Following the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a swift takeover of the rocky country by the Taliban this week, while Oman’s top religious cleric congratulated the Afghan people on their “victory over the invaders”, Grand Mufti Ahmed Al-Khalili stopped short of recognising the Islamist terrorist group controlling Afghanistan. In fact, he avoided mentioning the Taliban altogether. The mufti’s ideological contortions, by way of accepting the Taliban presence in Kabul without explicitly acknowledging its authority, are likely to see parallels across the Gulf countries.
Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading petroleum exporter, and the UAE must now balance the need to develop pragmatic relations with the radical Islamic group in Afghanistan even as they wage their own battles against Islamic extremism.
Saudi Arabia over the decades has been observed to play a duplicitous role in the world’s war on terrorism. On the one hand, it actively discouraged radical elements like Osama bin Laden to operate from its soil and even ensured that it could take secular measures in administration such as demolishing the tomb of Prophet Mohammed without the incident leading to riots; on the other, intelligence agencies across the world find Saudi connection to funds that reach terrorists who operate outside the country.
“The Gulf states are rattled, no doubt about it,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of politics of the Middle East at the London School of Economics. “This represents a major setback for governments that have turned Islamists into archenemies such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt because it inspires and motivates religious activists worldwide and it shows that they can’t rely on the United States to come to their aid.”
The relations of Gulf countries with the Taliban will have repercussions for the US that maintains large military bases in the region. The Americans are likely to rely on those countries as an outpost for Afghanistan, once its pullout from that country is complete.
The region has changed dramatically since the Taliban held power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the only Gulf countries to recognize the group. The third country, Pakistan, does not belong to the region.
Now, the dynastic monarchies of West Asia more or less view any popular Islamic movement as a threat to national security and their own primacy. That applies to terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda as well as ideological movements calling for a religious democracy, like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The most notable exception is Qatar, which hosted Taliban leaders in exile and helped transform the group into a political actor with a seat at the table. This allowed the US a more consistent path of communication with a once-unreachable adversary. And Doha embraced the role, hoping to raise its profile and make it a more valuable asset to global powers that could protect it.
Since the Taliban takeover, Qatar has fielded calls from top diplomats around the world, and its defence minister visited the US defence secretary at the Pentagon yesterday. The Taliban’s main public face, Abdul Ghani Baradar, met with Qatar’s ruler on 17 August, shortly before returning to Afghanistan from Doha, where he had been living since 2018.
“Qatar has emerged as a key stakeholder in this global discussion with the Taliban and the Americans have been relying on Qatar to deliver the Taliban,” Gerges said.
Right now, with the Taliban entrenched in the presidential palace in Kabul, there is palpable apprehension in the region, and beyond, that Afghanistan could turn into a magnet for religious extremists again.
In the 1980s, waves of Saudi citizens travelled there to fight alongside local militants in a US-funded effort to repel the Soviet Union. The Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 and under its tutelage, Afghanistan became a plotting ground for jihadist attacks in other states, including the kingdom.
Afghanistan also still harbours al Qaeda. A reprise of the group’s bombings in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s, which struck both Western and Saudi targets, could derail Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic transformation plan. “Saudi Arabia hopes that the Taliban and all Afghan parties work to protect security, stability, lives and property,” the kingdom’s Foreign Ministry said in a cautious statement on 16 August.
The smaller and more vulnerable UAE, which is increasingly casting itself as a regional broker, struck a friendlier tone — even as it took in Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country on Sunday.
Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, called newly moderate statements from a Taliban spokesman “encouraging.” “Afghanistan needs good relations with the international community to ensure a prosperous future,” Gargash wrote on Twitter.
Amid warming ties, the UAE’s national security adviser met on Wednesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose plans to secure Afghanistan’s main international airport after the US pullout unravelled with the Taliban takeover. Erdogan’s Islamist-inspired government has similarly deemed messaging from the Taliban to be positive while saying it won’t rush to recognize the group’s regime and taking in fleeing Afghan officials.
The rapid collapse of the US-supported government is another cause of anxiety in the region.
“The resounding message” sent to American partners in the region is that the US “can never be trusted,” Prince Talal Al Faisal, a Saudi businessman and junior royal, wrote on Twitter.
A drawing by Saudi political cartoonist Abdullah Jaber depicted the American withdrawal from Afghanistan as a departing aeroplane pulling the pinout of a grenade, leaving the country behind to explode.