On April 16th, recently elected Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov concluded a four-day visit to Saudi Arabia, his first trip abroad as head of state. It is noteworthyâ€”albeit not entirely surprisingâ€”that Berdymukhammedovâ€™s first foreign destination was Saudi Arabia, and not Moscow or Beijing. The trip was focused on two objectives: bolstering the presidentâ€™s Muslim credentials and expanding bilateral cooperation and investment in the Turkmen energy sector. While Saudi participation in an expanding hydrocarbon industry may eventually result, the most significant development of this trip may prove to be the increased usage of religion to legitimate the Turkmenistanâ€™s first post-Niyazov government.
BACKGROUND: The planning for Berdymukhammedovâ€™s official visit began with an invitation from King Abdullah in late March. Saudi Arabia has maintained steady ties with Turkmenistan since relations were established in 1992, and in 1997, the Saudis began construction of a major purpose-built embassy facility on a 15,000 m2 location in downtown Ashgabat. Recently, relations with Saudi Arabia have been characterized as consisting primarily of â€˜aid and assistance.â€™ Annual trade between the two nations is modest, having been lately estimated at approximately $41 million, primarily consisting of Saudi exports of industrial equipment and consumer goods. In addition to expanded commercial ties and greater collaboration on energy matters, the Turkmen government is also eager to develop greater tourism, cultural, and educational relations with the kingdom, and a Saudi state cultural mission recently visited Ashgabat. Tourism has thus far been relatively low; however, Turkmenistan has been a frequent desert hunting and falconry destination for Saudi and other Gulf Arabs.
Berdymukhammedov began his visit to Saudi Arabia not in Riyadh, but by traveling first to Jeddah, and from there proceeding to make umrah. Frequently described as the â€˜lesser pilgrimageâ€™ umrah can be preformed at anytime of the year, as opposed to the Hajj pilgrimage, the timing of which dictated by the Muslim lunar calendar. In Makkah, he took part in Friday prayers, and from there made the additional trip to Medina and preformed the ritual visit to the Mosque of the Prophet and Prophet Muhammadâ€™s tomb.
Turkmenistanâ€™s Watan television news and TDH, the State Information Agency of Turkmenistan, showed Berdymukhammedov prior to his departure at Ashgabat airport dressed in ihram, the simple white garments required of all male pilgrims denoting the humility and equality of all pilgrims. This symbolism and imagery is extremely important in such a tightly controlled environment as Turkmenistan, and was no doubt intended to bolster Berdymukhammedovâ€™s Muslim credentials and broaden his legitimacy.
In Riyadh, Berdymukhammedov and the Turkmen delegation had a series of official meetings with King Abdullah and other senior leaders, including Crown Prince Sultan; Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal; Interior Minister Prince Nayaf; Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh Province; Deputy Petroleum Minister Muttalib an-Nafisa; Prince Sattam, deputy governor of Riyadh; as well as a number of other senior civil and military officers, and representatives of the armed forces and General Intelligence. Following the meeting with the King, the two foreign ministries signed a General Agreement on Cooperation to further develop bilateral relations between the two governments. In a sign of the expanding bilateral relations, it was also announced during this visit that Ashgabat would establish a Turkmen embassy in Riyadh.
The issues discussed in the Turkmen delegationâ€™s meetings included investment in the Turkmen medical sector, collaboration in agricultural education, and expanded cooperation in hydrocarbon development and coordination. Of particular interest, the two leaders discussed â€œthe outlook for bilateral relations and a number of international problems,â€ interpreted by some observers to be developments regarding Iran and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabiaâ€™s newly assertive foreign policy, and the future of the Gas Countries Exporting Forum (GCEF). Berdymukhammedov and Oil and Gas Minister Gurbanmurat Atayev discussed possible Saudi investment in the Turkmen hydrocarbon sector and called for Saudi participation in the exploitation of Caspian shelf reserves.
At a red carpet reception for the Turkmen delegation at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Berdymukhammedov invited private sector Saudi businesses to invest in the Turkmen hydrocarbon sector, and agreed to the formation of a joint Saudi-Turkmen Business Council. Specifically, he encouraged Saudi firms to conduct geological surveys and advanced hydrocarbon surveys in the Central Asian state and called for Saudi assistance in the modernization of the countryâ€™s oil-refining and petrochemical industries. Other possible investment opportunities were discussed by the Turkmen delegation, including opportunities in the agricultural sector and the tourism sectorâ€”in particular the construction of several major hotels along the Caspian coast. Berdymukhammedov also offered incentives to Saudi businesses investing in Turkmenistan and promised to â€˜ease visa application for Saudi businessmen.â€™
IMPLICATIONS: Saudi Arabia has frequently been an initial foreign destination for regional leaders. In January 2002, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made Saudi Arabia his first foreign destination, and in 1992 late president Niyazov traveled to the kingdom as one of his first trips abroad and made umrah in an attempt to enhance his legitimacy.
Such trips convey several messages. First and foremost, they serve to reinforce the perception of Muslim piety and legitimacy. This is important in the case of Berdymukhammedov as he was a relatively unknown functionary prior to Niyazovâ€™s death, and he has had to construct an image separate from that of Turkmenbashi. Moreover, the decision to make Saudi Arabia his first foreign destination signifies a relative independence from the regionâ€™s historic and emerging hegemonic actors. This echoes Niyazovâ€™s foreign policy of positive neutrality and it resonates with what we have seen thus far of the Berdymukhammedov government: non-alignment, suggestions of greater constructive engagement with other regional powers, and a primacy of hydrocarbon sales.
While Berdymukhammedov was in the kingdom, the Turkmen media provided regular reports of his visit. These newscasts on state-controlled television have repeatedly noted the presidentâ€™s pilgrimage, while providing relatively little information of the substantive outcomes of the meetings with Saudi officials. It appears that this aspect, the establishment and reinforcement of the presidentâ€™s Muslim credentials, has been a primary objective of the visit. Such careful image maintenance is extremely important for the new president as he seeks to craft his own visage, distinct from Niyazovâ€™s ever-present shadow. In a further highlight of the presidentâ€™s Muslim identity, state-run Turkmen media also highlighted the fact that â€˜sacrificial mealsâ€™ being offered throughout the country in Dasoguz, Mary, Ahal, and Balkan regions in honor of Berdymukhammedovâ€™s successful completion of umrah pilgrimage.
Of his four days in Saudi Arabia, Berdymukhammedov and his delegation spent two of them performing umrah, leaving only two days for official meetings in Riyadh. While Saudi economic and humanitarian assistance was very likely discussed, substantive discussions focused largely on expanding commercial ties and increasing energy cooperation. Following on the GECF Doha meeting and recent Turkmen assertions that it will be able to meet all its international obligations for natural gas sales, much of the discussions are presumed to have focused on ways in which the two hydrocarbon producers can maximize their market shares. Indeed, Berdymukhammedov stressed to his Saudi hosts several times how Turkmenistan is on schedule to expand its oil and gas production and exports by 15 and 20 percent respectively.
CONCLUSIONS: Many of the results of Berdymukhammedovâ€™s first foreign visit remain to be seen. Greater Saudi investment in the Turkmen economy may be a difficult sell in the kingdom, especially after the difficultly Saudi firms experienced when they first went to region after independence, when bureaucratic obstacles and rampant corruption drove all but the most persistent investors away.
To be sure, the Saudis most certainly have been relieved at Berdymukhammedovâ€™s expression of â€˜appropriateâ€™ Muslim piety. The last time a Turkmen president visited the kingdom, the Saudis gave the Turkmen government a massive grant to subsidize mosque construction and to underwrite pilgrimage expenses. Niyazov reportedly spent these funds to build the enormous mosque at Kipchakâ€”complete with inscriptions of the Ruhnamaâ€”hardly what the Saudis had in mind. Insult was added to injury when Niyazov then announced that yearly pilgrimages to Kipchak could be substituted for making Hajj.
Perhaps the most tangible development to come from Berdymukhammedovâ€™s visit could come in the form of expanded permission for Turkmen citizens to make pilgrimage to the Makkah. The number of Turkmen pilgrims allowed to make the Hajj in recent years has been limited to 188â€”the capacity of a single passenger aircraftâ€”despite a quota by Saudi authorities of over 4,500. During the Niyazov era, the Turkmen government was alleged to have subjected potential pilgrims to investigation by the countryâ€™s security services, and it was reported that Hajj pilgrims were escorted by Turkmen security officers while in the kingdom. After their presidentâ€™s own pilgrimage and the certain encouragement to loosen restriction that his Saudi hosts likely offered, this would be a welcome expansion of personal freedoms in line with other recent decrees. However, such religious liberties might be a step to far for the cautious Berdymukhammedov.
AUTHORâ€™S BIO: Christopher Boucek is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Princeton University focusing on terrorism, security, and regime stability issues in energy producing nations in the Middle East and Central Asia.