Within the OIC, there have been other fissures at play too, specifically among the Gulf states, that are now spilling over on the issue of Afghanistan and determining influence over the country’s new rule led by the Taliban
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh on December 14, 2021. Photo: Saudi Royal Palace via AFP
On December 19, Pakistan hosted a special session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to address the crisis in Afghanistan. The Taliban, which took over Kabul in August after a 20-year-long war with the U.S., also attended. Saudi Arabia added weight to Pakistan’s call for the meeting. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is peaking with no basic amenities available for its population and a harsh winter ahead. While Pakistan hosted the OIC, India played host to foreign ministers of Central Asian states where Afghanistan topped the agenda as well. All the attending countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan — also OIC members, chose to prioritise deliberations with New Delhi. Within the OIC, there have been other fissures at play too, specifically among the Gulf states, that are now spilling over on the issue of Afghanistan and determining influence over the country’s new regime led by the Taliban.
Qatar’s growing clout
The centrality of Saudi Arabia’s presence during the OIC session comes after Riyadh maintained a certain distance over the developments involving the U.S., the Taliban and the erstwhile Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Pakistan were the only three countries that had officially recognised the previous Taliban government in 1996, until its fall in 2001. However, that was a different era, and 20 years is a long time in geopolitics. Fast forward to the 2010s, and it was the small but rich state of Qatar which became the mediating force on Afghanistan. Doha hosted the official Taliban political office from 2013 to allow negotiations with the U.S. In the early 2010s, Saudi funding found its way into Afghanistan, as Salafist and Wahhabi ecosystems attempted to anchor themselves, although, many argue, unsuccessfully.
Qatar’s new role on Afghanistan gave it significant diplomatic and political visibility the world over. India’s first point of official public diplomatic contact with the Taliban took place in Doha when Ambassador Deepak Mittal met Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, head of Taliban’s political office, there in August 2021. However, this was not the only geopolitical flashpoint Doha was getting deeply involved in. In West Asia, Qatar’s growing clout and ambition alike was causing unease in the traditional power centres in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, specifically on issues such as the Qatari leadership’s support for political Islam and organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2017, these fissures broke the levee within the Gulf Cooperation Council, as the UAE and Saudi Arabia initiated an economic blockade against Doha in the hope of reigning the Kingdom in and disallowing it from pursuing its geopolitical designs that were challenging the long-held power status quos. This four-year long impasse ended in 2021.
However, these four years created fundamental changes within the larger Arab Gulf construct. Qatar mitigated risk and moved closer towards Turkey and Iran. In 2017, Turkey moved troops to Qatar, to make sure that the monarchy of the Al Thani family survives any attempt against it, before protecting the state itself. Today, both Qatar and Turkey are bidding to operate a landlocked Afghanistan’s airports under the Taliban regime.
For the Gulf specifically, Qatar’s punching-above-its-weight approach in geopolitics was also making it more powerful and influential with Washington D.C. To mitigate this, the Saudis played a central role during the recent OIC special session. They repaired their broken relationship with Pakistan, where Riyadh had repeatedly cold-shouldered the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. During this period as well, Doha played its cards, and in 2019, at the height of Islamabad–Riyadh tensions, offered an economically ailing Pakistan a $3 billion bailout. However, Pakistan’s dubious ‘kingmaker’ status in Afghanistan and influence over the Taliban has now made Rawalpindi’s agency on the issue inexorable. This is highlighted by the UAE’s recent decision to allow former Afghan government officials find sanctuary in the country, but reportedly curb their participation in political activities, including on social media.
The Arab Gulf is poised to become an important player once again in an Afghanistan under the shadow of the Taliban. In 2015, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the UAE in 34 years. Abu Dhabi is expected to be his first foreign visit in January 2022. Over the past decade, India has recognised the importance of middle powers in the Arab Gulf to a fast-evolving global order, from fighting against terrorism to newer diplomacy challenges such as Afghanistan.