World powers trying to contain the fall-out of the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan have turned to the tiny gas-rich state of Qatar, long a link between the west and the Islamist group.
The US’s regional military headquarters in Qatar has become the fulcrum of the last-minute American exit and the Gulf state has been a staging post for the evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees.
Qatar has for decades pursued ties with Islamists and sought to carve out a role as a powerbroker and mediator. Its role as a facilitator of talks between the US and the Taliban, which opened a representative office in Doha with the support of the US eight years ago, has enabled the state to take an outsized role in geopolitics.
“The Afghan crisis is perfect for Qatar — it is the apogee of what the state has been trying to do,” said David Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London.
“I am not saying that the Qataris were savants a decade ago who thought that building this relationship would put them into prime position in Afghanistan when the occupation ended, but the Qataris did intuit a long time ago that engaging with the Taliban when they were an unpopular actor was very important.”
The Afghan embassies of western powers have relocated from Kabul to Doha, in part to facilitate communications with the Taliban. Qatar, which mediated between Afghan parties before the US withdrawal, is leading in multilateral talks with the Taliban over future operations at Kabul airport in the wake of the US exit.
“The relocation of these diplomatic missions indicate that whatever diplomacy is intended will involve Qatar in some way as a facilitator and mediator to keep dialogue open with the political leadership as the world waits to see what type of regime emerges in Kabul,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Speaking at a press conference in Doha, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab described Qatar as a “linchpin” in dealing with the crisis.
In from the cold
The Qataris’ links with the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood and Tehran have often triggered anger among some neighbours. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies launched a trade and travel embargo against the state, fuelled in part by then president Donald Trump’s early ambivalence to Doha, traditionally one of Washington’s most crucial strategic partners.
In the first few days of the boycott, after his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia in which he was courted by officials including the current crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump appeared to support Saudi claims that Qatar was funding extremism, a charge denied by Doha.
Afghan women and children inside a villa complex in the Qatari capital. The Gulf state has been a staging post for evacuation flights to western countries © Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images
Doha, one of the world’s richest states on a per capita basis, managed to beat the boycott thanks to its hefty financial clout and recharting trade routes through countries including Turkey and Iran, the Saudis’ arch rivals. The Trump administration eventually worked to end the Gulf dispute, which had turned western allies against one another. But it was the ascent of President Joe Biden that gave an added incentive to the Saudi crown prince to reverse course, finalising an end to the embargo in February after several months of negotiations.
“As last planes out of Afghanistan land in Qatar — joining 1000s of refugees hosted by the Qataris — think how close we came to losing Qatar as a Gulf base,” said Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman, on Twitter. “In 2017, Trump nearly tanked the relationship during Saudi’s blockade. Biden wisely has recognised [the] strategic partnership.”
This end of the embargo reflects a broader de-escalation in the Middle East, in part because of the election of Biden and the devastation wrought by Covid. Arch rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in talks in recent months. “I think the whole dynamic in the region has changed, there’s a tone of de-escalation, containment, engagement and dialogue,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s foreign minister. “It’s something we in Qatar believe in.”
One of the clearest manifestations of the Qatari role has been its facilitation of the evacuation of more than 43,000 people from Afghanistan. The Qatari ambassador personally escorted evacuees through Taliban checkpoints, using the country’s influence to help thousands in dire need.
One of those was Haseenah, a 20-year-old student now safe in a Doha compound, whose first attempt to flee Afghanistan ended in failure at the gates of Kabul airport last month, where she was turned back by Taliban militiamen.
The next day, the ambassador chaperoned her and six other classmates through checkpoints and desperate crowds surrounding the airport perimeter on to an evacuation flight.
“My mum never let me go on any school trips — now we are here, alone,” she said. “My mum was crying when we left, but she is thankful we are safe.”
Resurgent national pride
This high-profile role has burnished a national pride dented over the past years by international opprobrium, in part for Qatar’s alleged mistreatment of migrant workers ahead of next year’s football World Cup.
Last month, Amnesty accused the authorities of failing to investigate the links between premature deaths and unsafe working conditions in the high temperatures of the Gulf. The government has rejected the accusations, saying injury and mortality rates were “in line with best international practice and set new standards for the region”.
The end of the embargo has also improved the mood, but few businesses have yet to notice an economic fillip as Covid restrictions limit tourism and travel. Still, the hydrocarbon-dependent economy is forecast to bounce back from last year’s recession as demand for natural gas rebounds and coronavirus restrictions end.
For some, there is a hope that the Afghan crisis could change the global narrative around the state.
“It is a great role we are playing in Afghanistan, we are finally getting some positive news,” said one senior Qatari financier. “We have had a really bad rap, from labour issues around the World Cup to the blockade, when everyone thought we were terrorists.”
Qatar can expect further scrutiny in the run-up to the World Cup, which is scheduled for December 2022 to avoid the summer heat. “But the goodwill around evacuation and the humanitarian response may offset a lot of the negativity of 2017, achieving some international goodwill ahead of the World Cup spotlight,” said Ulrichsen.
Additional reporting by Andrew England in London