Turkmenistan: Yabba dabba Dubai

Turkmenistan: Yabba dabba Dubai
Arkadag, which plays in white and green kits, is poised to become Turkmenistan's new soccer champion. / Turkmenistan football federation
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin May 4, 2023

A betting man could do worse than put some money on Turkmenistan’s newest soccer team to win the national championship this season.

Arkadag, the side that was created only last month and named in tribute to former President and now-National Leader Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, AKA Arkadag, the Patron and Protector, has so far won all three of its premier league matches. And it is winning the games with ease at that. On May 29, it trounced hapless Shagadam, which languishes at the bottom of the league, to the tune of 4-0.

Meanwhile, the builders of the new city of Arkadag – also named after Berdimuhamedov, naturally – have less cause for celebration. Vienna-based Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported in late April that construction workers busy completing what government officials have dubbed a “smart city”, the likes of which the region has never seen before, were not paid their salaries for March. The outlet’s sources have said that managers at Polat Gaya, the construction company overseeing part of the project, are keeping a low profile to avoid having to deal with irate employees. 

These cashflow woes are particularly troubling given that officials let slip only recently that Arkadag is going to cost almost $5bn to finish.

Pending Turkmenistan’s routinely advertised embrace of economic diversification, all this will have to be paid for out of revenues generated by the sale of natural gas and other resources.

Happily enough, that topic was front and centre at the self-explanatorily titled “International Forum to Attract Foreign Investments in [sic] Turkmenistan’s Energy Sector” held in Dubai on April 26-27. A Turkmen government account of this event argued that the strong turnout should be read as confirmation of the increasing interest in the Turkmen hydrocarbons sector among foreign investors. It does not appear, however, as though the attendees or the agenda differed notably from the countless other energy conferences that Turkmenistan has mounted over the decades. 

One arguably fresh trend is the extent of hope that Ashgabat is placing on Persian Gulf investors, who obligingly say the right kinds of things. Speaking at the conference, Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, a leading lawmaker and member of the Emirati ruling family, reportedly forecast that Dubai-based Dragon Oil will over the coming 15 years invest $8bn into projects in Turkmenistan. (The Turkmen state-operated energy news outlet Nebit-Gaz, which initially carried these remarks, appears to have scrubbed them from its website, however).

The Turkmen government boasts with breathtaking chutzpah that compliance with environmental standards is a top priority for it when executing industrial projects. But this is a patently nonsensical claim in light of the fact that Turkmenistan is known to be one of the world’s worst offenders in terms of harmful methane emissions. 

That awkward fact was not skirted at the conference in Dubai, which is later this year due to host the next edition of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28. 

Saamir Elshihabi, the head of energy transition for COP28, was cited by Bloomberg as saying that the time had come for Turkmenistan to finally seize the opportunity to address its shortcomings on emissions. But the news agency conveyed the point later in the same report that “there’s little evidence that Turkmenistan has agreed to take any concrete steps to curb methane leaks.”

Al Maktoum reportedly expressed interest in helping Turkmenistan further cultivate the use of renewable energy sources, but again, this is largely chatter for now. 

Some of the implementation on renewables looks faintly amateurish. The Energy Ministry in late February announced it was putting out an international tender for companies to provide parts for the construction of a solar power plant in a remote location. Somewhat discouragingly, though, applicants were given until the previous August – in 2022 – to submit their bids. One foreign-based outlet indicated that the actual expiration date for bids was April 26, but if anything has happened with the tender, the Energy Ministry has not provided any details.

Something is going to happen at some point, though. Energy Minister Khadzhimuhammet Rejepmuradov reportedly told the Dubai conference that his country’s first-ever combined wind and solar power plant will be put into operation somewhere deep inside the Karakarum desert in 2024. And that 10-megawatt plant is only the start, he said. Turkmenistan is now studying prospects for drumming up investments from the UAE’s Masdar for construction of a 100-megawatt solar power plant, Rejepmuradov said.

In more conventional energy news, Turkmengaz chairman Batyr Amanov informed investors in Dubai that Turkmenistan expects within the next 3-4 years to up its annual gas deliveries to China to 65bn cubic metres. The three-pipelined route now in existence passes through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before reaching China and has a maximum capacity for 55bn cubic meters. The so-called Line D, which would cross Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, will need to be completed before Amanov’s projection can be fulfilled. 

The expectation is that the additional gas would be sourced from reserves developed during the second stage of development at the Galkynysh mega-field. And a further third stage of the same project will be used to provide gas for filling the elusive 33-bn-cubic-metre trans-Afghan TAPI pipeline. When precisely either TAPI or the third stage of Galkynysh will become physical realities is very much in the lap of the gods, however. 

And Ashgabat is in theory not prepared to close the book on the trans-Caspian pipeline either. In a written address to the Dubai conference, President Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the son of the former incumbent, talked up that route as another “most ambitious project” for exporting gas to Europe. 

The impression has been dawning for some time now, though, that words like “ambitious” may be code for impossible.

The only realistic, short-term option being floated at the moment is for the installation of something called the Trans Caspian Connector project, which would, in crude terms, piggyback on existing infrastructure to enable Turkmenistan to send at least modest volumes across to Azerbaijan for onward delivery to Europe. But in a paper written for the Atlantic Council last year, two energy analysts, John Roberts and Julian Bowden, cited their sources as saying Turkmenistan had “informed U.S. diplomats that it is not interested in the Connector project and is signaling that it won’t get out of bed for anything less than the decades-old idea of a 30 [billion cubic meters per annum] pipeline.”

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.