Recently, there has been a strong desire on the part of Saudi Arabia to extend its influence in Central Asia. This can be clearly seen in the intensification of business contacts and in the cultural, religious areas. There are two particular reasons for this: China and Iran. Thus, there is a clear desire on the part of the Saudis to increase their influence in Central Asia in order to become part of China’s investment strategies under the Belt and Road Initiative and to get involved in commodity chains.
As for the Iranian vector, the rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf is by no means a new phenomenon; the Arabs and Persians have little in common and for more than a century and a half, relations have not been at their best. The hatred, mistrust and fear that Arabs and Iranians feel towards each other dates back to the distant past, when Shiites and Sunnis first stopped trusting each other after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. But the history of relations between the two countries is not only marked by rising tensions, but also by détente. Today, however, Saudi Arabia’s competition with Iran is exacerbated by the international transport corridor North-South and its Iran-Turkmenistan-Kazakhstan offshoot, which will benefit Iran, taking a concrete shape and a significant financial and economic perspective. But this is clearly not part of Riyadh’s plans, so geopolitically Saudi Arabia is entering Central Asia to apply pressure on Iran from the North, surrounding the Shiite state with its networks of soft and hard power in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.
And Saudi Arabia has long emphasized the development of relations with Kazakhstan, especially since former Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev, soon after the collapse of the USSR, saw, like Heydar Aliyev, the Gulf states as a model of development and partly borrowed the Saudis’ state-building experience. The countries are not only bound by mutual interests in energy; Riyadh supported Kazakhstan during Astana’s chairmanship of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and perceives the Central Asian country as Islamic, where the top leadership makes pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. But there is also a personal dimension to the two countries’ relationship: the Saudis are well-known hunting enthusiasts and often hunt in southern Kazakhstan.
But Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Kazakhstan is not the only one that has been developing strongly lately. The Central Asian states themselves have demonstrated their need for more Saudi investment since 2021 and their willingness to increase trade with Riyadh, including in agricultural products. One of the biggest Saudi players in the regional market today is already the Ajlan & Bros Holding Group conglomerate, which is developing partnerships with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and other countries in the fields of agriculture and renewable energy. And this revival of economic cooperation is confirmed by the results of recent visits to Saudi Arabia by leaders of countries in the Central Asian region, in particular Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Thus, the Kazakhstan’s leader proposed to Riyadh an ambitious multilateral cooperation project in the aerospace, agriculture and mining sectors, and spoke extensively about Kazakhstan’s attractiveness to Arab holdings due to the country’s close proximity to the Chinese and South Asian markets, which together cover at least 3.6 billion people. That is why President Tokayev has hinted to Riyadh that cooperation on the Trans-Caspian route, which aims to link Central Asia with Kazakhstan and China, could intensify.
The interest of Central Asian countries in Saudi investors is objective, because the current funds of the KSA are quite large and there is a possibility to invest in production. And it is the modernization of production, environmental and digital projects that have been at the heart of Central Asian economic policy in recent years. These aspects have also become key during the discussion of the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighbourliness and Cooperation for Development of Central Asia in the 21st Century, which was signed by several countries in the region on July 21, 2022. But such a large-scale modernization cannot be carried out without serious foreign capital, and Saudi Arabia is seen by regional leaders as an attractive technological and investment partner in this respect. Another thing is that the countries of the region do not always manage to form investment project packages. For example, it would be interesting for Tashkent to attract Saudi investment in the construction of transport routes through Afghanistan under the pretext that Uzbekistan could supply its products to the KSA, provided that the roads are connected to Indian Ocean ports.
But Riyadh itself is not idle, showing great interest in logistics projects in the region. And a case in point is Saudi diplomats’ support last year for Ashgabat’s participation in the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, despite the fact that this Turkmen gas project in Riyadh is seen as competitive, since the planned markets of Pakistan and India are traditional ones for Saudi oil and gas. Relations with Uzbekistan are developing rapidly, where 14 companies with 100% Saudi capital were in operation as of 2021, as well as 38 more joint ventures.
Since the 1990s, Saudi Arabia has increasingly clearly begun to view Central Asia in terms of religious influence in the region, and the term “mosque diplomacy” has even emerged. By 2017, for example, the Riyadh-funded World Assembly of Muslim Youth in Kyrgyzstan alone had built nearly 200 Muslim temples.
As a result, when visiting Saudi Arabia, Central Asian leaders and members of the current political establishment make the hajj, which has become the rule. Although the authorities in the region have always insisted on the secular nature of the Central Asian states, as opposed to Saudi influence, and have sought to bring the activities of foreign benefactors under strict control, they have always made it clear that they aspire to play an independent role within the Islamic world.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that in 2022, Central Asian leaders increasingly appeal to religious rather than secular values in their public actions and statements. In addition, in light of the recent conflicts in Karakalpakstan and other Central Asian states, their authorities have increasingly used religious gestures in their public activities, thereby wishing to reduce the degree of conflict through appeal to the religious community of the nations, to introduce an additional “pacification” aspect.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.