Saudi Arabia’s Absence from Afghanistan’s Politic

By: Shujauddin Amini

Saudi Arabia was a key ally of the Taliban in the past, playing a major role in the emergence and ascension of the group to power in Afghanistan between 1996-2001. The friendship between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban persisted until the September 11 incident, after which it cooled. Following the United States’ military attack on Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, the Taliban were removed from power. Rather than standing by the Taliban, Saudi Arabia chose to stand by the United States and its Western allies against the group. Over the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has not sought to communicate or support the Taliban, instead opting to support the toppled republic government. The fall of the previous government by the Taliban was not welcomed by Saudi Arabia, nor did the country express any apparent anger. Both the friends and rivals of Saudi Arabia are attempting to maintain relations with the Taliban, however the country has chosen to remain aloof and act as if the Taliban and Afghanistan are no longer of importance. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has not compromised with either the Taliban or the opposing forces of the group.

There has been much speculation as to why Saudi Arabia has not been involved in Afghanistan’s politics, given that they were one of the original founders and supporters of the Taliban. Why did they choose to leave Afghanistan and observe from a distance, rather than remain and continue to support the group? This could be due to a variety of factors.

Saudi Arabia Is on the Reformation Path

In 2016, Saudi Arabia unveiled its reform program, known as the Saudi Vision 2030 framework, which aimed to bring about sweeping changes in many areas. The only area that remained untouched was the political system. This country is often referred to as a conservative nation, which upholds the status quo. Saudi Arabia’s reliance on “oil, family, tradition, tribe, king, and Wahhabism” and its refusal to join Arab nationalists and the awakening movements in the Arab world has led to its recognition as a conservative, traditionalist, and status quo-preserving country.

One of the objectives of the Saudi Vision 2030 framework is to refine the image of Saudi Arabia and present a modern, soft image combined with a democratic element in order to align with industrialized and developed countries. In order to achieve Saudi Arabia’s long-term goals, it is necessary to have a close and friendly relationship with industrialized and developed countries. Following the Vision 2030 framework is not compatible with the idea of having a close relationship with the Taliban and supporting the group, as the content of the Saudi framework is incompatible with the Taliban’s beliefs and methods of governance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is concerned that supporting the Taliban could lead to the resurgence of extremism in Saudi Arabia and impede the progress of the country’s reform plans.

Qatar Has Overtaken Saudi Arabia

The relationship between Qatar and Saudi Arabia has been strained and hostile, and this led to the severance of diplomatic ties in 2017. In 2013, Qatar took the initiative from Saudi Arabia by establishing a political office for the Taliban in its territory, which enabled the commencement of negotiations between the Taliban and the United States. Saudi Arabia was unable or unwilling to push Qatar out of the picture and take control of the situation in terms of securing the Taliban’s relationship with the United States. Alternatively, the United States chose Qatar over Saudi Arabia, deeming it to be a more suitable and effective option than Saudi Arabia. Since then, Qatar has been at the forefront of matters concerning Afghanistan.

Qatar was successful in meeting the United States’ expectations of negotiating with the Taliban, as well as aiding the United States in the evacuation of Americans and Afghans in danger. It was also able to act as a protector of the United States’ interests in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power. Despite Qatar not being a friend of Saudi Arabia and being one of the smaller countries in the Gulf, it has been able to take on risky roles successfully, which has caused jealousy from Saudi Arabia. It is clear that Qatar’s superior actions in all fields have caused the Saudis to become increasingly disappointed and frustrated.

Saudi Arabia believes that it is being closely monitored internationally as Qatar has temporarily surpassed it, and if it were to enter the field at this time, it may not be able to match Qatar’s level of success. As a result, it has chosen to observe the Taliban from afar rather than attempting to enter the field and failing.

Containment of Iran Is No Longer a Concern for Saudi Arabia

In the past, Saudi Arabia sought to contain Iran‘s influence in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban, as the country saw itself as the flag bearer of Sunni Islam and Iran as the flag bearer of Shia Islam, and the Taliban are not compatible with Shia Islam. However, with the signing of the friendship agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, this factor has become ineffective and Saudi Arabia‘s desire to stay in Afghanistan and maintain relations with the Taliban has decreased. The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been restored and is no longer as hostile as it used to be, so even if Iran attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia will not be concerned. It appears that the country is now more focused on the Gulf region than on Afghanistan‘s international issues.

Saudi Arabia is Afraid of the Influence of Political Islam

Saudi Arabia is not in agreement with political Islam, and is fearful of its influence within the country, despite the fact that it uses Islam to maintain and strengthen the power of a certain family. Saudi Arabia believes that political Islam is more likely to cause destruction and disruption than construction and stability. Furthermore, the House of Saud royal family has not been supportive of the uprisings in the Arab world; for instance, they were in opposition to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt and the proponent of thePanArabism idea, due to his revolutionary attitude and attempts to alter the existing state of affairs in the Arab world at the time. It can be argued that if Saudi Arabia had been in line with Nasser‘sPanArabism“, he may have been able to realize some of his ambitions. Additionally, Saudi Arabia is not in accord with the Muslim Brotherhood Foundation‘s interpretation of religion, viewing its implementation in the Arab world as detrimental to the current state of affairs. This is evidenced by Saudi Arabia‘s support for the ousting of Mohammed Morsi, the former Egyptian president, in 2013 through a military coup.

Saudi Arabia has managed to weather the storm of the Arab Spring in 2011, avoiding a situation similar to that of Egypt. The Taliban view themselves as a representation of political Islam, which is rigid and uncompromising in its own way. Saudi Arabia, which is striving for democratization, does not feel the need to form a connection with the Taliban and back this group. If it does, it will be done with great care and caution to ensure that Islamist and jihadi organizations do not become emboldened and resume their activities in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is Waiting for America

The attitude of Saudi Arabia towards the Taliban will be heavily influenced by the attitude of the United States and its Western allies for two reasons. Firstly, Saudi Arabia is a longstanding and key ally of the United States, as well as an economicsecurity partner in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf region. Secondly, Saudi Arabia believes that the role of Western countries is more essential than countries such as Russia, China, and Iran in any changes that take place in Afghanistan. As a result, Saudi Arabia generally follows the lead of the United States and its Western allies in matters concerning Afghanistan.

The relationship between the United States and its Western allies with the Taliban is markedly colder and more distant than that of the countries of the region with the Taliban. It appears that Saudi Arabia has chosen to follow the lead of the Western countries rather than the regional countries in terms of its relationship with the Taliban. At the same time, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran has shifted to one of friendship and has become closer to China, which is the United States rival. If the United States and its Western allies continue to keep their distance from the Taliban, Saudi Arabia will likely do the same. Conversely, if these countries are to become closer to the Taliban, Saudi Arabia will likely seek to communicate with the Taliban in order to support the group.

The suspension of the Saudi embassy in Kabul can likely be seen as the country‘s agreement with the stance of Western countries towards the Taliban, as Western countries do not have any official diplomatic ties with the Taliban. If Saudi Arabia has any worries in Afghanistan, it can address them through its long-term ally Pakistan, which appears to have maintained a strong relationship and alliance with Saudi Arabia.