FILE PHOTO: Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates November 27, 2019. WAM/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY./File Photo
Gulf states react cautiously to the ‘Taliban 2.0’

While it’s still unclear how Saudi Arabia and the UAE will respond, Qatar may take on a mediator role.

During the Taliban’s draconian rule from 1996 to late 2001, only two governments, besides Pakistan, recognized the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan:” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Now that the Taliban has taken control of virtually all of Afghanistan, the pending question is whether these two Arabian powerhouses, as well as other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council will recognize “Taliban 2.0” as the legitimate government or work to isolate the country’s new Islamist rulers if they fail to comply with key U.S. demands, including respecting basic human rights, providing safe conduct for those Afghans who wish to emigrate, and preventing terrorist groups from using Afghan territory to launch attacks on the United States or its allies.

The GCC states are clearly nervous about the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. The possibility of a full-scale civil war is deeply alarming to Gulf Arab monarchies, especially considering the potential for such a conflict to spill into the Gulf despite the 1,250 miles that separate it from Afghanistan. The Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda, both of which have recruited GCC nationals into their ranks and attracted financial support from the region, could easily find ways to capitalize on such chaos and even eventually threaten stability in their homelands.

For the Gulf sheikdoms, “one of the primary issues is ensuring that the Taliban victory does not inspire jihadist radicalism amongst their own populations,” explained Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane. “That’s something that will remain uniform across [GCC] countries although the terror threat will be different from place to place.”

Also, amid a difficult economic period in the Gulf, the influx of displaced Afghans (who in the GCC are refugees in all but name) could add to existing budgetary pressures and create social frictions. At a time when Arabian monarchies are telling their own citizens to tighten their belts as austerity measures and new taxes are taking effect, it is unclear how much support Afghans seeking refuge in GCC states will receive.

Since the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15, GCC states have been cautious. None have recognized the new regime to date and are unlikely to do so for the time being. “I tend to think these countries [in the Gulf] will be looking for a ‘soft’ recognition of the Taliban first,” said Bohl. “If the international community and particularly places like Europe and the United States start to normalize relations with the Taliban, I think the Gulf states will follow through.”

According to some experts, Afghanistan’s “Islamic Emirate” regime poses an ideological challenge to those governments in the Gulf that fear political Islam in the wider region and are unlikely to welcome the Taliban’s return to power. Of all six states in the GCC, the UAE may position itself as the one most firmly opposed to the Taliban despite its recognition of the group as Afghanistan’s legitimate government in the 1990s.

“The UAE will probably take a firm anti-Taliban point of view because [the new regime in Afghanistan] doesn’t fit into their ideological predisposition,” said Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, in an interview with Responsible Statecraft. “The Emiratis’ ideological fight against political Islam means they will take a hard stance against the Taliban.”

Saudi Arabia may take a more flexible position. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promotion of a “moderate Islam” would tend to work against a quick embrace of the Taliban despite Riyadh’s strong support in the 1990s for the mujahadin in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s principal external sponsor, Pakistan.

“But from an intelligence point of view, some of the Saudi intelligence operators might try to reach out and build a relationship with the Taliban under the table,” according to Krieg. Riyadh may see Afghanistan’s new regime “as a potential tool in Central Asia” that could be leveraged against Iran.

Yet Saudi Arabia choosing to work with the Taliban in such a manner would come with grave risks that Riyadh might not want to accept. Such risks would include making the Taliban stronger than the Saudis would like and undermining Riyadh’s ability to sell itself to Western powers as an important partner in the struggle against violent extremism. Moreover, it is questionable whether such a strategy could succeed given the extent to which the Taliban and Iran have formed their own relationship in recent years.

Ultimately, Saudi Arabia and Iran may find themselves competing for influence over Taliban 2.0. If the Taliban makes good on its word to protect Afghanistan’s Shia/Hazara citizens and refrains from taking actions that threaten Iran’s security, Tehran could very well formally recognize the “Islamic Emirate” as the legitimate Afghan government. Under such circumstances, the Saudis may feel themselves compelled to recognize the Taliban as well.

However, Saudi Arabia will come under U.S. and European pressure to deny recognition, at least until the Taliban demonstrates that it will observe certain basic demands made by Washington. Of course, Saudi recognition of the Taliban would greatly help the movement gain legitimacy elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Although Qatar had a working relationship with the Taliban prior to the 9-11 attacks, Doha never formally recognized the “Islamic Emirate.” Qatari officials, like their counterparts in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, are likely to avoid quickly recognizing the Taliban 2.0. That decision could come later, but for now Qatar is likely to focus its status as the “go-to” for mediation in Afghanistan. By hosting Afghan peace talks since 2018, Qatar has established itself as the GCC state most central to diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the Afghanistan conflict.

“I’m convinced that the Americans, if they want to get anything done in Afghanistan, will require an interlocutor or mediator,” Krieg told Responsible Statecraft. “The Qataris are the only go-to mediator at the moment…they will leverage that in Washington.” Indeed, already this month, Qatar’s role as mediator and expediter of the ongoing evacuation has earned it favorable comment from U.S. elites and media networks. Doha will continue to present itself as an indispensable partner for the Americans when it comes to practically everything Afghanistan-related.

True to character, Oman has responded with silence to this month’s developments in Afghanistan, although the Sultanate’s Grand Mufti, Ahmad bin Hamad Al Khalili, congratulated the Islamist group for its “precious victory over the aggressors and invaders” the day after the Taliban took control of Kabul. Notably, after being denied entry into Tajikistan, ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly fled to Oman before arriving in Abu Dhabi, where he currently resides. Bahrain and Kuwait have also refrained from making any official statements regarding the Taliban’s takeover.

Looking ahead, Gulf states will be paying close attention to developments in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban managed to rapidly take control of Kabul and other major cities, it remains unclear whether it can consolidate its dominance and reconcile differences between the various factions under its command to legitimize the Taliban 2.0 in the eyes of more Afghans. The extent to which anti-Taliban forces in the country — a question made dramatically relevant by Thursday’s suicide bombings attributed to the Islamic State of Khorasan Province near the Kabul airport that killed at least 13 U.S. marines and dozens of Afghans — can weaken Kabul’s new rulers is another unknown variable in a complex equation.

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