When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Arab states of the Gulf encouraged religiously observant youth to join the war to counter the expansion of communist ideology.
A historically contentious relationship
The role of Afghanistan in defining regional Islamist movements goes back decades. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Arab states of the Gulf encouraged religiously observant youth to join the war to counter the expansion of communist ideology. Saudi Arabia, in particular, provided vast resources and soldiers to Afghanistan, as the Soviet Union began to threaten its southern border through Yemen. Kuwait also sent regiments of fighters, in addition to relief campaigns and material and logistical support of the Afghan “Jihadis”.
Shortly after the invasion, the rising Al-Qaeda, led by the Saudi Osama bin Laden and Palestinian Abdulla Azam, joined the war, sending its leaders to attract Arab youth to join the organization and fight alongside the “Afghan Mujahedeen”.
The Afghan civil war raged on after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which ended with the Taliban’s victory in 1996. Only Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in addition to Pakistan, recognized the Taliban-controlled Islamist Emirate. Riyadh retracted its recognition, though, when the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden to Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom officially severed its relationship with the regime, and expelled its Chargé d’Affairs at the Afghan Embassy, Moulay Muti’ullah, following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Taliban quickly fell following the US invasion of Afghanistan, and Arab countries of Gulf countries were eager to remove the pariah’s grip on power. The UAE had a prominent role in training the Afghan elite forces to confront the Taliban and provided immense resources and support to overthrow the regime. In 2008, Saudi Arabia hosted peace talks between Afghan government officials and the Taliban movement, which ultimately did not succeed. The UAE also led an unsuccessful round of peace negotiations in cooperation with Pakistan.
In 2013, Qatar intervened to lead the peace talks between the Taliban and the United States. These efforts led to the Doha Agreement, also known as the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan. The Agreement provided for the withdrawal of all NATO forces from Afghanistan in return for a Taliban pledge to prevent Al-Qaeda from operating in areas under its control.
The Taliban rises to power again
The world is still staggered by the Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul. However astonished by the collapse of the Afghan government and resulting exodus, the takeover has raised suspicion in the Arab states of the Gulf and once again stirs fears about extremist Islamist movements. This threat comes at a time when the UAE and Saudi Arabia are still deeply engaged in fighting political Islam in the region, a policy they adopted more intently after the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011.
Abdul Khaliq Abdullah, a political researcher close to elites in the UAE, wrote on Twitter: “The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan may motivate the terrorists that follow jihadist and extremist Islamist movements… bringing Muslims the accusation of terrorism. The movement of political Islam that raised the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ wants our future to be Talabani.” On the other hand, the Grand Mufti of Oman, Ahmed Al-Khalili,who represents the highest religious institution in Oman, congratulated the Taliban via Twitter: “Victory from God has been achieved against the arrogant America.”
The bitter truth is that the Taliban’s control will likely encourage ideological and fundamentalist movements… that have always, through various means, sought to establish Islamist governments.
Islamist currents across the region welcomed the return of the Taliban, an indication of the revival of kinetic Islamist movements. The bitter truth is that the Taliban’s control will likely encourage ideological and fundamentalist movements, particularly among Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, that have always, through various means, sought to establish Islamist governments. Political analysts warn these groups might now take the same approach as the Taliban in Arab countries, including the Arab states of the Gulf.
This comes at a time when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seeks to achieve more social openness, limit the role of religious institutions, and relinquish control over the social life of Saudis. Will the Taliban’s takeover provoke the old guard’s enthusiasm and sense of cross-border victory to dismantle this progress? This question will be difficult to answer until the Taliban’s relationship with the international community becomes clearer.
Security and ideological threats abound
In this context, it is important to remember Al-Qaeda’s accusation in June 2018 of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s, “replacement of monotheistic imams with the absurdities of atheists and secularists from East and West,” and his opening of, “the door wide to corruption and moral decay.” The statement also argues bin Salman had replaced mosques with cinemas, criticizing the Entertainment Authority for being a “harbinger of doom.” This indicates that reactionary opposition to recent social reforms is forming, and these entities may wait for the appropriate opportunity to achieve their ideological goals – whether through public fora or more provocatory action.
The UAE fears its arch-rival Turkey, whose government is friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood and works closely with its competitor, Qatar, aims to exploit the sympathies of Islamist groups to become the regional hegemon.
The Emirates, which is still engaged in a regional struggle against political Islam, will soon face the momentum of revived Islamist movements domestically and regionally. The UAE fears its arch-rival Turkey, whose government is friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood and works closely with its competitor, Qatar, aims to exploit the sympathies of Islamist groups to become the regional hegemon. This could expand the spheres of competition between these rivals, especially given that Turkey opened direct contact with the Taliban recently after a delegation, headed by Afghanistan’s Acting Foreign Minister Mullah Amir Khan Mottaki, went to Ankara. The two parties held discussions on improving bilateral relations, trade, and humanitarian aid, in addition to the issue of refugees and air navigation. This call came from Turkish Foreign Minister Davao Cavusoglu, which indicates that Turkey is seeking to build strong communication with the Islamic movement, certainly raising the concern of the Emirates.
The return of the Al-Qaeda and ISIS to Afghanistan could also pose a major security threat to the Arab states of the Gulf. On September 9, Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal told the American networkCNBC, that “Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries are weak and need reassurance from Washington after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.” He expressed his deep concern about the possibility of US weapons falling into the hands of extremist groups in the wake of the exit from Afghanistan, which he argued, “was poorly managed, negligent or incompetent.”
According to the UK based Middle East Eye, the Saudi crown prince has already commissioned Al-Faisal, who has extensive experience in dealing with the Taliban and who played a prominent role in helping the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets, to renew contacts with the Taliban.
Dealing with the Taliban moving forward will be a great challenge to the Arab states of Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. A critical factor is whether the Taliban will serve as a missionary for Islamist movements and support their opposition to ruling regimes, or whether they will work to integrate into the international community. Only time will tell.
The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.