Updated: Sep 20
In our latest Wikistrat Podcast, Wikistrat's Head of Middle East Desk, Adam Hoffman, interviewed Dr. Neil Quilliam, an expert on the Gulf States and Saudi foreign policy, to discuss Saudi-Taliban relations, the implications of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for Saudi Arabia, and Saudi-US relations after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Neil Quilliam is an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme. He was previously a senior research fellow heading the Programme’s Future Dynamics in the Gulf project.
Adam: Hello everyone, my name is Adam Hoffman, I'm Head of Middle East Desk at Wikistrat, and this is another episode of Wikistrat Podcast. I'm very happy to be here today to invite to our podcast an expert on Saudi foreign policy, Dr. Neil Quilliam. Neil is an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, and an expert on the Gulf States. Today we're going to discuss Saudi-Taliban relations in light of the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
Neil, thank you so much for joining us. It's a pleasure to have you on board this podcast, and to be able to share your insights with our audience today. Just to start off with the Taliban takeover of Kabul, which we've seen last week, in a recent Wikistrat report, you wrote that Saudi efforts to influence the Taliban have ultimately failed. If you could maybe take us a few steps back and discuss these efforts, how Saudi Arabia has tried to influence the Taliban, and in which ways that really played out in recent events.
Neil: Of course, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were two of the Gulf states that recognized the Taliban when it took over Afghanistan, or it swept through Afghanistan, in the early to mid-1990s. Until 2001, at least, it cultivated and developed very close relations. Part of that had been predicated upon its engagement in Afghanistan during the Soviet period, that 10-year period when the Soviets were physically involved in the conflict and engaged in the country, and Saudi Arabia alongside other actors, including the U.S. had to work closely with different groups, the Mujahideen as they were called back then, of which the Taliban was a later emergent in the '90s. It had developed and cultivated a close working relationship with lots of different groups in Afghanistan, which ultimately culminated in working with the Taliban.
Neil: But after 9/11, that was a watershed moment, and coming up for the past 20 years, that relationship has clearly undergone quite a significant metamorphosis where Saudi Arabia started to distance itself necessarily from the Taliban and from its former engagement in Afghanistan. That's part of a long history, but had to work much, much closer with the U.S. and demonstrate part of its credentials of actually fighting extremism. It had its own issues to deal with in the early 2000s. It almost swung a 180 degrees, from position of recognizing and working with the Taliban, to seeing the Taliban as a group that almost constituted, not a threat in real terms, but it could challenge the Saudi legitimacy. It went through this 180 degrees spin, until it came out on the other side.
Adam: Looking at more recent events over the past few years in the context of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan following 9/11, how do you see the Saudi efforts to influence the Taliban in its latest incarnation?
Neil: These terms are all complicated and pejorative, so I'm just going to use them, but they need to be heavily caveated. They have tried to work with more moderate elements of the Taliban. They have tried to peel away some of the younger generation Talibs, if you like, to try to foster and develop an alternative to the mainstream leadership, but they've had limited success in doing that. Gone are the days when they had quite effectively penetrated Afghanistan. Talking to the Soviet days, '79 to '89, where their ability or their reach into the country has more or less been light touch, and because it's light touch, it's effectively been burnt.
Neil: Their ability to influence or to shape the direction of the Taliban or shape the thinking, has really diminished over those 20 years. They're a peripheral player, and of course what we've seen as a counterpoint to that, has been that Qatar has been much more effective at working that space, certainly over the last decade. You couldn't describe it as that, but there was almost like a tag team, almost like a relay race where Qatar has picked up the baton, and have developed and cultivated those relations. Naturally, owing to the stresses and strains and the relations between Doha and Riyadh since 2014, which came to a close of sorts this January. You can see how that tension between those two countries and their relations with the Taliban would play out in all sorts of arenas.
Adam: In terms of mentioning Qatar here, we do seem to see the Taliban today to be a more sophisticated political player with relations with China and Russia, most notably. Does that also include any covert contacts with Saudi or any attempts to build some kind of renewed relationship with today's Saudi, building on the legacy of 1980s and 1990s? Or is it mostly, looking to Gulf states, mostly with Qatar today?
Neil: I'm not sure whether the Taliban is that much more sophisticated or not, time will tell. Surface level analysis does give that impression, but I think we need to wait a good few months until that really is born out, but definitely Qatar holds the ring on the relationship amongst the Gulf Arab states. They've been accommodating Taliban leadership in Doha for at least a good decade. They've got quite deep connections. I can work that relationship. I think the Saudis has been very much on the periphery. I don't know, and I couldn't say with any authority that they've reached out and that they've tried to reconnect.
Neil: I imagine that for the most part, they are just sitting on the sidelines, watching what's happening at the moment. They may be putting some feelers out, but again, it would probably be feelers to some of those putative relationships that they've developed with the more moderate elements or the more moderate factions, but that wouldn't amount to giving them any form of leverage. Certainly not at this stage, and I can't imagine they would want to accumulate too much leverage until things look really quite different. There's a lot to play out yet. I think the Saudis are probably just sitting on the sidelines, and to be quite blunt, just wondering what to do.
Adam: I was actually just about to ask you, where do you see Saudi-Taliban relations going forward? If you look at the new reality which has emerged since last week, do you think that the Saudis will try to sit it out to see where things might be headed, or try to maybe take a more proactive role in this developing reality?
Neil: I can't imagine that they're going to want to rush in at the moment. I think it would be very much let's watch, wait and see. If one looks at Qatar at the moment, and a lot of the positive coverage that Qatar is getting for managing this relationship, I think it could get quite nasty and quite complicated. Qatar could find itself with badly burned fingers in four or five month's time or even longer. It might be able to help deliver to the U.S. and to the international community as more moderated and more sophisticated, as you suggested, Taliban, but that's certainly not a given. There could be some form of blowback to Qatar in terms of its relations with regional players and the international community.
Neil: The Saudis will be cognizant of that, so much more likely to sit on the side, sit on the margins. What's key as well for Saudi Arabia, and particularly the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is he has been pushing a different domestic social agenda for the past few years. Part of his raison détre in positioning Saudi to the rest of the world, is Saudi is really quite different. It's undergoing this significant social change. It's opening up. It's going to become a major regional economic hub. In a way by cultivating and developing relations with the Taliban, when so much is unknown about it at the moment, other than what we know, would seem like a high risk strategy. Probably much safer, sit on the sidelines. Let's see how this plays out.
Adam: Understood. You just mentioned Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform efforts in Saudi in the last few years. What are the implications of the Taliban takeover of Kabul last week for the Gulf states, and particularly for Saudi Arabia?
Neil: There's a lot to play out yet in Afghanistan, and it's difficult to envisage how that's going to sweep across, but MBS has introduced these... They are far reaching in terms of Saudi reforms, there may be challenges from the Taliban. It's not sure. It's over legitimacy, but the Taliban, as far as I can see, are essentially a nationalist group. They may have transnational dimensions to them, but they're effectively a group that's focused on Afghanistan. I don't necessarily see them putting out messages, challenging the legitimacy of the outside world, the rule of Saudi Arabia, and the Custodian of the Two Holy Places, et cetera, et cetera.
Neil: I would also think that a lot of the Saudi population, a lot of Saudi youth, are probably thinking, "Wow, we're glad that we got this guy in control. MBS, whether we love him or not, we're much more comfortable with the social reforms and the change that's taking place in our country, even if it's going a little too fast for us than what we're likely to see in Afghanistan." In fact, it could actually reinforce some of the changes or the sense that MBS has in terms of validating his push to change the country. It might be, what's going on in Afghanistan, if it does turn as ugly as I would expect it to do, might serve as a reminder, "Well, we were never quite like that, but our country is definitely moving from point A to point B."
Adam: Fascinating. In a sense, it will allow Saudi to position itself as more modern, pushing the image behind it as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was trying to make the case two or three years ago, is that what you're implying?
Neil: Exactly, that's what I'm trying to say, but you've put it much more eloquently and in a much more succinct fashion. Yes, absolutely.
Adam: Also, looking now at U.S.-Saudi relations, given the dramatic events we've been seeing, and are still seeing, in Afghanistan in past week or so, including the US withdrawal from the country, how do you see Saudi-U.S. relations in light of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Neil: I don't think it's going to impact the relationship directly at the moment in a way that we can see, but certainly it will compound concerns and fears in Yemen where Mohammed bin Salman has been shored up for the past year, that the U.S. as a partner, as a reliable security guarantor partner, I guess it probably calls that into question in his mind, and it's done so for time, and there've been concerns about is the U.S. withdrawing? What does that mean? What does that look like? I think the nature of the withdrawal will probably be a major cause for concern. Should that happen in the Gulf region, there'll be concerns about what that actually means in terms of Yemen. Will the Saudis just suddenly be left to manage the mess in Yemen without substantive U.S. support, whether that's military, diplomatic, or whatever terms that comes in.
Neil: I think that will be the major concern from the Saudi side of things. I'm not sure that we'll see any manifestation of that in the relationship in the immediate term, although I think the Saudis will be looking for reassurances from the U.S. that Biden's hard-nosed realism isn't going to necessarily move across into the Gulf. I imagine that the Saudis sitting on their oil wealth will feel somewhat comforted that they do probably constitute, if it's not a vital interest to U.S. policy, and I'm sure some would argue it is, but it's a very important interest, whereas in the overall picture, whether one likes it or not, Afghanistan does not constitute a vital interest as Biden has been clear.
Adam: Understood. Are there any final comments you'd like to make to our listeners in terms of how Saudi is perceiving the whole situation in Afghanistan, how the Taliban might try to diversify its contacts, or any other points in this context?
Neil: I just don't think that the Saudis have a off the shelf answer or response to what's going on. Unsurprisingly, a lot of countries don't have that. I imagine that what's taking place amongst the senior leadership and the various key ministers, is a rallying of decision-makers trying to come to some kind of evaluation point. Consider to what extent do they resurrect some of those relationships, or reinvigorate some of those relationships, in Afghanistan, but at the same time, keeping a careful eye on what Qatar's doing. Obviously, it will mean that relationship with Qatar will probably become increasingly important for the Saudis, because they may in fact want to use Doha for some time in terms of mediation. Al Ula will probably bear some fruit for the Saudis going forward.
Adam: Okay. Thank you Neil so much for your time for this fascinating interview, and we always enjoy receiving your insights and sharing them with our listeners. Have a great afternoon. Thank you.
Neil: Thank you very much, indeed. Thank you.