DUBAI (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates has held talks with the Taliban to operate Kabul airport, heading up against Gulf rival Qatar in a diplomatic battle for influence with Afghanistan’s new rulers, according to four sources familiar with the matter.
Officials in the United Arab Emirates have held a series of discussions with the group in recent weeks to discuss the operation of the airport, which serves as Afghanistan’s main air connection to the world, which is landlocked, foreign diplomats based in the Gulf region told Reuters.
The talks show how countries seek to assert their influence in Taliban-led Afghanistan, even though the hardline Islamist group largely remains an international pariah and its government is not formally recognized by any country.
The emirates are eager to counter the diplomatic influence that Qatar enjoys there, according to sources who refused to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Qataris have helped operate Hamid Karzai International Airport with Turkey after playing a major role in the evacuation efforts following the chaotic US withdrawal in August, and have said they are willing to take over the operations.
Yet the Taliban have not yet formalized an agreement with Qatar, the four diplomats said.
A senior Emirati foreign minister said the United Arab Emirates, which previously operated Kabul airport under the US-backed Afghan republic, “remains committed to continuing to help operate” it to ensure humanitarian access and safe passage.
Abu Dhabi also assisted in recent evacuation efforts.
Taliban and Qatar authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
Two of the diplomats said the Taliban had also sought financial assistance from the UAE, although they added that it was not clear if this was related to the airport discussions.
Emirati Foreign Ministry official Salem Al Zaabi, director of international security cooperation, did not answer a question as to whether the UAE was considering providing financial assistance to the Taliban.
A key issue that still needs to be resolved between the Taliban and potential airport operators is who should ensure on-site security, the four diplomats said. The Taliban say they do not want foreign forces in the country after their return to power after two decades of war.
Nevertheless, Qatari special forces are currently providing security within the airport perimeter, diplomats added, while Taliban special forces patrolled areas outside.
So far, countries have been reluctant to formally recognize the Taliban government, accusing the group of backtracking on promises to uphold the rights of women and minorities.
Yet Qatar officials have called for greater international engagement with the Taliban to prevent poor Afghanistan from falling into a humanitarian crisis. The Gulf states have also expressed concern here that the US withdrawal will allow al-Qaeda to regain a foothold in Afghanistan.
Although there is little commercial benefit to any operator, the airport would provide a much-needed source of intelligence on movements in and out of the country, according to the four diplomats, who said many countries have lacked real-time information since the withdrawal.
Qatar and the UAE have had strained relations for years as they competed for regional influence.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and their allies boycotted Qatar for over three years, severing political, trade and transport ties and accusing Doha of supporting terrorism – an accusation they deny. The dispute was resolved in January this year.
Qatar has long been the gateway to the Taliban, where Doha has hosted the group’s political office since 2013 and negotiations with the United States in early 2020 that led to the withdrawal.
Last week, Qatar officials strengthened their position by signing an agreement here to represent US diplomatic interests in Afghanistan.
The United Arab Emirates has also maintained ties with the Taliban, according to two diplomats. They said the country had been home to some members of the group in recent years, including Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who they added lived in the Sharjah emirate with his family from at least 2013. Stanikzai is now deputy foreign minister in the Taliban administration.
Al Zaabi did not answer questions about the UAE’s relationship with Stanikzai. The Taliban did not immediately respond to inquiries about Stanikzai, who lives in the UAE.
The Taliban said this month that the UAE had reopened its embassy in Kabul. The UAE has not commented.
Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Further reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Jonathan Landay in Washington, Andrew Mills in Doha and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai; Editing Pravin Char