Jordan's King Abdullah II (C-L) shakes hands with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev during the Arab Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017
In the Arab-Islamic-American Summit with the presence of Donald Trump, the President of the United States, and more than fifty heads of Arabic and Islamic countries held in the International Exhibition and Convention Center in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, on 21 May 2017, the fact that leaders and senior officials from six non-Arab Muslim countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus took part in it was very interesting. In the Riyadh Summit, Ilham Aliyev (President of Azerbaijan), Shavkat Mirziyoyev (President of Uzbekistan), Emomali Rahmon (President of Tajikistan), Nursultan Nazarbayev (President of Kazakhstan), Rashid Meredov (Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan) and Mohammed Ghali Abul-Gaiiv (First Deputy Premier of Kyrgyzstan) attended, and in addition to taking part in the Summit, there were also bilateral meetings between mentioned leaders and officials and the Saudi leaders and senior officials.
Due to the clear anti-Iran orientation of the Summit and the efforts of Saudi Arabia to form a grand coalition of Islamic -Arabic countries against Iran, the presence of leaders and senior officials from six non-Arab Muslim countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the Riyadh Summit is very important. After the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 was achieved on July 14, 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA), the diplomatic activities of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, have significantly increased in the surrounding areas of Iran, including Central Asia and the Caucasus region. The development of bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and the six Muslim countries of these regions, the central role of Riyadh in the formation of the “Arab Cooperation and Economic Forum with Central Asia and Azerbaijan” as well as the development of Saudi’s relations, mainly economic, with Christian Georgia and the promotion of the level of diplomatic relations with this country from the accredited ambassador to the permanent ambassador are considered among important factors playing a role in increasing the diplomatic activities of Saudi Arabia in Central Asia and the Caucasus region after the nuclear deal (the JCPOA).
Another noteworthy point is the completely distinctive level of the Saudi’s focus on the two important traditional areas of influence of Iran in the region - the countries of Azerbaijan (with common religion and ethnicity) and Tajikistan (with common language and culture) - during the last three years. The numerous political meetings held at the level of president and king suggest that by the expansion of ties with the two countries, Saudi Arabia pursues goals beyond [merely developing] bilateral relations [with them]. Comparing the high-level diplomatic meetings among Riyadh and Baku and Dushanbe compared with the low-level meetings between the Saudi [senior officials] and those of other regional countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan clearly indicates the fact that these meetings are held as targeted and planned by Saudi Arabia to create a divergence in the surrounding areas of Iran, and undermine Iran’s influence in both fields of language and culture (Tajikistan) and culture and religion (Azerbaijan).
An obvious example of this is the official visit of Emomali Rahmon, President of Tajikistan, to Riyadh at the height of the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia in January 3, 2016. That Emomali Rahman’s visit to Riyadh coincided with the execution of Sheikh Nimr, the increased tensions in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the formal objection of the government of Tajikistan to the presence of Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), in the Islamic Unity Conference held in Tehran, and that the Iranian ambassador to Dushanbe was summoned, the opposing positions of Iran and Saudi Arabia towards the Syrian crisis, and that it was announced that the membership of Tajikistan in the Islamic counter-terrorism coalition was under study are among important factors that at that period gave a special meaning to Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Saudi Arabia. The reason lies in the fact that under the tumultuous conditions of that period, to maintain the balanced relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Tajik government could have postponed Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Saudi Arabia, but doing his visit in the due time conveyed a specific meaning and message of its own, especially for Iran. In the meantime, the increased investment of the Saudi Development Fund in the social programs of Tajikistan, including programs combating drug trafficking and AIDS in Badakhshan Province, the support for the self-sufficiency plan of Red Crescent Society of this country, the watershed management on the banks of Panj River and the distribution of water to the mountain villages in the Rasht Valley, that the Tajik government invited Saudi Arabia to invest in the large Rogun dam which is under construction, that the Saudis agreed with the construction of the new building of the Tajik parliament in the “Rudaki garden”, Dushanbe, and the aids of King Salman Relief Center sent for various parts of Badakhshan Province during the occurrence of earthquake and flood in this province (March 2017) are among cases which show a significant increase of relations between Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia, so the presence of Emomali Rahmon, President of Tajikistan, in the recent Summit of the heads of Islamic- Arabic countries and America in Riyadh should be evaluated and considered in this regard.
On the other hand, relations between Saudi Arabia (a country which claims to be the leader of the Islamic world and the Sunnis) and Azerbaijan as the second largest Shia Muslim country (in terms of having a Shia majority) which has close ethnic, cultural and religious ties with Iran have been quite remarkable during the past three years. Azerbaijan’s secular political structure and its different customary perceptions and practices of Islam and Shiism differing from the perceptions and approach of Iran to the Shiite have always had a special appeal for Saudi Arabia. This country, with the development of relations with Shiite Azerbaijan, seeks to persuade the world of Islam that the Saudi policies are not in conflict with the principle of Shiism, but they are only against the policies and approaches of the government and political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This approach can be clearly seen in Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Saudi Arabia at the height of the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the crises in Syria and Yemen in April 2015. That Ilham Aliyev went around the Kaaba, and visited the Masjid Al Nabawi were widely covered and promoted by the Saudi and the Arab media, and the convergence of views and positions of a Shiite country with those of Saudi Arabia was highlighted as well. Another very important point in relations between Riyadh and Baku is that Saudi Arabia, along with Pakistan and Yemen, are the three Muslim countries that have refused to recognize the independence of Armenia and establish diplomatic relations with its government since 1991 due to the occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region as a part of the territory of a Muslim country by Armenia, so the role and position of Saudi Arabia in terms of pursuing the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis followed by the government of Azerbaijan in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (that a part of the territory of a Muslim country is occupied by Christian Armenia) and the Security Council (the violation of international law and the UN Charter on the national sovereignty and territorial integrity) and in the Arab League are also of great importance for Baku. In fact, the government of Azerbaijan is seeking to make Saudi Arabia (a religious ally), in addition to Turkey (ethnic ally), accompany it in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis to put a greater pressure on Armenia and other Islamic countries. The presence of Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, at the recent Summit of the heads of Islamic- Arabic countries and America in Riyadh also clearly shows the high-level relations between Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia.
Overall, after the nuclear deal (the JCPOA), the Saudi diplomatic activities in Central Asia and the Caucasus region, as one of the most important surrounding areas of Iran and the Iranian geopolitical and cultural- civilizational fields have risen sharply, and in various political, economic and cultural fields, Riyadh has tried to increase its position and influence and decrease Iran’s influence and position in the region within a framework of a zero sum game. However, due to the [existing] mutual political, economic, security and cultural links between Iran and the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus region, in practice and in the long term, it seems far-fetched that Saudi Arabia can have a fundamental and significant influence in reducing the level of relations between Iran and the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, or play any role in the entry of these countries into the coalition against Iran centered on Saudi Arabia.
© Abrar Moaser Tehran
Vali Kaleji, an expert at Iran's Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at IRAS.
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