The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was one of the Arab countries that started its relations with the Central Asian republics in the first years of their independence. The United Arab Emirates is trying to establish its place in the future of Central Asia based on strategies to achieve its fundamental geopolitical and geoeconomic goals that fit Abu Dhabi’s vision.
These goals include investing in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, two critical Central Asian countries with ports on the Caspian Sea, which are located along the Belt and Road Initiative and will provide favorable conditions for future transportation corridors.
To compete with Saudi Arabia and the major powers involved in Central Asia and to diversify its economic partners, the UAE has established close economic relations with some Central Asian countries.
During the visit of the Kazakh authorities to the UAE in October 2020, documents worth more than 6 billion dollars were signed between the parties. Representatives of the largest UAE companies in energy, agriculture, tourism, and logistics accompanied this delegation.
According to Middle East News, the Ministry of Investment of Kazakhstan also held a meeting between Emirati business and economic circles with people in the industry and economic activists of Kazakhstan. Representatives of major UAE companies, including DP World Masdar, Abu Dhabi Development Fund, Royal Group, Earth Retail, Fresh Harvest, and other companies, were present at this meeting.
Al Falah Fund, a subsidiary of the Emirates Mubadala Company, has recently increased its activities to strengthen the UAE’s presence in Kazakhstan by providing more financial assistance in commercial, housing, and infrastructure projects in Kazakhstan.
In addition, Dubai’s experience in international banking and operating in free zones are part of the UAE-Kazakhstan equation. The Astana International Financial Center (AIFC) is located at the site of the 2017 exhibition and may turn Astana into a major financial center for Central Asian countries. It goes without saying that Kazakhstan is an essential link in the New Silk Road and the development of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the UAE pays special attention to this country.
The United Arab Emirates’ approach to Turkmenistan is a long-term one: investment in infrastructure projects with a view to Ashgabat’s future role as a gas exporter through the TAPI pipeline is a priority. In addition, Abu Dhabi is introducing a defense and security perspective in its foreign policy towards Turkmenistan, similar to what is seen in its foreign policy in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
The bilateral relations between the UAE and Turkmenistan focus on the role of Dragon Oil in Turkmenistan and the relationship between this Irish company based in Dubai and Ashgabat. Last year, Topaz Energy and Shipping Company (based in Dubai) provided vessels for Dragon Oil company (a unit of Emirates National Oil Company ENOC) to develop Turkmenistan’s hydrocarbon resources. A five-year, $100 million contract was awarded for six vessels, including emergency lifeboats. From the UAE’s point of view, Turkmenistan is critical due to its natural gas reserves and sensitive geopolitical position in the north of Iran.
In recent years, relations between Uzbekistan and the UAE have developed more than ever. Trade and investment indices are increasing. Since the beginning of this year alone, the volume of business exchanges has doubled, and 45 new joint ventures have been established in Uzbekistan. According to the system of coordination and promotion of economic cooperation, 17 large projects with an investment of about 3 billion dollars are being implemented with the participation of leading companies and organizations of the UAE. Also, with the cooperation of Mubadala Company, the plan to expand the capacity of the Talimarjan thermal power plant with Masdar Company, the construction of wind and solar power plants in the regions of this country is being implemented. In addition, with DP World, the development of the activity of the multimodal center and the Nawai economic zone and the customs management system’s modernization is under consideration.
About 107 companies with Emirati capital are currently operating in Uzbekistan in the fields of textiles, construction materials, canned fruits and vegetables, detergents and services.
In relation to Kyrgyzstan, the UAE has made efforts to expand ties with this country. The volume of trade between Kyrgyzstan and the UAE in 2021 was only 70 million dollars, while there is the capacity to increase it several times. Also, the two countries can develop cooperation in the tourism industry. The business forum of Kyrgyzstan and the UAE and its results will be a reasonable basis for strengthening tourism and business relations.
The UAE’s exports to Tajikistan in 2020 alone amounted to 65 million dollars. The most exported items were food and heating equipment. The same year, Tajikistan also shipped more than 5 million dollars of goods to the UAE, primarily metals and gold. Tajikistan represents also one of the new goals of the UAE to cement its presence in Central Asia.
In conclusion, Abu Dhabi’s tendency towards the north, focusing on Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, indicates a geopolitical strategy. The United Arab Emirates has an active presence in these two leading countries of Central Asia, which is a manifestation of the link between the geopolitical and geoeconomic activities of the most powerful countries in the world. Meanwhile, Russia, China, India, America, and Europe compete in Central Asia, and the United Arab Emirates is nonetheless far from this competition.
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About the author:
Amin Bagheri is a Research Fellow at the International Studies Association in Tehran. His primary research interest lies in international relations, transnational governance, international peace, and conflicts in the Middle East.