The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is holding its annual summit this year in Samarkand. The gather of a number of authoritarian regimes usually goes unnoticed in the West. However, this year's gathering, which will take place this week, showcases how Russia, despite the invasion of Ukraine, will be greeted with respect by a number of other authoritarians. Uzbekistan, a country that is ostensibly close to the US and the West, is hosting the meeting. High-level meetings between China and Russia as well as Iran, Russia, Turkey and China are expected.
The states are expected to sign a memorandum on Iran's role in the SCO this year. "We expect [SCO] leaders to sign a memorandum on Iran's commitments to join the organization, after which Iran would fulfill [its] commitments in accordance with the procedures and complete its accession to the organization," SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming told Russia's TASS on Friday.
Iran isn't the only authoritarian regime coming to the SCO. Belarus has also submitted an application. "The SCO is currently actively discussing Belarus's application, and major coordination work is underway on behalf of the Secretariat. We believe there will eventually be consensus," Zhang Ming said, according to reports.
With the exception of India, the countries that attend the SCO are generally authoritarian regimes. The SCO has eight members and includes six dialogue partners. The countries that attend include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Afghanistan, Iran and Belarus are observers. Armenia and Azerbaijan, along with Turkey are attending this year as partners of the grouping. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar are also reportedly becoming dialogue partners.
Turkish state media is highlighting Ankara's role this year at the meeting. This is part of Turkey's growing alliance with Russia, Iran and China. Turkey wants to form an alliance of authoritarian regimes that will be anti-western and help reduce the US role in the Middle East and Asia. The SCO increasingly appears as a forum that is designed to confront the US. Countries like Pakistan under its former leader Imran Khan often spoke out against the US and said he was seeking to create a "multi-polar" world alongside Russia. Far-right commentators in Turkey who back the ruling AKP party are also proud of Ankara's role alongside Russia and China at the meeting.
The SCO didn't have turn out this way. It didn't have to end up as a grouping that gives a positive greeting to Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion and promotes membership for more authoritarian regimes. However recent years and summits have clearly been used by Russia, China and others to create a forum that is totally disconnected from the West. The goal is increasingly a world that exists without the West. What that means is a way to avoid US and western sanctions on Russia or Iran. These countries have common interests. Turkey, which is buying the S-400 from Russia and is now outside the US F-35 program, a partnership with Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Belarus and China is also a key part of the current Turkish government's approach.
In the Middle East countries increasingly look to the SCO as a grouping that is important. What this means is that it is not only seen as a gathering of Central Asian states, it is growing to have more importance as it expands partnerships to Ankara, Tehran and Belarus.
An article at Arab news noted that "established in 2001 as a successor to the Shanghai Five, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is the largest regional grouping in Eurasia, covering around 40 percent of the world's population and 30 percent of global economic output. Owing to its impressive profile of security and economic cooperation, the SCO has gained enormous traction across Asia. No surprise that a number of countries from the Middle East and Southeast Asia are lining up to join as dialogue partners, observers and members."
Who else might join?
The Arab News article claimed recently that "the UAE reportedly wants to join the SCO as a member, bypassing other accession conditions. Syria, Iraq, Israel, Bangladesh and Vietnam also hope to join as dialogue partners or observers." The article, by Ishtiaq Ahmad, a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford, writes that the SCO is not an anti-US bloc, "quite the contrary, its evolution conforms to the familiar pattern of 'new regionalism' in the developing world, which has produced viable regional organizations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and ASEAN. All are intergovernmental organizations with similar structures, defying the supranational mode of integration in the EU."
His assertion might ring more true if western countries and democracies were also seeking to be partners of the SCO. Iran and Belarus running to join appear to indicate that this is not what is happening. Ahmad notes that "the SCO's comparative distinction arises from its rapid progress in forging close security and economic collaboration. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure is its key institution to counter the three evils. Security cooperation is reinforced by military exercises, dubbed as peace missions, and counterterrorism drills held periodically in the member states." He also writes that "their overarching goal is to create the Greater Eurasian Partnership by synergizing SCO's developmental activities with multilateral integration projects in Eurasia, including China's Silk Road Economic Belt and Russia's Eurasian Economic Union." His conclusion is that the Gulf states should seek to work with the SCO and diversify their "geo-economic linkages in Asia without jeopardizing geopolitical partnership with the US."
His article also argues that with Iran joining the SCO is a positive sign because countries that join are less likely to cause trouble with other members and partners. Indeed, Iran is increasingly an ally of Russia and Turkey. The fact is that Iran continues to destabilize the Persian Gulf and threaten many countries in the Middle East. It remains a key question whether countries that are close to the US and the West will seek dialogue with the grouping. India is the one major exception of a country that is close to the West and also works with the SCO.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.