In the space of just a few days, Turkmenistan’s power duo of father and son have met with high-ranking officials of the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain. Seeking additional investment for its troubling economy seems to be Ashgabat’s priority its encounters with these nations, but they are yet to yield significant results.
From Abu Dhabi to Ashgabat
On February 11, Turkmenistan’s former president and self-proclaimed “National Leader of the Turkmen People”, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, landed in Abu Dhabi. During his stay in the United Arab Emirates, he met with both the country’s President, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Presidential Court, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. While he used his trip to visit the UAE’s largest mosque, the impressive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and to cycle along the shore of the Persian Gulf, he had other pressing issues in mind.
Investment and cooperation in the energy sector were the main objectives of his short visit to the UAE. These topics were the main content of the 7-point joint statement published by the Turkmen and Emirati authorities.
According to the second point in the document, “[b]oth sides highlighted the importance of developing cooperation in the field of energy, and reaffirmed their support for joint activities and projects in the oil and gas sector, including investment activities.”
But it was the third point which provided the most detail, explicitly mentioning Turkmenistan’s largest gas field: “The two sides agreed that oil and gas companies of the UAE will take an active part in the development of the next stages of the super-giant Galkynysh field in Turkmenistan […] both sides underlined the importance of strengthening cooperation between the two companies [ADNOC and Türkmengaz], in exploring potential energy projects in Turkmenistan, and the joint development of hydrocarbon resources with the subsequent marketing of products, as well the development of gas transportation infrastructures.” In other words, Turkmenistan is hoping for the UAE to invest and help it develop its natural gas industry.
The statement followed the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the UAE state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Türkmengaz.
“The National Leader of the Turkmen People” flew back to Ashgabat on February 12. But that was not the end of it. A week later, the UAE’s Deputy PM and Minister of the Presidential Court, who had met Berdymukhamedov Senior in Abu Dhabi, arrived in the Turkmen capital. There he met with the Turkmen President, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, to discuss the “deepening bilateral cooperation between the UAE and Turkmenistan, in light of the positive outcomes of the visit of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.”
Both Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan are known faces to the Berdymukhamedovs. Under two years ago, in June 2021, the son, prior to taking over the presidency, met both of them as part of an official visit to the UAE. During that trip, Serdar also held a meeting with the Director General of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development.
A Qatari guest
The following day, on February 20, Berdymukhamedov Senior hosted Sheikh Faisal bin Nasser bin Hamad Al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family. Besides the exchange of pleasantries, both sides highlighted, without providing much detail, the cooperation between Turkmenistan and Qatar, with a special focus on fuel and energy sector.
This is not the first time Sheikh Faisal bin Nasser bin Hamad Al-Thani visits Turkmenistan. Back in 2019 he headed a Qatari delegation that held a meeting with Turkmen officials at the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Two years earlier, he released a statement congratulating the then Turkmen President on the “Day of the Turkmen Horse” and announced the donation half a million dollars for Turkmen horse race prizes. It is unclear what happen with those funds.
Besides being part of the Qatari royal family, enjoying the pleasures of the hunt, and his interactions with the Turkmen government and ruling family, not much else is known of Sheikh Faisal bin Nasser bin Hamad Al-Thani. It would seem he is Qatar’s envoy of choice to Turkmenistan, but it is unclear if he has further vested interests in the country.
A presidential visit to Bahrain
On the same week the father welcomed his Qatari guest, the son paid an official visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain, the smallest of the Gulf states. In Manama, the Turkmen President met with the King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Both sides signed six memoranda of understanding covering a wide range of topics, including diplomatic training, maritime transport and railways.
Rather than a focus on investment and the development of Turkmenistan’s energy sector, as was the case in the UAE, the visit of Serdar Berdymukhamedov to Bahrain seemed to be to strengthen the ties between both countries, following on from the Bahraini king’s visit to Turkmenistan in 2019.
The Persian Gulf is not a new focus for Turkmen foreign policy, but it became more important in the second half of 2010s, with the aim of “address[ing] Turkmenistan’s staggering energy sector, and ultimately mitigat[ing] the effects of the severe crisis that has been hitting the Turkmen economy since 2014”, as Professor Luca Anceschi put it in 2019. But Turkmenistan’s rigid ownership policy of stakes on onshore fields limits the prospects of cooperation.
Meanwhile, agreements continue to be signed between Turkmenistan and the countries in the region, including a memorandum of understanding with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in place since last August.
Once a mirage to aspire to, with Saparmurat Niyazov boasting his country would become a “new Kuwait,” the Gulf monarchies continue to be a hopeful source of much needed investment for Turkmenistan. But unless the Turkmen regime varies its approach, it looks like they will not bring about a significant change to the country’s fortunes.