Persian Gulf leaders engage Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

Cafiero, The Cradle, August 22, 2023 —

While Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia engage with the Taliban-led government in Kabul to safeguard and promote their respective interests, they will stop short of full recognition.

The Taliban has remained Afghanistan’s only de facto government since the US’s botched withdrawal from the country two years ago. Despite this, no country has to date officially recognized the Taliban government. But three prominent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members—namely Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia—have taken a pragmatic approach to engaging with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). They have acknowledged the reality of the Taliban’s rise to power and cautiously engaged with the group, though formal recognition of the IEA has yet to occur.

The historical interactions of these Persian Gulf states with the Taliban deeply influence their current perspectives on post-US Afghanistan. During the late 1990s and early 2000s – before the US invasion and occupation – only Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Pakistan recognized the Taliban government. Qatar, although not formally engaged, fostered a “cordial” but unofficial relationship with the group during this time.

More notably, in the 2010s, Doha emerged as a diplomatic intermediary between western powers and the group by hosting a Taliban diplomatic mission at the request of the Obama administration. This role further blossomed during Donald Trump’s tenure, as Doha facilitated talks with the Taliban that culminated in the pivotal 2020 Doha Agreement that outlined the terms for the US’s eventual withdrawal in 2021.

Qatar’s diplomatic gamble

When US/NATO forces were evacuating Afghanistan two years ago, Qatar and the UAE helped ensure a safe exit for western diplomats and media personnel from Afghanistan. This was a major factor behind the Biden administration’s decision to name Qatar a Major Non-NATO Ally in early 2022, which came shortly after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the institutionalization of Doha’s role as Washington’s “protecting power” in the IEA.

Of all GCC states, Qatar appears most connected to the IEA. Taliban figures maintain a presence in Doha and have decent personal relationships with the Qatari leadership, although these more moderate Taliban representatives in Doha are not necessarily calling the shots in Kabul, which is a factor that places some limitations on Qatar’s influence in Afghanistan.

In May, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani became the first foreign official to publicly meet with the Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhunzada. Their meeting in Kandahar, known as the Taliban’s “spiritual birthplace,” underscored how the IEA views its relationship with Doha as crucial to efforts aimed at easing the Islamic Emirate’s international isolation.

Among Arab states in the Persian Gulf, Qatar “appears to be the most willing” to grant the IEA diplomatic recognition despite the challenges that would come with such a move, Javid Ahmad, a former Afghan ambassador to the UAE, tells The Cradle.

“While it’s difficult to determine whether Qatar perceives its current engagement as entirely risk-free, its significant material leverage over senior Taliban figures demonstrates its understanding of the potential opportunity costs and consequences of non-engagement or isolation. But taking the lead in formal recognition bears the weight of responsibility, ownership, and accountability. Being the first to act carries the risk of being the first to shouldering the consequences if it proves misguided, as seen in Pakistan, Saudi, and UAE’s recognition of the Taliban in [the 1990s].”

This Qatari “leverage” over the IEA pertains to the monthly stipends which senior Taliban leaders have been receiving for years in Qatar, the resettlement of their families in Doha, facilitated business ventures in the Persian Gulf state for some IEA figures, as well as the allocation of plots of land for some of them to build new residences there.

The UAE’s pragmatic approach 

The Afghan diaspora community in the UAE stands at roughly 300,000. This sizeable presence across the seven emirates is the basis of many people-to-people and financial links between the UAE and Afghanistan.

In the post-US Afghanistan era, Abu Dhabi has exhibited a nuanced and cautious stance with the new government in Kabul. After the Taliban displaced Afghanistan’s former president Ashraf Ghani from power in August 2021, the UAE provided refuge to Ghani and his associates.

However, the UAE also imposed restrictions on the ability of these former officials to engage in political activities within the Gulf state. This move signaled to the Taliban that the UAE would not permit its territory to be exploited for anti-IEA activities. On the other hand, Emirati officials, while referring to the “brotherly people” of Afghanistan, have simultaneously criticized the IEA’s draconian laws curtailing women’s fundamental rights.

While hosting the IEA’s acting Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob last December, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) underscored his country’s determination to pragmatically engage the IEA – notwithstanding the Emirati leadership taking a hardline anti-Taliban stance during the US occupation of Afghanistan.

Given the UAE’s significant economic interests spanning various sectors in Central Asia, ranging from tourism and agriculture to energy and logistics, Abu Dhabi’s sustained involvement in the region hinges on cooperation with Afghanistan.

This economic incentive has motivated the UAE to actively contribute to Afghanistan’s infrastructure and logistics development. An example of this commitment is the deal between GAAC Solutions and the Taliban to manage the airports in Herat, Kabul, and Kandahar.

Saudi-Taliban relations

Saudi Arabia’s unique role in the Islamic world makes Riyadh’s unofficial relationship with the Taliban significant. The kingdom has interest in monitoring the IEA’s complicated relationship with Iran and increasing Saudi soft power in post-US Afghanistan through charity and humanitarian assistance.

Saudi relief efforts in Afghanistan have been geared toward food security, water, health, and education. Key entities such as the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center and the Saudi Fund have played pivotal roles in Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian initiatives in the economically beleaguered country.

Yet, as Umer Karim, an associate fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, tells The Cradle, Saudi Arabia has mostly embraced a “wait-and-watch” approach to the Taliban. As Karim recently explained, Riyadh’s early engagement with the IEA went through Pakistan. However, rising tensions between the Taliban and Islamabad caused Saudi Arabia’s Pakistani channel to Kabul to become “virtually dysfunctional.”

Ibraheem Bahiss, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, explains to The Cradle that “as Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban severed, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also gotten cold feet in their engagement [with the Taliban].”

Nonetheless, in light of security crises in Afghanistan, the Saudis have relocated the kingdom’s Afghan consular office to Pakistan, from where Saudi officials coordinate humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and process Afghan visas. Bahiss maintains that with Pakistan being Saudi Arabia’s most important strategic partner that borders Iran, Riyadh will probably mostly follow Islamabad’s lead on Afghanistan.

Poornima Balasubramanian, a research scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at India’s Manipal Academy of Higher Education, tells The Cradle that:

“Given Pakistan’s historical ties with and role as a regional player alongside Taliban entities, this significantly influences how the GCC states position their foreign policies towards Pakistan…The GCC [members] will remain watchful of Pakistan’s involvement in providing support and exerting influence on the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Despite approaching the situation more cautiously than their counterparts in Doha and Abu Dhabi, officials in Riyadh have indeed established limited contact with the Taliban since August 2021, and now pragmatically maintain unofficial communication with the de facto government in Kabul.

In late June, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and other high-ranking Saudi officials met with Yaqoob at a reception in the kingdom while the Taliban’s acting defense minister was taking part in the annual Hajj. The IEA publicized images of this reception on social media, highlighting the de facto Saudi ruler’s interaction with Yaqoob.

Saudi Arabia’s historical association with the Taliban, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, has made Riyadh wary of engaging too deeply with the IEA. Additionally, as Saudi leadership actively promotes “moderate Islam” within its own borders, there’s a need to avoid any optics that could potentially undermine its efforts.

Leveraging its Islamic credentials, Saudi Arabia has encouraged member-states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Ultimately, Riyadh’s approach seeks to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, illicit drug trade, and arms smuggling — all of which are potential threats to the broader region.

Cautious distance from the Taliban 

In the pursuit of stability in Afghanistan and neighboring vulnerable countries, Saudi Arabia’s engagement with the IEA is expected to remain measured in the future.

Looking ahead, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh are poised to continue their cautious involvement with the Taliban. By maintaining an embassy in Kabul, Qatar represents US interests and has urged the international community to formulate a “roadmap” outlining steps the IEA should take for formal recognition.

Qatar effectively argues that the current strategies of isolating the Taliban and Afghanistan will exacerbate security and humanitarian crises. But formal recognition of the IEA by any GCC member does not appear imminent.

The Taliban’s repressive restrictions on the rights of women, its ban on music, and other extreme aspects of its governance, place Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia under pressure to maintain a safe distance from the IEA. With little reason to be optimistic about the IEA making fundamental changes to its policies, Gulf states’ outreach to the Taliban will continue, but will probably remain short of full-fledged recognition.

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