On July 31, 2017, the New York Times reported that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) competed aggressively with Qatar in 2011 for the right to host a Taliban office in Abu Dhabi. When the Taliban ultimately decided to station its office in Doha in early 2012, the UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba expressed his frustrations to U.S. officials. In a leaked email correspondence dated January 28, 2012, al-Otaiba alleged that UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan had made an “angry call” to his office and expressed displeasure with Washington’s failure to give Abu Dhabi prior notice of the Taliban’s decision to base itself in Qatar.
These revelations caused considerable controversy within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as the UAE has frequently criticized Qatar for its close links to Islamist organizations. However, a closer examination of UAE foreign policy reveals that Abu Dhabi’s courtship of the Taliban stems from the UAE’s strategic interests and desire for a diplomatic resolution to Afghanistan’s political crisis. The UAE’s willingness to diplomatically engage with the Taliban can be explained by economic links between Abu Dhabi and Kabul established during the 1990s and by Abu Dhabi’s belief that conducting diplomacy with the Taliban is the most effective way to moderate the Sunni extremist organization’s policies.
The Economic Factors Underpinning the UAE’s Taliban Links
Even though the UAE withdrew its diplomatic recognition of Afghanistan’s Taliban government in the days that followed the September 11 attacks, Abu Dhabi maintained close links with the Taliban in the years leading up to the 2001 war in Afghanistan. During the late 1990s, the UAE was one of only three countries in the world, alongside Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
The UAE’s decision to maintain diplomatic relations with the Taliban can be explained by two main economic factors. First, the UAE was a leading destination for Afghan guest workers in the Middle East. An estimated 100,000 Afghan nationals resided in the UAE in 2001. As these guest workers provided vital unskilled labor for the UAE’s economic modernization efforts, Abu Dhabi maintained diplomatic links with the Taliban to advance its economic interests. To facilitate travel between Afghanistan and the UAE, the Emirati government allowed Ariana Afghan airlines to operate a direct service to Dubai.
The UAE’s desire to re-establish diplomatic links with the Taliban in 2011 can also be explained by its desire to appease and attract Afghan guest workers. Many Afghan guest workers in the UAE were strongly opposed to the 2001 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, because of their aversion to widespread civilian casualties inflicted by NATO forces. To prevent unrest amongst Afghans in the UAE, Abu Dhabi has sought to balance its alliance with Washington with ties to anti-American forces in Afghanistan, like the Taliban.
In addition, the UAE has diplomatically engaged the Taliban to prevent terrorist attacks in Pashtun-majority regions of eastern Afghanistan. As the city of Khost in eastern Afghanistan is a critical recruitment point for UAE guest workers and the site of an Abu Dhabi-funded university compound, maintaining a line of communication with the Taliban helps ensure that security is maintained in Khost and the UAE’s economic interests are not jeopardized.
Second, the Taliban has invested extensively in the UAE’s economy since it assumed de facto control over Afghanistan in 1996. As journalist Ahmed Rashid noted in a February 2017 Financial Times article, the Taliban has a long history of raising funds from Emiratis sympathetic to Sunni extremist ideologies and using the UAE’s network of ports on the Persian Gulf to sell arms to Pakistan.
The Taliban has also frequently re-invested the revenues it garners from arms sales into the Emirati economy, through the purchase of properties and businesses in the UAE. Even though the September 11 attacks caused Abu Dhabi to aggressively target Taliban economic activities in the UAE that have links to terrorism, corruption within the UAE’s banking system has ensured that Taliban-sponsored money laundering ventures and drug sales continue to generate revenue within the UAE’s borders. These residual economic links ensure that the UAE benefits from maintaining a diplomatic relationship with the Taliban, even though this relationship is highly stigmatized in the United States, and amongst secularists in the Arab world.
The UAE’s Use of Diplomacy to Moderate the Taliban
In addition to upholding the economic links, which bind Abu Dhabi to the Taliban, UAE policymakers have reached out diplomatically to the Taliban’s leadership to moderate the Sunni extremist organization’s conduct. The UAE’s moderation through diplomacy approach to dealing with the Taliban began with its spring 2000 efforts to convince Taliban leader Mullah Omar to hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States.
The UAE’s diplomatic outreach proved partially successful, as Abu Dhabi’s intervention convinced Mullah Omar to arrange a meeting between the Taliban’s intelligence chief and the U.S. Consul General in Karachi. The Taliban’s purported offer to extradite bin Laden to the United States, in exchange for a guarantee from Washington that bin Laden would not be sentenced to death, was rebutted by U.S. officials who questioned the seriousness of the Taliban’s diplomatic overtures.
Subsequent UAE efforts to convince the Taliban to extradite bin Laden to an Emirati facility that applied Islamic law also proved unsuccessful. But the Taliban’s fleeting willingness to give up bin Laden convinced Emirati policymakers that diplomatic engagement with the Taliban would be more effective than trying to vanquish the Sunni extremist organization through military means.
This belief in the potential effectiveness of diplomacy has caused the UAE to distinguish between the Taliban as a political entity and the Taliban’s terrorist allies. Even though the UAE has arguably embraced the most stridently anti-Islamist policy of all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the UAE has offered the Taliban an escape from diplomatic isolation and financial assistance to aid Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction, on the condition that it renounces terrorism.
The UAE’s 2011 efforts to open a Taliban office in Abu Dhabi encapsulated this carrot and stick approach towards diplomacy with the Taliban. According to al-Otaiba, the UAE’s offer of diplomatic asylum for the Taliban would only take effect if the organization renounced political violence, accepted the legitimacy of the Afghan constitution and condemned al-Qaeda. The Taliban’s unwillingness to comply with these terms ultimately convinced its leadership to establish an office in Qatar. As Doha offered the Taliban a diplomatic forum without strings attached, the UAE’s moderation through diplomacy strategy towards the Taliban was dealt a fatal blow.
Even though the UAE’s relationship with the Taliban has deteriorated markedly since the collapse of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2001, Abu Dhabi’s desire to establish a Taliban office on UAE soil underscores the Sunni extremist organization’s continued role in shaping the UAE’s strategy towards Afghanistan. As the economic interests that bind the UAE to the Taliban remain intact and the UAE continues to seek ways to detach the Taliban from its terrorist allies, Abu Dhabi is likely to revive its diplomatic overtures towards the Taliban in the years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter @samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.