Turkmenistan, the Kuwait of Asia?

Image source: UNIAN

Comparative politics, in political science, attempts to explore the polity within states in the international system, through the use of comparative and/or empirical methods. Different scholars define comparative politics in different ways. One set of scholars view comparative politics as the study of national governments’ patterns in the contemporary world order. The second set of scholars opine comparative politics to be identifying and interpreting factors in the entire social order, appearing to affect the political institutions and functions listed for comparison. The third set of scholars define comparative politics to be concerned with significant regularities, similarities and differences in the working of political institutions and political behaviour. Comparative politics may include questions pertaining to the political behaviour of citizenry and the political class, political institutions such as the executive and the legislative, causes and consequences of conflicts, and the causes and consequences of economic development. Thus, one finds that comparative politics involves the study of the government and the governance of a State.

Comparative politics involves making careful, conscious and comprehensive comparisons in studying political behaviour, experiences, institutions, and processes of the systems of governments. Comparative politics, it may be argued thus, is concerned with identifying and analyzing the significant regularities and irregularities, similarities and differences in the working of political institutions and in the patterns of political behaviour. Put simply, one can say that comparative politics involves an in-depth study of various political systems either as a whole or through a comparative analysis of their structures and functions.

Scholars of comparative politics, at times, it is noted, end up proposing, or at times even seconding an erroneous, untenable analogy. Richard Pomfret notes that Turkmen policymakers appear very confident about the country’s gas wealth; so much so that they often refer to Turkmenistan as the Kuwait of Asia. This article contests the notion of Turkmenistan being called the Kuwait of Asia on several counts. To begin with, this article traces out some of the common features shared by both Kuwait and Turkmenistan which might have prompted Pomfret to somehow compare Turkmenistan with Kuwait

Turkmenistan and Kuwait share many physical and human geographic similarities with each other. Both of them are mainly desert regions with little arable land.  Kuwait has about 0.6%% of arable land whereas Turkmenistan has about 3.9% of arable land. The two countries are also rich in Petroleum and natural gas. Turkmenistan and Kuwait are also Muslim majority states. Thus in this sense, Pomfret and the Turkmen political class appear to be justified in comparing Turkmenistan with Kuwait. Yet, this article hypothesises that the labelling of Turkmenistan as the Kuwait of Asia by Pomfret and Turkmen policymakers may well be a scholarly oversight and political rhetoric respectively.

A prima facie reason to allege a scholarly oversight is the usage of the phrase “Kuwait of Asia” even when Kuwait is in Asia itself. Secondly, Pomfret notes that Turkmenistan is the most ethnically homogeneous of the Central Asian republics.  It has a 72% ethnic Turkmen population.  However, Kuwait is very heterogeneous.  30% of the population of Kuwait is ethnically Kuwaiti.

Economic indices also prove beyond doubt that Turkmenistan cannot be, and in fact, is not the Kuwait of Asia. The GDP of Kuwait (2019) is US$ 134,624M, and that of Turkmenistan (2019) is US$ 45,231M. Kuwait’s GDP per capita (2019) is $31,999 and that of Turkmenistan (2019) is $7612. The Human Development Index of Kuwait is 0.806 and is ranked 64th among 189 states. On the other hand, the Human Development Index of Turkmenistan is 0.715 and is ranked 11th among 189 states.

A comparison of the proven crude oil and natural gas reserves in Turkmenistan and Kuwait further strengthens the main argument of this article.  As per OPEC data for 2019, Kuwait has about 101,500 million barrels of crude oil and about 1784 billion m3 of natural gas. Turkmenistan has an estimated 20 billion tons of crude oil and, as the state with the fourth-largest gas reserves, has an estimated 688 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves (Jafalian, 2019).  It may be noted that Kuwait has about 8 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and produces more than 3 percent of the world’s total oil production.

Another reason why Turkmenistan is not the Kuwait of Asia is the difference in the polity of the two states.

Image source: Arab News

Kuwait is an emirate with an autocratic, semi-democratic, constitutional monarchy. The Emir is the Head of the State, with an appointed judiciary, appointed government and a nominally elected legislature. Political parties are not recognized in Kuwait. Very often, Kuwait is characterized as a rentier state, a state in which the ruling establishment uses oil revenues to buy the political acquiescence and cohesion among the citizenry. Though an autocracy, the Constitution of Kuwait is considered the most liberal state in the Gulf region as it guarantees many civil liberties generally not enjoyed by citizens of other states in the region. Turkmenistan is a centralized authoritarian state, the polity of which has largely been centred on personalities, be it Niyazov or Berdimuhamedov. Any opposition to the government is termed treason by law. Turkmen polity is often considered opaque, with the government wielding an inscrutable hold on the policy-making process. There have been views opposing the opaqueness of the Turkmen polity, but these criticisms appear to fall flat, especially when one looks at press freedoms. There is virtually no freedom of speech and expression, and press freedom is largely curtailed.

Amy Mackinnon labels Turkmenistan to be the world’s worst country for journalism. According to the World Press Freedom Index (2021) released by Reporters Without Borders, Turkmenistan is ranked 178th. Kyrgyzstan is ranked 79th, Tajikistan 168th, Kazakhstan 155th and Uzbekistan is ranked 157th in the world in terms of press freedom. On the other hand, Kuwait is ranked 105th, Iraq is ranked 163rd and Saudi Arabia is ranked 170th.  Two things are to be noted here. While Turkmenistan fares the worst amongst its neighbours in terms of press freedom, Kuwait is faring the best amongst its neighbours. Another interesting thing to note is that Turkmenistan is placed below Saudi Arabia, and  Richard Pomfret, in what appears to be a scholarly oversight, seems to agree with Turkmen policymakers in labelling Turkmenistan as the Kuwait of Asia, even when Turkmenistan fares poorly in almost every aspect one picks to compare.

In light of the data discussed above, this article posits that Turkmenistan CANNOT be, and in fact, IS NOT Kuwait just because of certain similarities. The differences are glaring enough for anyone to analyze and conclude that Turkmenistan is not the Kuwait of Asia, certainly not of Central Asia either.


1.      https://www.politicalsciencenotes.com/politics/comparative-politics-meaning-scope-and-its-evolution-political-system/1382

2.      https://www.ogj.com/drilling-production/production operations/article/14181610/turkmenistan-tadjibay-gas-field-production-to-significantly-increase-in-coming-years

3.  https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/kuwait/turkmenistan

4.      Jafalian, A. (2019). Globalization through oil and gas: central Asia’s predicament. Tla-melaua, 13(47), 368-392.

5.      Pomfret, R. (2014). The economies of central Asia (Vol. 318). Princeton University Press.

6.      https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/28/the-worlds-worst-country-for-journalists-turkmenistan/

7.      https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/centralasia/turkmen-politics.htm

8.      https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2021

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Siddharth Khatri

Siddharth Khatri is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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