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The Gulf States Weigh Trade-Offs of Engaging With the Taliban

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the massive evacuations of international troops dramatically altered Afghanistan’s political landscape, prompting the Gulf states to rapidly rethink their Afghan policy. In 1996, when the Taliban last gained control over Kabul, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – along with Pakistan – gave quick diplomatic recognition to Taliban rule. Twenty-five years later, the Gulf states have signaled reluctance to be the first countries to break the ice with the Taliban and have opted for a wait-and-see approach instead.

While most of the foreign embassies relocated out of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban surge to power, some Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE – have maintained a diplomatic foothold in the country. Nervous about the risks of violence spilling across Afghanistan’s borders and negatively impacting the precarious security conditions in Central Asia, the Gulf states have refrained from totally severing ties with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Due to its critical position in the heartland of Central Asia, ensuring stability and security in Afghanistan is a critical precondition for the success of any attempts by the Gulf states to become more involved in the region’s power dynamics.

Although the Gulf states are far from coming up with a joint Afghan policy, they all share an interest in mitigating the Afghan population’s humanitarian misery, disrupting efforts by radical terrorist groups to establish sanctuaries in the country, and preventing Afghan domestic tensions from spreading throughout the region. Building on these mutual concerns, the Gulf states appear to have informally reached a loosely-defined consensus on some rules of engagement to abide by when interacting with the Taliban. While establishing full diplomatic ties with the Islamist group remains off the table, the GCC states’ conduct has also suggested that indeterminately relegating it to pariah status is not a viable option. Stemming from these mixed feelings, the Gulf seems to have adopted an Afghan policy that carefully threads between pragmatic interactions on project-based initiatives and firm condemnations of the Taliban’s radical behavior.

Three Countries, Three Approaches

At first glance, there are no striking differences between the Taliban-era Afghan policy outlooks taken up by the Gulf states. However, a closer look helps to single out how Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have each shaped their individual approaches to the Afghan quagmire.

Since 2013, when the Taliban inaugurated a political office in Doha, Qatar has earned a front-row seat in the Afghan conundrum. Thanks to its critical role as a facilitator for the 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal and its vital logistical support during the chaotic post-takeover airlift in August 2021, Qatar has emerged as one of the most influential players in the Afghan power game.

Qatar has been aided in this by its comparatively positive communication with Afghanistan’s new rulers. After the Taliban gained control of Kabul, sealing the previous government’s fate, prominent Qatari foreign policy officials have been particularly vocal in urging the international community to double down on humanitarian efforts and not to let a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan become a pariah state. It is unclear how effective Doha’s exhortations have been. Despite the severe hardship endured by the Afghan population, many countries appear to be highly reticent to heed Qatar’s calls for more diplomatic engagement with the de-facto rulers of Afghanistan. Moreover, due to mounting violence targeting ethno-religious minorities and the precarious state of women’s conditions, Qatari efforts have not yielded much.

Crippled in their capacity to move freely out of Afghanistan due to the UN visa ban, the Taliban continues to rely heavily on Doha’s political office to support the group’s diplomatic activism. Spearheaded by Suhail Shaheen, a senior political figure in the Taliban cadres with almost a decade-long diplomatic experience in Qatar, the Doha-based political office remains the most effective tool to enhance the Taliban’s external outreach.

In October 2022, American and Taliban representatives convened in Doha—a meeting overshadowed by the U.S. assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, in a wealthy suburb of Kabul, leading to speculation that the Taliban had sheltered him. The presence of high-ranking security officials at that meeting, such as CIA Deputy Director David Cohen and Taliban senior intelligence official Abdul Haq Wasiq, suggests that counterterrorism cooperation primarily drove the U.S.-Taliban talks. More recently, in November 2022, Taliban officials also resorted to the Doha political office to organize meetings with Roza Otunbayeva, UN Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, and H.E. Ridwan Hassan, the Indonesian ambassador.

Although the latest Doha-based rounds of talks suggest that Qatar remains the Taliban’s preferred conduit for interacting with the outside world, the Islamist group has also signaled a growing interest in further diversifying its partners and extending its external outreach beyond its traditional interlocutors. The Taliban’s decision to have the UAE operate Kabul international airport and other aviation facilities across the country speaks to the Islamist group’s desire to emancipate its foreign outreach from the binary Qatar-Pakistan axis.

When the UN-recognized Afghan government collapsed, the UAE – along with Qatar and Turkey – rapidly stepped in to bring air traffic operations at Kabul airport back in line. Once the emergency had ended, the Taliban entered into several months-long negotiations for allocating Afghan airport operation contracts. Ultimately, Qatari and Turkish proposals each ran aground, and the UAE’s bid was rewarded.

In addition to two agreements inked during the Summer of 2022, the UAE and the Taliban also agreed on a third deal assigning GAAC Holding, an Abu Dhabi-based company specialized in ground handling and aviation security, a ten-year contract for the management of operations at airports in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif. Engaging in logistics-driven cooperation with the Taliban might offer the UAE some latitude to shore up its influence with the Taliban after years of strained ties.

While the UAE was among the first countries to establish official diplomatic relations with the Taliban in the mid-1990s, the country promptly cut ties with the Islamist group after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion in October 2001. In the aftermath of then-President Bush’s War on Terror, the UAE’s troops stand out among the American security partners in the Middle East as the only Arab army to have participated in live combat operations supporting Washington’s military effort in Afghanistan. Aside from fighting against the Islamist militants, Emirati troops were also tasked with conducting training programs for the Afghan special forces in the Helmand Province.

In addition to the military track, humanitarian diplomacy has long been a critical component of the UAE’s Afghan policy. Abu Dhabi provided loans and grants through state funds and private donor entities to support initiatives in key sectors such as infrastructure, education, and housing. According to the UAE Annual Foreign Aid Reports, the country funneled more than $500 million into Afghanistan in humanitarian aid between 2010 and 2020.

During a humanitarian mission to open an orphanage in the Kandahar Province, the UAE paid its heaviest death toll in Afghanistan. Amid a visit to the province’s governor in January 2017, an Emirati diplomatic team was targeted by a bomb attack. The UAE ambassador to Afghanistan, Juma Mohammed Abdullah Al Kaabi, and five UAE diplomats were among the attack’s eleven victims. While the Taliban officially denied involvement in the Kandahar explosion, the Islamist group claimed responsibility for two other blasts in Kabul and Lashkargah that killed dozens of Afghan officials and civilians on the same day—prompting skepticism of the group’s aims in Abu Dhabi and deepening many Emiratis’ antipathy toward it.

When the international coalition’s evacuation operations ramped up against the backdrop of the Taliban rush to power in August 2021, the UAE continued to play a constructive role by offering logistical assistance to troops and Afghan civilians airlifted out of the country. As Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban militias, thousands of Afghans fled to the UAE—most notably Ashraf Ghani, the president of the internationally-recognized government.

While Qatar and the UAE are cultivating relations with the Taliban to secure some entry points in a post-U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the absence of Saudi Arabia from this diplomatic ferment is the elephant in the room. Historically a heavyweight in Afghanistan’s power game, Saudi Arabia appears to have pivoted to a “wait and see” approach to its affairs in the country.

The bedrock of Afghan-Saudi ties dates back to the late 1970s, when Riyadh emerged as the main bankroller of the mujahideen’s anti-Soviet resistance. When the Afghan liberation efforts turned into a bitter civil war among warlords, Saudi Arabia titled its support toward the Taliban, then a new-born religious movement characterized by its promise to end the country’s violence and implement nationwide shari’a law. For some years, Taliban-Saudi relations were characterized by ebbs and flows, but ties between the two fell apart in the late 1990s when the Taliban refused to stop harboring Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Afghanistan and hand over Osama bin Laden. The power vacuum that emerged after the U.S.-led military invasion and the demise of Mullah Omar’s regime yielded mixed results. While it triggered some positive reactions from Afghan domestic forces, it also offered a new battlefield for the power struggle among two long-lasting regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two powerhouses heavily meddled in the country’s political dynamics by mobilizing massive financial resources and sponsoring initiatives in key sectors, especially infrastructure and religious education.

With Qatar effectively taking up the baton of Afghan talks and new leadership taking office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia gradually lost interest in Afghan affairs. Indeed, focusing the country’s financial and diplomatic energies on economic and social reforms was perceived by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as a much more critical endeavor than devoting further resources to the Afghan quagmire. Moreover, the Saudi crown prince’s quest to pivot Saudi Arabia toward reducing religious authority power in the country runs contrary to its longtime funding of ultraconservative religious schools in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has increasingly resorted to its still-strong religious credentials to condemn the Taliban’s violence.

Although Saudi-Iranian ties have timidly entered a de-escalation phase in the past year, the containment of Iranian ambitions in Central Asia has traditionally been one of the main drivers of Saudi-Afghan policy and Riyadh continues to keep an eye on Iran’s inroads in Afghanistan. While further confluence between Tehran and Kabul is unlikely in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, the ongoing terrorist attacks targeting Afghanistan’s predominantly-Shi’a Hazara ethnic group might induce Iran to step up its involvement in the country to protect a minority which has historically been close to the Iranian camp. If previous instances help decipher Saudi Arabia’s strategy, Riyadh will hardly let a growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan pass unchecked, but what tools it will use to counterbalance Tehran’s encroachments remains uncertain.

The Future Outlook

Relegating the Taliban to permanent pariah status is not a viable option in the eyes of the Gulf states. While establishing full diplomatic ties with the Taliban is not politically feasible under current circumstances and Afghanistan does not top their strategic priorities, the Gulf states have nonetheless signaled an interest in leaving open some channels of communication with a Taliban-controlled Kabul to tackle many security and humanitarian concerns. The imperative to keep tabs on the terrorist networks still hiding in sanctuaries across Afghanistan, curb the drug smuggling trade, and provide humanitarian assistance to the battered Afghan population calls for the Gulf states to watch on-the-ground developments closely.

The Taliban is not new at simultaneously courting different regional and global powers in order to gain international support. Since its onset in the mid-1990s, the Islamist group has skillfully played external influences against each other to gain political weight and increase its degree of independence. Although the Taliban takeover did not result in a skyrocketing surge of widespread violence (as it did in 1996) or a revamping of support for fundamentalists, the humanitarian situation in the country remains extremely precarious and human rights conditions are far below minimum international standards. Besides, it remains unclear whether the Taliban is genuinely distancing itself from its previous politico-ideological playbook or if it is performing constructive behavior in public only to bolster its legitimacy among the international community. Aware that holding the Taliban accountable for its reprehensible conduct is an uphill battle, the Gulf states are reluctant to engage in initiatives that might breed moral complicity with its actions.

To what extent the Gulf states will become more enmeshed in Afghanistan’s political future remains an open question. On the one hand, the security vacuum left by U.S. troops’ withdrawal and the Taliban’s pursuit of international recognition and “legitimacy” are favorable conditions for further Gulf engagement in the country. On the other hand, numerous friction points need to be addressed before opportunities for more meaningful cooperation are explored. Among them, a razor-thin trust between the Gulf states and the Taliban severely obstructs any attempt to deepen the discussion. As long as a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan does not become a springboard for cross-border radical terrorist groups and human security does not dramatically deteriorate, the Afghan policy of the Gulf states is unlikely to take an abrupt turn from its current trajectory based on balancing phased engagement and containment.

Aside from a few red-line principles, the Gulf states still lack a jointly defined Afghan approach, and each country is primarily focused on pursuing its own agenda. However, the magnitude of shared security concerns over Afghanistan’s future might induce the Gulf states to overlook the underlying contrasts that drove them apart in the past. Should the Gulf states prove capable of shelving their more intricate differences, avoid turning Afghanistan into a theater for regional rivalry, and develop a common Afghan policy, they would have better chances to promote their individual strategic interests while championing transformative changes in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is a researcher in the Strategic Studies Department at Trends, Research & Advisory, a think tank in Abu Dhabi. He is also an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Mr. Mazzucco has an MA degree in Comparative International Relations from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Besides, he completed a second MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy.


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