The growing relations between Gulf and Central Asia

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(By Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta,Associate Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation,New Delhi.India)

International relations are changing at an accelerated pace in conjunction with the shifting geopolitical landscape. Though there have been recent assertions regarding increased multipolarity, the world appears to be divided bipolarly. This bipolarity has been quite apparent since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. These trends impact the Central Asian region, which is close to Russia. Rather than supporting or denouncing Russia, these countries have increased the diversification of their external relations. In this context, the recently concluded maiden summit between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Central Asia is a significant development.

The five Central Asian leaders recently travelled to Jeddah to participate in the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-Central Asia summit on July 19. This summit is the outcome of continuing discussions at various levels between the Gulf nations and the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Memoranda of Understanding in many areas, including political, economic, and security cooperation, were signed by the GCC and CARs in October 2021, a big step in improving ties between the two regions. The first ministerial meeting of the GCC and Central Asian countries was held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in August 2022. The GCC and Central Asian nations’ joint action plan for strategic dialogue for 2023–2027 was approved in September 2022. The joint action plan identified a number of areas where the two regions will cooperate, including politics, the economy, security, culture, and education.

Due to its geopolitical positioning between Russia and China, Central Asia is critically important. Historically, this region has been referred to as Russia’s sphere of influence, but multiple causes have contributed to the decline of Russian influence in Central Asia. And China has largely benefited from this development. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China slowly encroached on Central Asia and grew to be one of the region’s most important trading partners. China is also making inroads into the security sphere of this region, which Russia traditionally dominated. Central Asian countries are landlocked yet resource-rich. Additionally, trade and investments are necessary because their economies are still developing. Without any vital partners, Beijing has become these nations’ second-largest economic partner after Russia.

As a counterbalance to Russian dominance in the region, Central Asian nations welcomed Beijing. However, China’s influence is expanding and has multiple consequences, including the debt trap. This seems an alarming situation for Central Asian nations. As a result, CARs have been seeking ways to expand their international relationships to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. These nations desired that India play a larger role in the region. However, for a very long time, Indian authorities overlooked the Central Asian region due to a lack of connectivity and indifference. India-Central Asia ties have improved recently, although they are still not at their full potential.

Another significant regional player in Central Asia is now Turkey. Trade between Turkey and Central Asia has increased, as has Turkish investment. On a cultural level, Turkish art, cuisine, and cinema have become increasingly popular. However, there are several limitations to this relationship. Because the Turkish economy is in disarray, Ankara cannot be seen as a credible economic partner in Central Asia. Secondly, despite having a majority Muslim population, Central Asian nations have a secular outlook. As their country borders Afghanistan, the leaders of Central Asia are aware that rising religiosity is a concern for their internal security. With Erdogan portraying himself as the flag bearer of Islam, there may be opposition if he attempts to play the Islamic card more forcefully in Central Asia.

The rationales stated above, and the constraints and concerns of various entities already present in Central Asia explain why Central Asian leaders are interested in increasing their outreach to the Gulf. The first GCC-Central Asia meeting produced predictable results, but the engagement is highly symbolic. Gulf nations have the potential to become Central Asia’s trading partners, and the GCC can support the region’s connectivity to the outside world. With the Iran-Saudi Arabia reconciliation, these factors appear to be quite advantageous. Increased economic cooperation between the CARs and Gulf countries can help balance Chinese influence in the region. A greater engagement between GCC and Central Asia is also beneficial for India.

Moreover, the GCC countries may use India’s connectivity initiatives such as Chabahar and INSTC, to reach Central Asia. India may also look into trade and investment prospects in Central Asia together with its Gulf partners. Finally, it is not inaccurate to assert that Central Asia’s expanding outreach to the Gulf has geopolitical and geoeconomic implications that can impact regional dynamics.