Middle East states scramble to formulate policy response to Taliban

Ousted Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and family are in United Arab Emirates

Taliban political office chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (left) meets Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Doha. Photograph: Qatari ministry of foreign affairs/AFP

Taliban political office chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (left) meets Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Doha. Photograph: Qatari ministry of foreign affairs/AFP

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The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan has shocked Middle Eastern governments fearful of the regional repercussions of this destabilising development, but compelled to cultivate relations with the movement.

This could be complicated by the revelation that ousted Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and his family are in the United Arab Emirates.

The two Gulf countries that recognised the original Taliban regime from 1996-2021, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, have dealt with the unsettling situation with practical measures.

Once Saudi embassy staff had returned home from Kabul, Riyadh assumed the mantle of Sunni Muslim spokesman when it called on the Taliban to preserve lives, property and security in accordance with “Islamic principles”.

As a major east-west air transit hub, the Emirates, which promptly withdrew its diplomats, announced it was facilitating the evacuation from Afghanistan of diplomatic staff from the US, Europe, Canada, Australia and Egypt.

Qatar’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said Doha was also co-operating in the evacuation of foreign and UN staff while striving for a ceasefire across Afghanistan.

Peaceful transition urged

As former host of negotiations involving the Taliban, the US and the ousted Afghan government, Qatar urged a peaceful transition of power that prepares for a political settlement, includes all Afghan parties and provides security and stability.

Bahrain, the current chairman of the Gulf Co-operation Council, has initiated consultations on the situation in Afghanistan with the other six member states – Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar – with the object of forging a common stand.

Gulf rulers are obliged to walk a fine line to avoid antagonising their own influential clerics and conservatives who support the Taliban and similar movements.

By contrast, Turkey’s government has adopted a positive approach to the Taliban and retained a small military presence at Kabul’s international airport despite the chaos that reigned there after the Taliban entered the capital.

Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said its embassy would remain open although Ankara would make “necessary preparations for Turkish citizens who want to leave Afghanistan”.

Talks with Turkey

Ahead of their entry into Kabul, the Taliban told the Middle East Eye website that their leaders were ready to discuss the crisis with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan “under the right circumstances”.

Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said his country’s embassy in Kabul and consulate in the city of Herat, near the Iranian border, continued to function. Newly elected hardline president Ebrahim Raisi has said on his website that the US “defeat” should become an opportunity to “revive life, security and lasting peace” in Afghanistan.

While Iran’s Tasnim news agency urged the Taliban to govern in accordance with the “will of the people” and respect that country’s diversity, Iranian social media has reflected popular anger over the “betrayed” Afghan people and expressed solidarity with Afghan refugees.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of Afghan workers employed in Gulf countries could apply for asylum, and Turkey and Iran expect an unwelcome influx of refugees. The UN reports that Iran hosts 780,000 registered and two million unregistered Afghans. Some 2,000 are said to be arriving daily in Turkey, where Afghans were estimated at 200,000 in mid-2021, making them the second-largest group there after Syrians.