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Afghanistan: 'UAE in talks with Taliban' to operate Kabul airport

Report that UAE is vying with Qatar and Turkey for influence at the airport comes as Abu Dhabi crown prince visits Ankara
One key issue to be resolved between the Taliban and potential airport operators is over who will provide security at the site (AFP)

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has held talks with the Taliban to run Kabul airport, vying with Qatar and Turkey in a diplomatic tussle for influence with Afghanistan's new rulers, according to four diplomatic sources with knowledge of the matter.

UAE officials have held a series of discussions with the Taliban in recent weeks to discuss operating the airport that serves as landlocked Afghanistan's main air link to the world, the foreign diplomats based in the Gulf region told Reuters.

The report comes on the same day that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is in Turkey for a trip aimed at agreeing investment deals.

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Sheikh Mohammed's meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, the first such visit by either side in years, follows a period of bitter regional rivalry.

The airport talks demonstrate how countries are seeking to assert their influence in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, even as the group largely remains an international pariah and its government is not formally recognised by any country.

The Emiratis are keen to counter the diplomatic clout Qatar wields in Afghanistan, according to the four sources, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The Qataris have been helping to run the Hamid Karzai International Airport, along with Turkey, after playing a major role in evacuation efforts following the chaotic US withdrawal in August, and have said they are willing to take over the operations. However, the Taliban has not yet formalised an arrangement with Qatar, the four diplomats said.

Middle East Eye revealed in August that sources familiar with the matter had advised that Turkey and Qatar would jointly operate the airport, with Ankara providing security through a private firm, according to a draft deal with the Taliban.

The same report noted that one outstanding issue in the way of any deal is that the former Afghan government had already awarded a contract for the airport in October 2020 to a UAE-based consortium. The Taliban will need to cut a separate deal with them.

Security issue

A senior Emirati foreign ministry official said the UAE, which previously ran Kabul airport during the US-backed Afghan republic, "remains committed to continuing to assist in operating" it, to ensure humanitarian access and safe passage. Abu Dhabi also aided recent evacuation efforts.

The Taliban and Qatari authorities did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.

Two of the diplomats said the Taliban has also sought financial assistance from the UAE, though they added it was not clear if this was related to the airport discussions.

The Emirati foreign ministry official, Salem Al Zaabi, director of international security cooperation, did not respond to a question on whether the UAE was considering providing financial help to the Taliban.

One key issue that is still to be resolved between the Taliban and potential airport operators is over who would provide security at the site, the four diplomats said. 

The Taliban say they do not want foreign forces in the country, following their return to power after two decades of war. Qatari special forces are presently providing security within the airport's perimeter, the diplomats added, while Taliban special forces were patrolling areas outside.

In September, two people familiar with the issue told MEE that Turkey and the Taliban were still struggling to reach a final deal on securing and operating the airport, with Ankara frustrated about the lack of diversity within the Taliban's interim Afghan government.

In the same month, a Taliban official told the UAE-based Sky News Arabia that the Emirates would also help the Afghan group to get the airport up and running.

Qatar urges greater engagement

So far, countries have been reluctant to formally recognise the Taliban's government, accusing the group of backtracking on pledges to uphold the rights of women and minorities.

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Qatari officials have urged greater international engagement with the Taliban to prevent impoverished Afghanistan from falling into a humanitarian crisis. Gulf states have also voiced concern that the US withdrawal would allow al-Qaeda to regain a foothold in Afghanistan.

Qatar and the UAE have had strained relations for years, as they have competed for regional influence.

While there is little commercial benefit for any operator, the airport would provide a much-needed source of intelligence about movements in and out of the country, according to the four diplomats, who said that since the withdrawal many countries have lacked real-time information.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and their allies boycotted Qatar for over three years, cutting off political, trade and transport ties, and accusing Doha of supporting terrorism - a charge it denies. The dispute was resolved in January this year.

Gateway to the Taliban

Qatar has long been the gateway to the Taliban, with Doha hosting the group's political office since 2013 and negotiations with the US in early 2020 that led to the withdrawal.

Last week, Qatari officials strengthened their position by signing an accord to represent US diplomatic interests in Afghanistan.

The UAE has also maintained ties with the Taliban, according to two of the diplomats. They said the country had been home to some members of the group in recent years, including Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who lived in the Sharjah emirate with his family from at least 2013, they said. Stanikzai is now deputy foreign minister in the Taliban administration.

Zaabi did not respond to questions on the UAE's relationship with Stanikzai. The Taliban did not immediately respond to queries on Stanikzai living in the UAE.

The Taliban said this month that the UAE had reopened its embassy in Kabul. The UAE has not commented.