet Central Asian republics became independent states. While formal relations were established between Arab Gulf countries and Central Asia, and some cultural cooperation was initiated, those relations were not taken much further.
In Jeddah, the two sides discussed various forms of cooperation: further intensifying Saudi investments in Central Asia, cooperation in developing alternative energies, healthcare, tourism, transportation, etc. Yet, the real interest between the two regions is geopolitical cooperation and security concerns, although those issues were not part of the scope of official discussions.
A region with great strategic significance
The five Central Asian states have been cut-off from greater Central Asia (which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Xinjiang) and the Middle East because of the Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet Union from the rest of the world.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia — due to its geography — remained largely under Russian influence which was challenged by two other major forces: China with its growing economic interest, and the US which deployed its troops in the region to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban after September 11, 2001, attacks.
This deployment lasted for two decades and brought geopolitical importance to a landlocked, and otherwise isolated region.
Two other countries that developed intensive links with Central Asia were Turkey and Iran. In fact, Turkish military and political elites have fantasised about Central Asia for over a century as they consider it to be the original homeland of Turkic peoples.
Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister of war, after losing the Empire in the First World War, left for Central Asia to support the Basmachi revolt against the Bolsheviks, and was killed in Tajikistan.
More recently, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Prime Minister Suleiman Demirel was famously quoted saying that his country would be the leader of a “Turkic world stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China.”
Turkish and Iranian involvement
For a long time, the US encouraged Turkish involvement in Central Asia not only as a counterweight against Russian and Chinese influence but considered Turkish “secular” influence desirable compared to Islamic influence of Iran.
However, Turkish influence east of the Caspian Sea remained limited as Central Asian states weren't keen to swap Russian leadership with a new Turkish one, without added benefits.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has also developed strong relations, especially with Tajikistan. While all the other four Central Asia republics are Turkic speakers, Tajiks speak a form of Persian.
Iran played a major role in diplomatic efforts to end the Tajik civil war (1992-97) and established close security ties. On May 2022, Iran inaugurated a drone factory in Tajikistan to produce multi-purpose Ababil-2 drones, for local use as well as for exports.
Perplexing absence but things are now changing
In light of active Turkish and Iranian interest in Central Asia — two countries that are of huge importance to Arab states — the long absence of Arab diplomatic initiatives in a region that ancient Arabs called “Mawara’ al-Nahr” or Transoxiana is perplexing.