The UAE's adaptive relationship with the Taliban

A Taliban fighter raises the movementÕs flag as they take a tour of the military assets that were left behind on the military airbase side of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in the wake of the American forces completing their withdrawal from the country in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)
5 min read
30 November, 2021

As the Taliban consolidates its rule over Afghanistan, the group seeks to maintain relations with external actors to avoid international isolation.

The United Arab Emirates’ new role in the country is a curious one, given its flexible and often ambiguous relationship with the militant group.

In recent weeks, UAE officials have held a series of discussions with the group to discuss operating Kabul’s airport, which connects the country to the world, foreign Gulf-based diplomats told Reuters.

Moreover, on 21 November, the UAE reopened its embassy in Afghanistan, which the Taliban praised as a sign of positive relations, indicating Abu Dhabi’s warming towards the Taliban regime.

"The United Arab Emirates' new role in the country is a curious one, given its flexible and often ambiguous relationship with the Taliban"

The UAE has played a largely ambiguous role in Afghanistan. But the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from the country in August, which enabled the Taliban to seize control, prompted Abu Dhabi to take a more adaptive position and reinforce ties with other powers.

This could hasten a shift towards China and Russia, and partly contributed to its rapprochement with former rival Turkey following a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) on 24 November.

With the world focusing on the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, and the subsequent humanitarian crisis, the UAE saw another opportunity to bolster its humanitarian credentials and consequentially boost its international standing.

In September, Abu Dhabi began operating an air bridge to deliver tons of aid to Afghanistan, designed to "provide full support to the brotherly Afghan people,” according to the official Emirates News Agency (WAM).

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While the UAE helped evacuate many Western diplomats who were trapped in Afghanistan amid the Taliban’s insurgency, the UAE also offered to host key Afghan officials, including the now-ousted President Ashraf Ghani, who is believed to still be residing in the UAE.

Its role in evacuating various officials and individuals elicited praise from various Western leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Overall, the UAE has reportedly helped evacuate 28,000 people from Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, according to an Emirati official.

Flexible relations with the Taliban

The UAE has largely taken a shrewd approach to relations with the Taliban. In 1996, it recognised the Taliban alongside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, following in the footsteps of its neighbour and ally Riyadh. Then in 2001, following the US war in Afghanistan, the UAE severed ties with the Taliban. Both manoeuvres indicated its desire to become a pragmatic actor early on.

Abu Dhabi later warmed to Ashraf Ghani’s now displaced government. This was reinforced following the death of the UAE ambassador to Afghanistan, Juma Mohammed Abdullah al-Kaabi, and five other Emirati diplomats following a bombing in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar in February 2017. In 2018, Kabul agreed for Abu Dhabi to train Afghan security forces to counter the Taliban.

Prior to the US withdrawal, the UAE had played a largely ambiguous role in Afghanistan. [Getty]

With Taliban rule consolidated over Afghanistan and talk of Western governments needing to accept the new regime, Abu Dhabi has reached out to the faction. The UAE had also maintained ties with the Taliban, according to two of the diplomats who spoke to Reuters.

The diplomats added that the UAE has hosted Taliban members in recent years, including Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who lived in the Sharjah emirate with his family from at least 2013.

With international actors left with no choice but to accept the Taliban, and some Western governments like the UK suggesting the group has "changed", the UAE may hope to encourage moderation within the faction. The UAE’s former minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash praised the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid’s “emphasis on amnesty and tolerance over revenge”.

This seems likely to be part of Abu Dhabi’s wider hopes to support more ‘moderate’ and ‘stable’ forces in Islamic countries and counter more radical elements, even though it has pursued this policy with a more aggressive approach elsewhere regionally to strengthen authoritarian regimes.

"The UAE saw another opportunity to bolster its humanitarian credentials and consequentially boost its international standing"

Geopolitical dynamics

Erdogan and MBZ’s recent meeting has prompted various bilateral investments and could increase regional cooperation between Ankara and Abu Dhabi. This could also impact their engagement in Afghanistan, given that the two countries have sought to play a post-conflict role in the country.

Turkey has encouraged the Taliban to support female education and an inclusive government, though Ankara has stated it is not in a hurry to recognise the Taliban’s regime. However, on 15 October, Erdogan said Turkey is willing to run Kabul airport should it reach a deal to do so with Qatar.

Therefore, the UAE’s rapprochement with Turkey could prompt Ankara to move away from Doha in any deal over the airport and increase collaboration with Abu Dhabi. The UAE may hope that Turkey could provide more security support, while Abu Dhabi uses its financial clout to jointly manage the airport.

The UAE could also use Turkey’s stronger relations with other regional powers to create an axis that could bolster the UAE’s standing. After all, Turkey’s positive relations with Pakistan could be a factor in enabling the UAE to consolidate such a regional alliance that could also sideline Qatar.

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Doha has been a key player in Afghanistan, and its role in being a mediator between the Afghan government and the Taliban helped it gain tremendous favour within Washington. This has helped it become a key geopolitical ally for the West, as the US Central Command (CENTCOM) maintains headquarters at Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase, which also hosts B-52 bombers designed for long-distance bombings in Afghanistan.

After all, the UAE had once tried to compete with Qatar to host the Taliban’s political office, according to a leaked 2017 report published by The New York Times. Moreover, in 2018, Abu Dhabi hosted a round of talks between the Taliban and US officials, showing it has often tried to edge out Doha as the key mediator between the Taliban and Washington.

It is therefore likely that Abu Dhabi will continue to engage in Afghanistan in a way that can not only fulfil its geopolitical objectives with the new Taliban regime, but can also help secure favour within the US and Europe.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey