America’s Gulf Arab allies are stepping up their involvement in Afghanistan, expanding their diplomatic presence and resuming flights as competition for influence over the new Taliban administration heats up.
Qatar, which housed the Taliban’s political office for several years and served as the venue for the Islamist movement’s peace talks with the U.S., capitalized on that influence to become a key conduit between Afghanistan and the West after the Taliban seized power on Aug. 15.
The gas-rich Gulf country evacuated tens of thousands of people in the chaotic weeks after the Taliban takeover, and continues to operate flights for at-risk Afghans and foreign residents on behalf of Western nations.
Several Western ambassadors to Kabul relocated with their staff to Qatari capital Doha after the Taliban takeover. Last month, Qatar also began representing the diplomatic interests of the U.S. in Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, however, Qatar’s regional rivals—the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—have also intensified their engagement with the Taliban. Both nations resumed embassy operations in Kabul. The U.A.E., in particular, has allowed frequent commercial flights to Kabul, aiming to return to its previous status as the main gateway into Afghanistan.
The private Afghan carrier Kam Air, which has been operating flights between Abu Dhabi and Kabul for over a month, this week began daily flights to Dubai. The Afghan state carrier Ariana recently also began flying to Dubai and Riyadh.
“The U.A.E. is watching Qatar becoming the darling of Washington, and they are concerned about what that may mean,” says Kirsten Fontenrose, a former senior director for Gulf Affairs in the Trump administration’s National Security Council who is now with the Atlantic Council. “Beyond their own concerns, they have broader foreign policy goals: they want a positive relationship with the Biden administration.”
In an effort to gain trust with the Taliban, the U.A.E. recently assured Afghanistan’s new rulers that ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani —who has been based in Abu Dhabi since he fled Kabul in August—won’t be allowed to engage in political activity, a Taliban spokesman said this week.
That is a message the Emiratis privately made clear to Mr. Ghani early on. After he released a video on social media on Aug. 18 to explain why he left Afghanistan, he was cautioned by Emirati officials, a close aide to Mr. Ghani said.
“The Emiratis indeed saved our lives. We thank them. But they were very clear that they cannot allow us to have political and media activities,” the aide said.
Mr. Ghani has since kept a low profile, issuing just one statement in English explaining why he left and a social-media post to congratulate the Afghan cricket team on its victory over Scotland. Most of his former ministers and advisers are scattered around the globe, including in Turkey, Tajikistan, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Sweden and Australia.
Unlike in the 1990s, when the Taliban regime was recognized by the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, no country in the world has formally acknowledged the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. The U.S. and European nations have all closed their embassies in Kabul, and maintain dialogue with the Taliban mostly via diplomatic personnel in Doha.
Gulf Arab states have large Afghan diasporas and historic connections to Afghanistan. “Things that happen there resonate here,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a prominent Emirati political scientist based in Dubai, which is a three-hour flight from Kabul. “These concerns unite all of us in the Gulf,” he said, mentioning security, financial and humanitarian interests.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that reopening the consular section of its embassy in Kabul stemmed from its “keenness to provide all consular services to the Afghan people.” Hundreds of thousands of Afghans work in the Gulf, mostly as laborers. Before U.S. sanctions cut off Afghanistan’s banking system they used to remit well over $100 million a year.
While Gulf Arab nations have long had ties to the Taliban, they are concerned about the rise of the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, a far more radical organization that could threaten their own security.
One issue on which the U.A.E. and Qatar don’t see eye to eye is the future of the Kabul airport. Mr. Ghani’s government last year awarded the contract to provide security and ground handling in Kabul and other international airports to GAAC, which is linked to the U.A.E.-based Group 42. The deal was contested by the previous contractor, Olive Group, and criticized by Qatar’s ally Turkey, which was running the runway and the control tower of the airport.
After the Taliban takeover, Qatari and Turkish teams repaired the control tower and the radar of the airport, allowing it to resume operations. Qatar currently maintains troops in the Kabul airport that help oversee security and take over the runway when Qatar Airways chartered planes land. The Taliban, meanwhile, have allowed GAAC to continue its operations in the international passenger terminal, to Qatar’s dismay. Qatari officials in recent weeks have told the Taliban they don’t trust the Emirati company to provide adequate security and threatened to pull out should the GAAC contract be extended further.
The Gulf Cooperation Council—which includes Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Qatar—is expected to discuss shared principles to guide member states’ engagement in Afghanistan when it convenes next week in Riyadh.
After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the U.A.E. was one of few Arab countries to contribute troops to the U.S.-led international coalition, alongside Jordan, Bahrain and Egypt. At the same time, new Afghan elites invested their money in properties in Dubai, particularly luxury villas on the man-made island Palm Jumeirah.
Qatar, by contrast, focused on cultivating the Taliban, hosting the peace talks and key Taliban leaders. The U.A.E., however, has developed Taliban contacts of its own and frequently hosted informal meetings between the Taliban, members of the former Afghan government and Western officials.
“The political office was in Doha, but they were traveling every month to Dubai,” said one person involved in the peace talks of the Taliban.