It’s been a little over a year since the U.S. left war-torn Afghanistan. The Taliban is back in control of things. They’re tasked with building up a nation from which, by most standards, looks like the Bronze Age. China supposedly wants its minerals. That will be a tougher nut to crack. There is no infrastructure to be had there. Most immediate: logistics. Airports are still needed to ship goods and people to and from Kabal and other cities. What does the Taliban government know about running an airport?
That’s where more modern emerging market countries come in. Turkey and Qatar joined forces in a consortium to bid on a contract to operate Afghanistan’s three principal airports in Kabul, Herat and Kandahar. Their story is a test case of what it will be like for the Chinese, Russians, Europeans and Americans who might want to work in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Their deal had been dragging on for months. Despite a pledge to invest $1.5 billion in Afghanistan’s air transport infrastructure, the Taliban were not happy with the Turkish government’s insistence that its military contractors provide airport security. International financial safeguards for revenue collection were also part of the conversation.
Talks broke down in May. The Taliban did not want a foreign country to patrol its airports and deal with security there. So the Taliban then announced a deal with a different consortium, one from the United Arab Emirates, to provide ground handling and passenger screening at the three airports.
A follow-on agreement covering air traffic control was inked this month. According to an Afghan source close to the airport deal, the Emiratis won the contract soon after. They offered a deal with the Taliban on revenue sharing: a share of all overflight, cargo and airport fees would go into the Taliban government; however that is to be distributed. And security would be provided by the Taliban, not the UAE
Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States and subject to international sanctions.
The network’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is Afghanistan’s Interior Minister and intelligence chief and is wanted for prosecution in the United States.
In addition to multiple attacks against U.S. targets, including the devastating suicide bombing that killed seven CIA officers in 2009, U.S. officials have laid responsibility for the presence of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Kabul on the Haqqani network.
“The Haqqani Network is the Taliban’s glorified crime family,” says Javid Ahmad, Afghanistan’s former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and now a non-resident fellow at The Atlantic Council. “As a criminal business syndicate, they are ruthlessly pragmatic and their approach to governing Afghanistan is equally business-like. While Qatar did exercise some material leverage over some Haqqani leaders, Doha’s real leverage over the family is unknown,” he said, adding that the UAE-Haqqani relationship goes back to the 1980s when senior Haqqanis were hosted in Emirati cities, bought real estate, and conducted fundraising activities for who knows what.
At present, the wife of the group’s founding leader – Jalaluddin Haqqani – lives in the emirate of Ajman, one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.
The UAE is no stranger to Afghanistan. They had a previous arrangement with the Afghan government in October 2020 to run the country’s airports, a lucrative business for anyone. Ahmad was one of the prime negotiators.
“After their takeover (of Afghanistan), the Taliban built on that arrangement and effectively extended the contract for 10 years, which now involves three airports, including Kabul. It’s a revenue-sharing arrangement where a consortium of three Emirati aviation companies collect airline revenues and use it to run airport operations. The consortium expects to invest a portion of the collected revenues to modernize the airports, and the remainder is somewhat unequally split with the Taliban’s regime,” Ahmad described it.
The UAE is known for running two major airlines – Etihad Airways and Emirates Airlines. Both airlines are not formally part of the management of the Afghan airports. Etihad never operated flights to Afghanistan. But Emirates, FlyDubai, and Air Arabia did. Those flight operations were suspended days before the U.S. left Afghanistan. They have not yet resumed.
UAE, Not China, Has Keys to Afghanistan
According to a senior U.S. government official currently working on Afghanistan, “The Haqqanis are the UAE’s clients in Afghanistan.” Their network’s leaders have long held property and bank accounts in the Emirates, making a deal with the UAE seem more “in the family” than doing so with the Qataris and Turks. When asked if this was an irritant in relations with the United States, the official replied, “Add it to a long list.”
The Biden administration wants to restore a modicum of normalcy to a troubled relationship with the UAE. Secretary of State Blinken met with UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed last March in an effort to smooth things over, and President Biden issued an official invitation for bin Zayed to visit the United States when the two met in Riyadh this summer
The differences between the two states are becoming harder to paper over. In addition to its sponsorship of Taliban groups who fought against the U.S. there, of course, the Emiratis have also made a deliberate calculation to advance their commercial and military partnership with China in case Washington makes it harder for them to buy U.S. aerospace and defense equipment.
On Tuesday, the Senate Banking Committee heard from two government staffers from the Treasury and Justice departments to discuss ways to make it harder for Russia to skirt sanctions. But this would require them to go after the UAE, let alone China, where nearly every American multinational and large investment bank has a major foothold.
For Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, leadership there is fine with breaking bread with Washington’s enemies – including groups Washington calls terrorists – so long as it serves their interests, and the country’s biggest businesses (nearly all of them state controlled).
Washington has policy differences with oil and gas powerhouses, most famously Saudi Arabia. But the UAE comes in a close second, maybe even first.
Abu Dhabi and Washington: Shifting Sands
On its relationship with China, a prominent Emirati close to the ruling family was quoted in the Financial Times in 2021 as saying that, “The trend is more of China, less of America on all fronts, not just economically but politically, militarily and strategically in the years to come. There’s nothing America can do about it.”
Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s visit to the Emirates last March — which took Washington by surprise — received banner headlines and wall-to-wall coverage. The U.S. regime change policy has been thwarted in Syria by Russia for years.
Some sanctioned Russian oligarchs are able to protect their sanctioned assets in Dubai. In June, a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee pressed the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf on the matter, and she pointedly remarked: “I’m not happy at all with the record at this point and I plan to make this a priority.”
This story goes on and on, however. Punishing Russia is one thing. Punishing the UAE is another matter.
The UAE is pressing for an enhanced bilateral security agreement with the U.S. and talks over its terms are well underway. Although the proposed sale of the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter aircraft, has been put on hold for now due to cooling relations, it will be interesting to see if they get that deal, despite being obviously close to the worst elements of the Taliban.
When he visits Washington (no date has not been set), President Mohamed bin Zayed will seek to reassure the White House that the UAE is a reliable ally, and nothing high tech and dangerous will be handed over to the Taliban.
The White House appears eager to strengthen its relationship, but an enduring rapprochement appears unlikely. The UAE, like other countries in the emerging markets, is moving on. Its leadership has demonstrated their growing discomfiture with U.S. policy, including push for a post-fossil fuel world, the lifeblood of the UAE economy. When Biden and bin Zayed do eventually meet, no amount of fist pounds and smiling photo ops will change the direction of this relationship.
Ahmad says the UAE still “cares deeply” about its multilayered partnership with Washington.
But added that senior Emiratis are driven by their desire to ensure longer-term predictability in that relationship, which has seen ebbs and flows in recent years, perhaps due to its known ties to those deemed enemies to the U.S., including terrorist factions of the Taliban.
“The UAE will continue to look West but would also act East by diversifying their relationships, including with China, likely done in consultation with Washington,” Ahmad said. “The entire region has effectively begun to draw a clear distinction between its Preferred Partners – US and Europe — and its Necessary Partners — China and Russia,” Ahmad says.