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In this photograph released by the state-run WAM news agency, Emirati leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, left, shakes hands with Taliban official Sirajuddin Haqqani at Qasr Al Shati palace in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, June 4, 2024. The leader of the United Arab Emirates met Tuesday with an official in the Taliban government still wanted by the U.S. on an up-to $10 million bounty over his involvement in an attack that killed an American citizen and other assaults. (WAM via AP)

The UAE’s Complicated Taliban Outreach

On June 4, Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani traveled to Abu Dhabi and met with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ). The occasion marked Haqqani’s first trip outside Afghanistan since the Taliban retook control of the country in August 2021. Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s spy chief, also joined the delegation. According to Emirati state-run media, the two sides discussed “strengthening the bonds of cooperation between the two countries and ways to enhance ties to serve mutual interests and contribute to regional stability.” Sources also noted that the leaders had focused on “economic and development fields, as well as support for reconstruction and development in Afghanistan.”

Haqqani’s visit to Abu Dhabi sent shockwaves through the United States, as the Taliban interior minister is still wanted by the American government for his role in a terror attack in Kabul that killed one American civilian in Kabul along with attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Wasiq was the Taliban’s Deputy Minister of Intelligence, until that government fell in 2001, before he was captured by the United States in 2002 and held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp until his release in 2014 as part of the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange. MbZ’s willingness to meet with them openly—treating them as accredited representatives of a foreign government, rather than as militants with American blood on their hands—unquestionably caused consternation in Washington.

Given Abu Dhabi’s systemic engagement with the Taliban since its return to power almost three years ago, however, MbZ’s hosting of Haqqani should come as no surprise. In fact, since their reconquest of Afghanistan, Taliban officials have paid repeated visits to the UAE both covertly and overtly—including a meeting between MbZ and acting defense minister Mullah Yaqoob in Abu Dhabi in late 2022.

Strange Bedfellows

The UAE, which is home to a large Afghan diaspora population, has a decades-long history of maintaining either formal or informal relations with the Taliban. When the so-called “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” controlled the country from 1996 until 2001, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan were the only three states in the world that extended formal diplomatic recognition. Beginning in the 1980s, during the Soviet Union’s ill-fated war in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network set up front companies in the UAE to launder money through Emirati banks. This practice continued for decades, even after the Obama administration pressured the UAE in 2014 to shut down such operations.

During the Trump presidency, the UAE’s policy toward the Taliban insurgency appeared somewhat contradictory. Abu Dhabi was a venue for negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, culminating in a landmark meeting between American, Emirati, Saudi, Pakistani, and Taliban officials in 2018. Only one month later, however, Emirati officials reportedly offered then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Emirati assistance in standing up a covert program designed to eliminate Taliban leaders throughout Afghanistan.

Today, the UAE enjoys a pragmatic and constructive, even if unofficial, relationship with the Taliban. Abu Dhabi has come to terms with the reality of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and is simply trying to make the most out of the situation. Indeed, it would appear that the UAE has traded ideological fervor for political opportunism. In the post-2021 period, Abu Dhabi’s Afghanistan policy has exhibited impressive agility. Similar to seismic shifts in Abu Dhabi’s relationships with Qatar, Israel, and Syria over the past half-decade, the UAE is adept at quickly altering its stance toward different regional actors in the region in response to changes in international circumstances.

The UAE, along with Qatar, has sought to establish itself as one of the most influential outside actors in post-U.S. Afghanistan. In May 2022, GAAC Solutions, a major Emirati airline services firm, signed a deal with the Taliban to manage its airports in Herat, Kabul, and Kandahar, while FlyDubai (an Emirati government-owned low-cost airline) has been flying into the international airport in Kabul, underscoring the UAE’s important role in connecting landlocked Afghanistan to the outside world. The UAE has also played an important role in helping the Afghans face their country’s humanitarian crises. One month after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, the UAE started operating an air bridge to deliver badly needed medical and food aid to the war-torn country.

What Each Side Gets

The UAE’s interest in a stable and friendly Afghanistan dovetails with its desire to reduce the threat posed by the Islamic State— Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K. While the group has primarily targeted Iran, Russia, the Central Asian republics, and Turkey rather than the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, it remains an avowed enemy of the rich Arab monarchies and appears to be growing in strength—as illustrated by recent high-profile terrorist attacks in Kerman and Moscow that killed hundreds of civilians. Consequently, nearly all West Asian governments share serious concerns about ISIS-K and its machinations.  The Taliban is not only Afghanistan’s de facto government, but also a sworn enemy of ISIS-K. Therefore, Abu Dhabi’s counter-terrorism interests in Afghanistan necessitate a security relationship with those in power in Kabul.

For the Taliban, closer ties with the UAE are a clear priority. The ability of high-ranking Afghan officials to travel to Abu Dhabi and be welcomed by MbZ, a prominent regional leader with significant clout in the West, serves to legitimize the government on a global level. The Taliban’s low-level engagement with other GCC states, China, Iran, and Russia also plays into this effort to make the newfangled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan appear less isolated.

Finally, although officials in the United States were unpleased to see Haqqani as a guest in Abu Dhabi, it is doubtful that Washington will take any harsh measures in response to his visit. The United States’ policy on Afghanistan has largely remained adrift since 2021, with the Biden administration unwilling to recognize or engage with the Taliban but also unwilling to seriously contest its control over the country. As the UAE is a close U.S. partner and the Arab pioneer of the Abraham Accords, it would be difficult to imagine Washington taking any sort of retaliation against Abu Dhabi for its engagement with the Taliban. Moreover, in time, the United States might come to see the UAE’s dialogue with the Taliban as potentially serving Washington’s interests, given Abu Dhabi’s potential to relay messages to the Islamist rulers in Kabul on behalf of Western governments. Ultimately, just as Qatar proved to be an important diplomatic bridge to the Islamic Emirate, the UAE is well-positioned to play a similar role as an interlocutor in the years ahead.

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

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: UAE

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Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project. Mr. Cafiero is a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera, Gulf International Forum, The New Arab, Responsible Statecraft, Stimson Center, and Amwaj.Media. Throughout Mr. Cafiero’s career he has consulted many public and private sector entities, briefed diplomats of various countries on Gulf affairs, and worked as a subject matter expert for multinational law firms. Mr. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.


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