Saudi Arabia and Taliban unlikely to revive old alliances | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW


They used to work together. But today Saudi Arabia and the Taliban are separated by political and cultural differences, as well as a problematic history.

The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, between 1996 and 2001, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries in the world to officially recognize the Islamist group’s government. Neighboring Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were the other two.

The Taliban’s relationship with Saudi Arabia had been important for years before. For example, the Saudis funded hard religious schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan, where the Taliban movement originated.

In 2012, the Saudis planned to build a huge mosque in Kabul, similar to the one they built in Pakistan.

The Taliban adhere to Sunni Islam, which is also the religious branch to which most Saudis belong. Although the Taliban follow the Deobandi school of religion and the Saudi government adheres to the Wahhabbist school, both offer ultra-conservative interpretations of Islamic scriptures.

Defend Islam

In the 1980s, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia supported Afghan fighters, known as the mujahedin. They did it with their allies, the United States and Pakistan. The Americans were ostensibly there to fight communism and the Saudis to defend Islam. The two countries are believed to have spent around $ 4 billion each on anti-Soviet efforts.

Then, after the Soviet withdrawal and during the civil war that followed in the 1990s, Saudi Arabia became one of the Taliban’s most important allies, especially in terms of funding. It was also on the shortlist of nations the United Nations suspected of supplying arms to the Taliban, thereby circumventing an international arms embargo.

Anti-Soviet Afghan resistance fighters with their primitive weapons in the east of the country.

Afghan anti-Soviet fighters funded by the Saudis and the United States in the 1980s

However, the situation changed dramatically for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after al-Qaeda, the Sunni Muslim terrorist group, carried out suicide bombings in the United States on September 11, 2001, resulting in the deaths of more of 3,000 people.

shelter terrorists

Saudi Arabia has had diplomatic relations with the United States since 1940, and the Americans have been among the kingdom’s strongest allies in terms of trade and security.

In 1998, the Saudis had already asked the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda leader and Saudi citizen, a refugee in Afghanistan. But the Taliban refused. The denial saw the Saudi-Taliban relationship deteriorate dramatically and the group’s official funding dried up.

The events of September 2001 only accelerated the disappearance of the alliance. Later that same month, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut all ties with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The Saudis accused the Taliban of defaming Islam by harboring terrorists.

Destruction caused in Washington when the hijacked American Airlines flight crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Al Qaeda terrorists flew planes over the Pentagon in Washington and the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001

Despite this, there were still links between “government, religious and private actors,” analysts from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) wrote in a 2013 research paper on regional tensions. .

“[Saudi] fundraisers for the Taliban… would exploit networks extensively and use old mechanisms dating back to the days of Saudi cooperation with the Mujahedin and Taliban officials, ”they concluded.

No Saudi return

Today, the Saudis officially remain estranged from their former allies. Although at one point they were seen as potential mediators in negotiations between the Taliban and the ousted Afghan government, Qatar, the smallest country in the Persian Gulf, has played this role in recent years.

This month, after the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry issued a cautious statement saying, “The kingdom supports the choices the Afghan people make without interference.”

Saudi Arabia’s historic influence over the Taliban is unlikely to resume soon, experts told DW.

The Saudi-American alliance remains important and the cultural changes underway in the country are also playing a role. Controversial Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to modernize his country and the idea of ​​a more liberal and open Saudi Arabia is not suited to supporting Islamist extremists in other countries.

A woman drives with a smile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018.

Saudi Arabia started allowing women to drive in 2018

The Afghan crisis is “a domestic challenge for Saudi Arabia,” Kabir Taneja, a member of the India-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, wrote in a briefing last month.

“To maintain its image as a future investment mecca, Riyadh will need to ensure that it does not once again become the center of a massive migration of combatants entering and leaving Afghanistan … or becomes a funding hub for extremist activities. “

Regional rivalries

In fact, today Afghanistan’s neighbor Iran is closer to the Taliban, although their religious ideology may be different. Iran’s theocratic government is Shia Muslim.

“There have been numerous reports of tactical understandings between Tehran and the Taliban,” wrote Vinay Kaura, a non-resident member of Washington-based think tank TheMiddle East Institute last year. “This contrasts sharply with the days of the [former] The Taliban regime, which has received the patronage of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great rival. ”

Image from video showing al Qaeda fighters training in Afghanistan.

Image from video showing Al Qaeda fighters training in Afghanistan

“Saudi leaders are likely to see Afghanistan, at least in part, through the prism of regional rivalry with Iran,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Middle East researcher at the University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Rice, based in Texas. “Iranian and Saudi officials will likely be watching each other’s actions closely in the days and weeks to come.”

There may be “informal dissemination,” he told DW, through Saudi Arabia-based clerics and religious networks and influences. But there is unlikely to be the kind of help or official recognition that marked the past alliance.

September 11th anniversary

“It would be a considerable risk to the reputation of the Saudis to try to channel financial support to Afghanistan in a way that is less than fully transparent and aligned with international and multilateral partners,” Coates Ulrichsen explained, “given historical memories of what happened during the 1980s and 1990s, and the challenges the Saudis once faced in rebuilding their position in Washington during the early months of the Biden presidency. ”

People gather at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in New York City.

The 9/11 Memorial Plaza in New York was built on the site of the towers destroyed by al Qaeda pirates.

Guido Steinberg, SWP senior researcher on the Middle East, confirmed this view.

“Saudi Arabia is barely represented in the country at the moment and has barely supported the Taliban recently,” he told DW. “If Saudi Arabia reappeared in Afghanistan, it would only have an impact in a few years.”

In two weeks, the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks will also be commemorated. “The Saudis are likely to want to keep a low profile,” Coates Ulrichsen concluded, “lest any engagement with the Taliban will bring back memories of a period that few of the current generation of Saudi policymakers would want to dwell on.”

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