Four years ago, as hostilities were still taking place in Syria between the regime and various opposition groups, the Astana talks were launched and a broad cease-fire was reached, mainly through an agreement between Russia and Turkey. The Astana talks were, for many, a first realization of the importance of the Greater Middle East, from North Africa to Central Asia.
It was the first time an Arab issue was negotiated and hosted in Central Asia. The neutral grounds were previously often Geneva or Oslo. The important role that Kazakhstan played in promoting a positive negotiation was clear. It is the positive relations that Kazakhstan maintains with Russia and Turkey, along with its closeness with the Gulf countries and the US, which enabled the process to take place.
The Astana talks were also a realization that the Middle East was getting bigger in terms of the number of stakeholders, yet smaller in terms of the impact of one side to the other. If, in the past, you would only need to choose between the Soviet Union or the US, now great powers and middle powers all have the capacity to interfere and act, making solution-building more difficult. On the other hand, any crisis or chaos can spread fast from one side of the region to the other.
This was echoed recently with the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which left Iran wondering how to strategically position itself. It ended up with tensions with Turkey over Tehran’s sovereignty. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recital of a nationalist Azeri poem was perceived as a direct threat and was rejected by the Iranian regime. It is a bizarre twist to see Iran tasting its own medicine, as this is exactly its own Arab foreign policy. This foreign policy differs completely from its Central Asian policy, where it is much more respectful. One might say that, if Iran were to respect Arab countries the same it does Central Asian ones, we would have a completely different Greater Middle East.
This greater interdependence, where interests and pragmatism mix with ethnic and religious origins, has become a complicated but clear new paradigm in the region. Therefore, the vision for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) can no longer be limited to the Arab countries, but needs to be broadened. A few studies have highlighted that the GCC countries were the first to engage with Central Asian countries after their independence and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet, in comparison with their relations with other Asian countries, such as China or Japan, Central Asia seems like a blank page. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been able to develop extraordinarily strong ties with East Asia, whether political, cultural or trade. But Central Asia, which represents an important region for global stability, has not benefited from the same level of engagement, although things are moving in the right direction.
GCC countries should build more bridges and links with Central Asia — absolutely not with the focus of countering Iran or Turkey, which have influence and historical links there, but because it makes good sense and increases stability throughout the Greater Middle East. It would also help make the GCC part of the supply chain for energy and goods from Asia to Europe.
Central Asia could be an opportunity for new “sandbox” relations between all the regional and global powers to find a balance and build trust. A positive testing environment for investment, trade and cultural exchanges in Central Asia might be part of an innovative solution for better relations for the entire Greater Middle East. Another important point is the fact that both regions are looking to diversify their economies, and this offers great opportunities.
Like the Arab region, Central Asia is a complicated area, yet intrinsically it is the same language of geopolitical balance that is spoken
– Khaled Abou Zahr
Kazakhstan, for example, has built a strong bond with the UAE that can serve as a road map for the successful development of cross-regional partnerships, not only in trade and business but equally by outlining the importance of cultural and humanitarian exchanges. The UAE and Kazakhstan in October signed an agreement worth $6.1 billion, under which the two countries will implement more than 20 projects in a wide range of sectors — half of which are in agribusiness and food security.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has given great support and commitments to Uzbekistan to expand economic collaboration. Most recently, ACWA Power announced the signing of three new strategic agreements, potentially worth up to $2.5 billion, with Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Energy. They are aimed at amplifying power generation and developing technical expertise.
Like the Arab region, Central Asia is a complicated area, yet intrinsically it is the same language of geopolitical balance that is spoken — and we all understand it. Although it has historically been a power base for Russia, which maintains positive and strong relations with all countries, it is also important to note that China, through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has also increased its influence in the region. The BRI is set to shape the trade and industrial routes between Asia and Europe for centuries to come. It is also a signal for the future growth of Asia and the potential for cooperation on energy and infrastructure between the Gulf and Central Asia.
The US is, of course, also a strong influence. Washington focuses on supporting Central Asian countries in reducing terrorist threats, which is a point all countries have a stake in. For many years, the US looked at Central Asia through the lens of Afghanistan and the objective of integrating it into the region, thus bringing more stability. As a deal with the Taliban has been reached and the US is planning its withdrawal, Washington will look at maintaining stability and stopping any radical groups from gaining momentum. It will give all the support needed for Central Asian countries to maintain stability. As the Biden administration will likely continue lowering the US’ dependency on oil, while reinitializing international relations, this could also offer an opportunity for GCC countries — and Turkey alike — to strengthen bilateral relations with the Central Asian nations.
The challenges and dangers that the Greater Middle East faces are big, but so are the opportunities. With enhanced bilateral relations, the desire to build a regional infrastructure could be a positive outcome. It might be able to balance the interests of the great powers and the middle powers.
• Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.