The Emir of Qatar’s Central Asian tour

The Emir of Qatar has travelled to four of the five Central Asian republics as part of a trip that highlights the role the Gulf countries can play in the region. The Emir went back to Doha with a large number of agreements and memoranda, as well as kind words from the Central Asian leaders.

In early June, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani embarked on a tour that took him to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. In each of the countries he was welcomed by the respective presidents and signed agreements to improve ties between his nation and the Central Asian republics.

Uzbekistan: multi-billion investment and Afghanistan

Samarkand was the Emir’s entry point in the region. Accompanied by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, he visited the city’s main sights before getting down to business. Both parties reached an agreement to foster the participation of Qatari companies in the implementation of investment projects in a wide array of fields, from energy and gas to tourism and agriculture, with a value of $12 billion. It is no surprise that the Uzbek president considered Qatar “as our promising partner not only in the Middle East region, but also in the entire Arab-Muslim world.”

Besides the role Qatari companies can play in Uzbekistan, transit was a major topic discussed, including the launch of regular flights between Doha and Tashkent. Afghanistan was also on the agenda, with both parties emphasizing the need to engage pragmatically with Kabul and stating the possibility of working together on the Trans-Afghan railway. The topic of Afghanistan is of great importance to Tashkent, especially as the construction of the Qosh Tepa canal is underway and border clashes with Iran caused by water scarcity shook the region recently. What role, if any, Doha can play in Uzbek-Afghan relations is yet to be explored but it remains an interesting possibility.

In total, the Emir and the President signed 15 documents before the Qatari monarch flew to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan: more cooperation agreements

In Bishkek, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani was received by President Sadyr Japarov with a folkloric show that included eagles and cavalrymen. As in Uzbekistan, the Emir managed to do so some tourism and visited the Ala-Archa Nature Park.

“You are the first from the Arab world who visited Kyrgyzstan at this time […] We closely cooperate within the framework of the UN, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other international organizations and provide mutual support to the electoral bodies. It is gratifying that bilateral documents are being signed today between our states in various fields,” stated Japarov before the customary ceremony took place in which both leaders signed 13 cooperation agreements.

Contrary to what happened in Samarkand, no large investment figures were mentioned. Kyrgyzstan does not offer Qatar the same opportunities in this regard that Uzbekistan does. Among the documents signed, one stands out and that is one related to “cooperation in the military field.” Kyrgyzstan under Japarov has been stepping up its defense capabilities, notably with Turkish-made drones, and it is significant that both parties agreed boosting defense ties. However, it is hard to know at this moment in time how that will materialise. This was not the last of such agreements the Emir would sign during his tour.

Kazakhstan: a Golden Eagle to strengthen ties

Next on the Emir’s tour was Kazakhstan. Rather than signing new agreements, the focus in this leg of the journey was to cement the current relationship between Doha and Astana. “We have built close interstate collaboration and constructive political dialogue during this time, based on the bonds of traditional friendship and strong partnership. We are keen to keep strengthening bilateral ties,” stated President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during their meeting.

The visit comes a few weeks after the Kazakh Prime Minister, Alikhan Smailov, met the Emir on the sidelines of the Qatari Economic Forum in Doha. Back then, Smailov suggested increasing the export of 60 products to the tune of $243 million. He pointed out that trade in the first quarter of 2023 increased more than 17-fold, with Qatari investments in Kazakhstan trebling last year.

While in Astana the Emir got awarded the Order of Altyn Kyran (Golden Eagle), the highest state award in Kazakhstan, and attended the Astana International Forum.

Tajikistan: a long-awaited inauguration

After Kazakhstan, the Emir flew to Dushanbe and met with President Emomali Rahmon. At the official talks that took place at the imposing Palace of Nation, both sides called out hydropower, food, mining, agriculture and tourism as important areas for bilateral cooperation. It is no surprise that hydropower tops the list of priorities for the Tajik regime. Its main infrastructure project is the Rogun Dam, and it is certain that Dushanbe would welcome Qatari investment for the project.

Following the discussions 15 documents were signed by the parties. Among them, as in Kyrgyzstan, featured an agreement between the ministries of Defense for military cooperation. Contrary to what happened in Samarkand, Afghanistan was not mentioned publicly.

This trip by the Emir comes three years late. Originally, the Qatari monarch was expected to attend the inauguration of Dushanbe’s new Cathedral Mosque back in August 2020, but the pandemic prevented it. Doha financed 70% of the $100 million that cost to build the mosque, the second largest in Central Asia with a capacity for 133,000 worshippers. Finally, three years after it was built, the building was official inaugurated by the Emir.

What about Turkmenistan?

Turkmenistan was not on Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s itinerary as part of his Central Asian tour. Was this a snub at Ashgabat? There is two ways of addressing this question.

Earlier this year, the Leader of the Turkmen People, former president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov hosted a member of the Qatari royal family, Sheikh Faisal bin Nasser bin Hamad Al-Thani, that seems to manage the country’s relation with Ashgabat. Whether he was at the Turkmen capital representing the Qatari government or for personal reasons, it is unclear.

Perhaps there was not much left to discuss between the Emir and the Turkmen father-son duo, and therefore there was no point for him to travel to the country. Or it could also be that, for reasons unknown, he purposely decided to avoid visiting the country.

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council offer Central Asia yet another means to diversify their foreign policy. With funds available for investment across different sectors, they are a welcomed partner in the region, although so far Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan have been the main focus of their interests. The trip by the Emir of Qatar to Central Asia is a reminder of the role his country and its neighbours can play and the importance the region can have for them as a transit point and new potential markets.

Main photograph source: The president of Uzbekistan’s press service

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