Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week will be focused on both domestic and international issues. Besides economic assistance and bilateral cooperation, both countries will be discussing the Taliban-led Afghan situation.
The Taliban’s takeover has been a setback for Saudi Arabia’s geo-political heft as it has no leverage on the Taliban – deemed as the proxy of its rival GCC country, Qatar. The advent of Taliban in Kabul seemed to have made the KSA isolated; though, the sudden appearance of deposed President Ashraf Ghani in UAE has brought Abu Dhabi back in the Afghan game, not the KSA, hence it seeks new ideas from Pakistan.
What is the KSA’s involvement in Afghanistan driven by? There are a series of answers to this question. The first is the general interest of the KSA in this part of the world. Soon after the Taliban declared the war was over, the official position of the KSA came through a welcoming declaration of the end of the war. It expressed the hope that Taliban will accommodate the rights of other Afghans including women and minorities.
In contrast, the unofficial position of the KSA has remained disengagement with the Taliban since 2016. This detachment has more to do with Taliban’s hard line posture, structural global structure i.e. tension between the West and Taliban as an ally of Al-Qaeda, and above all its perception of the Taliban as Qatar’s new proxy in the region.
Afghanistan sarcastically had never had any traction for modernising KSA in terms of technological gains, diplomatic breakthroughs and in the form of resources. Rather, the KSA’s past experience with Afghanistan was geo-politically important as it was one of the main backers of the Taliban government in the 1990s apart from UAE and Pakistan. But this engagement is not relevant today for the reasons: a) the Taliban are no longer the old Taliban; b) the Taliban are less prone to influence from Saudi Arabia.
The Taliban are more aligned with Qatar’s interests that pull them away from the orbit of the Saudi-led axis, incentivising the Taliban enough to pick sides between Qatar and the KSA. The Taliban’s ties with extremist allies of Qatar have only mushroomed to the detriment of Riyadh’s geo-political interests.
Provocative signals came in when the Taliban openly intermingled with Islamic Brotherhood and its Palestinian counterpart, Hamas, operating out of Qatar.
The influence of Qatar due to its support for political office and unofficial recognition meant the Taliban had to stay clear of Turkey, on one hand, and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand. Back in April, Biden Admin’s announcement of Turkey as a destination for the Bonn II like Conference was summarily rejected by the Taliban, most probably on the pressure of Qatar.
The KSA may have also clearly discerned the glee explicitly expressed in Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria for the Taliban takeover of Kabul. Cheering by the common Qatari, Turkish and Iranian allies in these regions was definitely not a happy reading for the KSA.
Saudi Arabia has taken geo-political positions more or less opposite to Qatar in Palestine, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, North Africa, Israel and now Afghanistan. Besides, it’s next door neighbour i.e diplomatic recognition of Israel by the UAE, the KSA has more moderate foreign policy inclination (towards Israel) as opposed to the right-wing worldview spearheaded by Qatar’s foreign policy posture supporting extremist Muslim groups across Middle East and Africa. Though interstate relations between the KSA and Qatar have recently improved, as competitors still, they are scrambling for influence in foreign policy and international relations.
For Riyadh, another elephant in the room is Iran which is successfully leveraging its recently-borne understanding with the Taliban by carving out a new sphere of influence with the possible help of Russia extending to almost the entire Afghanistan. Whereas the deposed Ghani’s government was opposed to Iran and publicly condemned Tehran for supporting Taliban and alleged sabotage plan of dams’ security by Iran’s Afghan proxies. On its part, Tehran was clearly alarmed over Ghani’s tilt towards US and India which practically translated into manipulating rivers waters flowing into Iran – a life line for Iran’s arid Western region. Tehran supported the Taliban possibly kinetically. The increased bonhomie of Taliban with Shia Iran is being read by the KSA with uneasiness.
The Taliban have eschewed visiting Saudi Arabia while crisscrossing the whole region and beyond, i.e. Moscow. It is no less a diplomatic snub to Riyadh. This policy shift on Afghanistan, i.e. not supporting the Taliban particularly, shows the KSA’s desire to be a stakeholder in Afghanistan and to secure a place on the table by applying pressure.
This shift will give more room for manoeuvre when the KSA starts to influence the de jure Afghan government of the Taliban’s policy options. Independently, increased cooperation with Pakistan on many issues has all the potential that the KSA can use as leverage if it wants to lean on the Taliban for both short-term goals and long-term interests.
The KSA may also hope with the Taliban moving its office from Qatar to Afghanistan. They would need less and less of Qatar’s largesse and hence erosion of the latter’s influence on the Taliban’s thinking.
The pragmatic Taliban government would definitely need the diplomatic, military and financial help of the KSA if it wants the coveted US recognition. They also would benefit from Riyadh’s clout to influence other GCC countries, particularly the UAE, as a centre of investment, capital and transshipping hub.
On the other hand, the KSA, though not part of the UN Security Council, has formidable lobbying power in Washington and has the capacity to help put the wind into the sails of the Taliban that may eventually lead to their formal diplomatic status later.
With its new government formation in Kabul completed, the Taliban can open a new chapter in their frosty relations with the KSA by reaching out. No other best bridge is available to them except Pakistan to broker a thaw between the KSA and the Taliban-led Kabul. And Riyadh also understands Islamabad’s influence on the Taliban. For the Taliban handling the challenges of statecraft and diplomacy are much more difficult than fighting in the mountains as a gorilla force. The Saudi-Pakistan summit will be closely monitored in Kabul.
Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan.
He tweets @Jan_Achakzai