Saudi Arabia and Taliban unlikely to revive old alliances

In the past, they worked together. But today, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban are separated by political and cultural differences, as well as some problematic history.

The last time the Taliban ran 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 that. For example, the Saudis funded hard-line religious schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan, from which the Taliban movement emerged.

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

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

Defending Islam

In the 1980s, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia supported Afghan fighters, known as mujahedeen. They did this together with their allies, the United States and Pakistan. The Americans were ostensibly there to fight Communism and the Saudis, to defend Islam. It’s thought that both countries spent around $4 billion each on anti-Soviet efforts.

Then, after the Soviets pulled out and during the ensuing civil war in the 1990s, Saudi Arabia became one of the Taliban’s most important allies, particularly in terms of funding. It was also among the shortlist of nations the United Nations suspected of supplying weapons to the Taliban, circumventing an international arms embargo.

The Saudis and US funded Afghan anti-Soviet fighters in the 1980s

However, the situation changed dramatically for Saudi Arabia and the UAE after al-Qaeda, the Sunni Muslim terrorist group, carried out suicide attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, resulting in the deaths of over 3,000 people.

Harboring terrorists

Saudi Arabia has had a diplomatic relationship 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, the head of al-Qaeda and a Saudi citizen, who was sheltering in Afghanistan. But the Taliban refused. This denial saw the Saudi-Taliban relationship deteriorate significantly and official funding for the group dry up.

The events of September 2001 only hastened the demise of the alliance. Later that same month, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut all ties with Taliban-led Afghanistan. The Saudis accused the Taliban of defaming Islam by harboring terrorists.

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

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

“[Saudi] fundraisers for the Taliban … are believed to extensively exploit networks and use old mechanisms dating back to the times of Saudi cooperation with mujahedeen and Taliban functionaries,” they concluded.

No Saudi comeback

Today, the Saudis officially remain distant from their old allies. Although at one stage they were seen as potential mediators in negotiations between the Taliban and the ousted Afghan government, the smaller Persian Gulf nation of Qatar stepped into that role over the past few years.

This month, after the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry released a cautious statement saying, “The kingdom stands with the choices that the Afghan people make without interference.”

It’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s historical influence on the Taliban will be revived in any hurry, experts told DW.

The Saudi-US alliance remains important, and the country’s ongoing cultural changes also play a part in this. Saudi’s controversial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is trying to modernize his countryand the idea of a more liberal and open Saudi Arabia doesn’t sit well with lending support to Islamist extremists in other countries.

Saudi Arabia began allowing women to drive in 2018

The Afghanistan crisis is “a challenge on the domestic front for Saudi Arabia,” Kabir Taneja, a fellow at the India-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, wrote in a briefing last month.

“To maintain its image as an upcoming investment mecca, Riyadh will have to make sure it does not once again become home to mass migration of fighters flying in and out of the Afghanistan … or become a hub of funding enabling extremist activities.”

Regional rivalries

In fact, today, Afghanistan’s neighbor, Iran, is closer to the Taliban — that is even though their religious ideology may be different. Iran’s theocratic government is Shiite Muslim.

“There have been many reports of tactical understandings between Tehran and the Taliban,” Vinay Kaura, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based think tank theMiddle East Institute, wrote last year. “This stands in sharp contrast to the era of the [former] Taliban regime, which received patronage from Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archrival.”

“The Saudi leadership is likely to view Afghanistan, at least in part, through the prism of regional rivalry with Iran,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, based in Texas. “Iranian and Saudi officials are likely to be closely monitoring each other’s actions in the days and weeks ahead.”

There may be some “informal outreach,” he told DW, through Saudi-based clerics and religious networks and influence. But there’s unlikely to be the kind of official aid or recognition that marked the past alliance.

9/11 anniversary

“It would be a considerable reputational risk for the Saudis to try and channel financial support to Afghanistan in anything less than a fully transparent manner, and aligned with international and multilateral partners,” Coates Ulrichsen explained, “given historical memories of what transpired during the 1980s and 1990s, and the challenges the Saudis already have faced in rebuilding their position in Washington during the opening months of the Biden presidency.”

The 9/11 Memorial Plaza in New York was built where the towers that al-Qaeda hijackers destroyed used to stand

Guido Steinberg, a senior SWP researcher focused on the Middle East, confirmed that view.

“Saudi Arabia is hardly represented in the country at the moment and has barely supported the Taliban recently,” he told DW. “Should Saudi Arabia appear again in Afghanistan, that would only have any kind of impact in a few years.”

In a fortnight, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will also be commemorated. “The Saudis likely will want to keep a low profile,” Coates Ulrichsen concluded, “lest any engagement with the Taliban revives memories of a period which few of the current generation of Saudi decision-makers would want to dwell upon.”