Arab Emirates and the Taliban Emirate

By: Shujaduddin Amini

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was one of the three countries that recognized the Taliban‘s takeover of Afghanistan. However, after the collapse of the Taliban and the establishment of a new political order in Afghanistan, the UAE‘s relationship with the Taliban became strained. In 2017, a suicide attack resulted in the death of the UAE ambassador in Kabul and five other diplomats, though the Taliban did not claim responsibility. In 2019, UAE officials reportedly raised the notion of assassinating top Taliban officials during a meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In 2018, the third round of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, which included representatives from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, was held in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. Additionally, the UAE has provided asylum to Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan president, after he fled from Afghanistan.

Following the Taliban‘s return to power, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not recognize the group as it had in the past, yet it did not cease engaging with them. In 2022, the UAE took over the management of airfields that were to be taken over by Turkey and Qatar, and provided aid to earthquake victims in Paktika and Khost provinces. Later that year, a delegation of religious scholars from Abu Dhabi visited Kabul to meet with Taliban officials. Notably, Mullah Yaqoob, the Taliban‘s defense minister, visited the UAE in October of the same year and was welcomed by the country‘s officials, leading to various rumors and negotiations in the media. This trip was intended to meet with Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, which coincided with the visit of former president Hamid Karzai to the UAE. Additionally, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the economic deputy of the Taliban prime minister, visited the UAE on Thursday of the same year, though this was not widely reported. The UAE‘s most recent action in the matter, which made news, was handing over the Afghan Consulate General in Dubai to the representative of the Taliban. The UAE embassy in Kabul has since been reopened and the exchange of officials between the two sides continues as normal.

Given the aforementioned points, what goals does the UAE pursue by interacting with the Taliban is an important question.

  1. UAE Wants to Bypass Qatar

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have a strong rivalry. In 2017, the UAE was involved in the imposition of sanctions against Qatar and the economic blockade of the country. Previously, Abu Dhabi had wanted to host the Afghan peace talks, but Qatar took the opportunity instead. When the issue of managing Afghanistan‘s airfields became prominent, the UAE stepped in and took the lead from its competitors Turkey and Qatar. This was a setback for Turkey and Qatar, and it illustrates the intensity of the competition between Qatar and the UAE. The UAE is attempting to exert influence on the younger members of the Taliban, or what some refer to as the pragmatic faction. The UAE is attempting to form a new bloc of Taliban officials against the Taliban bloc loyal to Qatar. This has been encouraged by the weak presence of the Taliban bloc loyal to Qatar in power. The power of Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban Supreme Leader, and the monopoly of power by him and his followers have caused the former Taliban negotiating team, which Doha has influence over, to have a minor role in the decisions. The UAE sees this as an advantage and is trying to make the most of the opportunity.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) collaborated with Japan to draft a resolution of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on April 5 of this year, condemning the Taliban‘s restrictions on women. This resolution was issued before the Doha meeting, which was led by the Secretary General of the United Nations, and it is believed to have overshadowed the meeting‘s agenda, which was meant to discuss ways to recognize the Taliban.

  1. The Taliban Place High Value on Their Relationship with the UAE

The Taliban have a strong preference for a warm relationship with the United Arab Emirates due to the following reasons: 1 The UAE was a staunch supporter of this group in the past and even went as far as recognizing it; 2 Both the Taliban and the UAE are invested in Sunnism; 3 The UAE does not endorse democracy and the circulation of power through elections, which is attractive to the Taliban, who are hostile to democracy; 4 The UAE‘s oil position in the Gulf and the presence of Afghan businesspeople there; 5 The strong alliance between the UAE and the United States is a factor that encourages the Taliban to establish relations with this country. For example, whenever the West embarks on regional trips, they have the most important meetings with Emirati officials.

The Taliban are attempting to maintain a balance between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Consequently, despite Qatar‘s support and hosting of them for years, they transferred the management of the airfields to the UAE overnight. Furthermore, after visiting Qatar, the Taliban Defense Minister visited the UAE to demonstrate that they are not affiliated with Qatar, as is commonly assumed. This indicates that the Taliban do not want to put all their trust in Qatar. Despite supporting and hosting the Taliban, the Qatari authorities have repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction with the Taliban‘s behavior, particularly in regards to women’s rights, yet the Abu Dhabi authorities have refrained from taking a stance, which is beneficial for the Taliban who disregard women‘s rights.

  1. Saudi Arabia has Transferred Responsibility to the UAE

The United Arab Emirates has had a longstanding amicable relationship with Saudi Arabia, supporting each other in significant historical events. For instance, they both acknowledged the Taliban‘s control of Afghanistan, imposed sanctions on Qatar in 2017, and since 2015, have been involved in the war in Yemen against the Houthis. Containing Iran has always been a priority for the Gulf Arab nations. Saudi Arabia has recently reestablished diplomatic ties with Iran, however, this does not necessarily mean that the issues between the parties have been completely resolved and that Saudi Arabia will no longer take Iran‘s threat seriously and strive to contain it.

It appears that, in order to avoid creating tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran regarding their respective relations with the Taliban, and to prevent China‘s efforts from failing, Saudi Arabia has entrusted the UAE with the mission of containing Iran and Qatar. If this is the case, the need for a strong relationship between the UAE and the Taliban is more pressing than ever, as the relationship between the Taliban and Iran is not as strong as it once was and appears to be somewhat unbalanced. The more the Taliban attempt to distance themselves from Iran, the more they will rely on the Arab countries of the Gulf.

  1. UAE Has Leverage

The settlement of former President Ghani in the United Arab Emirates could be used as a form of pressure against the Taliban. Surprisingly, Ghani‘s presence in Abu Dhabi has actually served to warm the relationship between the two parties, rather than strain it. It is typical for a new group that takes power in a country to sever ties with the countries that provide refuge to the defeated officials; however, this has not been the case between the Taliban and the UAE. For example, after Reza Shah left Iran, Anwar Sadat, the President of Egypt, gave him shelter, resulting in the Islamic Republic of Iran suspending diplomatic relations with Egypt, which have yet to return to normal. Ghani had been fighting against the Taliban for years and refused to hand over the government to them, yet the UAE‘s decision to provide him refuge did not elicit a reaction from the Taliban. The Abu Dhabi authorities have declared that they have prohibited Ghani from engaging in political activity, but if he is allowed to do so, he could become a tool of pressure against the Taliban, as he still considers himself the President and has not officially relinquished power to any group, and views the Taliban as usurpers of power. It is possible that one of the Taliban‘s demands of Abu Dhabi is to keep Ghani silent and encourage him to return to Afghanistan in the most amicable way.