Enthusiasm abounds as GCC, Central Asia launch strategic dialogue
The Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers on Wednesday met in Riyadh with their counterparts from Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. After centuries of isolation and estrangement, the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia are seeking to revive ancient ties and explore new opportunities, economically, politically and culturally.
At the meeting, the ministers inaugurated the GCC-Central Asia Strategic Dialogue, a new arrangement to launch cooperation in all areas of mutual interest, including political and security dialogues, trade and investment cooperation, and cultural engagement. Although the project has been in the making for some time, recent developments have made that reconnection urgent. Supply chain disruptions as a result of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan have made it imperative to speed up the process of reengagement between the two regions.
The event marked the first multilateral meeting between the GCC bloc and Central Asia. Although the latter is not yet a formal grouping, it is known informally as the C5 and a regional identity is emerging. The ministers agreed on the relevance of the principles, goals and priorities set out in the Concept of Interaction of Central Asian countries within the framework of multilateral formats, which was adopted by the heads of state of the Central Asian countries in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, in July. That statement was an important development for the idea of a Central Asian identity, setting the parameters for engagement with the outside world.
There was clear excitement at the inaugural GCC-Central Asia meeting, as the ministers and senior officials enthusiastically welcomed the new engagement, citing common values, mutual interests and deep historical ties. They expressed a firm commitment to forge a “strong, ambitious and forward-looking partnership,” and “multifaceted cooperation at bilateral and multilateral levels.”
As part of the new strategic dialogue, the ministers exchanged views on a wide range of regional and international developments, including Afghanistan and combating terrorism, two issues in which the two regions are keenly interested. They agreed to regularly coordinate their positions on existing and emerging issues.
As a landlocked region, Central Asia is in need of secure transportation links, which have frayed recently as a result of COVID-19. As such, the ministers emphasized their commitment to working together to ensure the resiliency of supply chains and to “bolster global economic recovery efforts, address economic repercussions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” They expressed interest in transport-transit connectivity as it relates to food, energy and water security. They also called for the development of green energy sources and technologies and for environmental challenges and climate change to be addressed.
To map out the way forward, the ministers endorsed an indicative Joint Action Plan for Strategic Dialogue and Cooperation for the period 2023-2027, including political and security dialogue, economic and investment cooperation, enhancing people-to-people contacts, and developing effective partnerships between business sectors. It was agreed to fast-track the plan and take all necessary measures for its proper implementation at both the bilateral and multilateral levels.
Although the project has been in the making for some time, recent developments have made the reconnection urgent
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
While the new plan is quite ambitious, several countries expressed a desire to augment it by adding new areas of cooperation. That desire reflected the palpable enthusiasm that has prevailed during all the meetings between the two groups since they started discussing the establishment of a regular dialogue. It was agreed to explore those additions over the coming weeks and months and update the plan accordingly.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the ministers welcomed Kazakhstan’s invitation to host the first GCC-Central Asian Economic Forum, to be held in 2023. They also accepted Uzbekistan’s invitation to host the second ministerial meeting of the GCC-Central Asian Strategic Dialogue in Samarkand in 2023.
The aspirations are quite high for the new engagement between the GCC region and Central Asia. There is an obvious political commitment. There also appears to be clear determination for this effort to move on a fast track. The economic and security challenges the two regions are facing need collaborative efforts.
At the same time, the potential benefits of such cooperation could be immense. Combined, the two regions are home to a young population of about 130 million, who are in search of quality education and training. In the two regions, there are countries that are among the world’s most resource-rich in conventional energy, especially oil and gas. They also aspire to be leaders in renewable energies.
The GCC and Central Asia could contribute significantly to energy security globally. Their energy cooperation could be one of the quick wins in their new strategic dialogue, starting with policy coordination and the sharing of knowledge and best practices.
The challenges facing such long-distance strategic engagement are, however, equally huge, especially in terms of infrastructure and energy projects. First, there is a need to energize investors in both regions, which requires educating them about the new opportunities and business environment. Second, it is important to explore the possibility of investment triangulation, by bringing third-party investors with the capital and expertise needed for large energy and infrastructure projects, both conventional and renewable. Third, public-private partnership is needed to sustain these efforts. One of the most formidable challenges is addressing Central Asia’s need for transport-transit connectivity to other regions, such as the GCC countries.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1