Ever since he became Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in 2017, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has been pursuing aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East aimed at countering and isolating Iran. Both countries have been engaged in proxy conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Their rivalries stretch from the Middle East to South Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan), Africa (Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia), and the Caucasus (Azerbaijan). While Saudi Arabia has also forged ties with Central Asia – a majority Sunni Muslim region of the world that includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – MbS wants to boost his kingdom’s influence in this region.

Central Asia has been attracting more international actors with interests in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Central Asia has historically been Russia’s sphere of influence. The region is still politically, economically, culturally, and linguistically tied to Russia, which will be hard to break. However, Central Asia has been attracting more international actors with various interests in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR). Because these countries are majority Sunni Muslim, powerful Muslim countries in the Middle East began introducing their versions of Islam in this region.

Turkey has been one of the earliest entrants into Central Asia to expand pan-Turkism – a notion that all Turkic people must unite – and its Sunni religious influence. It has been more successful with establishing its foothold in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, compared to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, by tightening economic relations, creating educational institutions, and building mosques.

Although Iran’s influence in Central Asia is not strong, Tajikistan’s linguistic and cultural affinity with Iran (both speak Persian also known as Farsi) drew the two countries closer. However, Tajikistan’s rejection of the Iranian model of Islamic government and rocky bilateral relations since the 1990s put some distance between them. Iran’s Shi’a version of Islam has been hard to import to Sunni-heavy Central Asia, not the least because the governments in the region are secular.

Map of Central Asia

Map of Central Asia

Since the 1990s, the influence of Saudi Arabia and other Arabian Gulf countries in Central Asia has primarily focused on building educational and religious institutions in the region, erecting mosques, funding religious education of young people and imams, providing material support to official representatives of the Islamic clergy in individual countries, organizing courses in Arabic language, and launching various charitable foundations.

Eco Islamic Bank, supported by Saudi Arabia, has more than 120 branches across Kyrgyzstan, which transfers monthly payments to local imams. As a result, Saudi Arabia has built relations with Kyrgyzstan’s religious as well as political leaders.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia’s main goal in engaging Central Asian states has been to spread its austere and strict versions of Islam, Wahhabism and Salafism, which has its roots in Wahhabism and advocates a return to “pure” Islam, with fundamentalist reinterpretation.

Saudi Arabia has sought to be part of the expansion of Islam in the region that was rediscovering its religious identity after 70 years under the Soviet atheist regime. According to Evgeniy Novikov, scholar at the American Foreign Policy Council, the USSR spent around $7 billion USD on the propaganda of Communism during 70 years of its existence, while Saudi Arabia has spent $90 billion USD to spread the Wahhabi ideology in 20 years since the 1980s.

Saudis have generously funded studies of young people from Central Asia in Islamic seminaries within the region.

Saudis have generously funded studies of young people from Central Asia in Islamic seminaries (madrasas) within the region and in other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, where Wahhabi influence is strong. Central Asian students who studied in such institutions were believed to have returned being indoctrinated in a rigid form of Islam, and not much education in anything else. As carriers of the Wahhabi ideology, such young people began to present a problem to representatives of traditional Islam and governments in their own countries.

As people in the region began to embrace their Islamic identities, they struggled with the onslaught of a transnational Salafist terrorist group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the early 2000s and the influx of a multitude of Islamic sects and groups to Central Asia. Consequently, the governments in the region began to tighten control over the influence of Islam on their society.

Central Asian authorities have taken steps to stop the spread in their region of Wahhabi and Salafist ideas, which they associate with Islamic fundamentalism and extremism and which Saudi Arabia has been promoting for years. They increased crackdowns on Islamic garbs, beards, Islamist literature, and militant websites. They began vetting imams to make sure they do not preach insurrection and violence.

But human rights and international organizations and observers have insisted that Central Asian governments’ harsh measures against religious people and political opponents alike are often aimed at silencing dissent and deflecting from pressing social and economic problems, while pushing moderate Muslims to fringe extremist groups.

The religious influence of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations in Central Asia is viewed with mistrust and apprehension.

At this juncture, the religious influence of Saudi Arabia and of other Gulf nations in Central Asia is largely viewed with mistrust and apprehension. After an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 people from Central Asia were found in the ranks of the Islamic State (ISIS), the countries in the region have taken active steps to teach state-promoted traditional form of Hanafi – i.e. moderate Islam – to people in order to prevent social radicalization and drive out extremist influences. Introduction of proper religious education, instead of shunning religion altogether, has become a priority.

However, followers of Saudi-promoted Salafism still exist in Central Asia. Sometimes among what would appear to be the least expected group of people. According to Central Asian researcher Aurelie Biard, Salafism has found a place among some of Kazakhstan’s businessmen, the urban middle class. They are not directly financed by Saudi Arabia, but they maintain easy access to the Saudi market and commercial opportunities there.

While these Kazakh Salafists do not position themselves against the secular government of the country, the Kazakh government still distrusts them. Moreover, Biard says Kazakh Salafi entrepreneurs may be peaceful, but they are ultra-conservative and increasingly wield influence on the people around them. They admire the Saudi governance model.

Saudi Arabia has been pouring money into Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to claw them away from Iranian commercial ties.

At this juncture, the influence of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations is small compared to that of Russia or China. But MbS has practical goals to increase his involvement in Central Asia: contain and curb Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia has been pouring money into Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to claw them away from Iranian commercial ties given the increasing trade between these countries and Iran.

Uzbekistan’s opening to the world, after the death of a longtime authoritarian President Islam Karimov in 2016 and succeeded by reform-minded Shavkat Mirziyoev, presents a new opportunity to Saudi Arabia. Recently, ACWA Power, a Saudi utility developer, signed $2.5 billion USD-worth of energy agreements with Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, whose brother served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has been actively fostering Saudi-Kyrgyz relations.

While Central Asian governments welcome greater Saudi economic and diplomatic engagement, they seem to have a healthy skepticism about Saudi religious ideology.