By cautiously and pragmatically engaging the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has demonstrated flexibility that can effectively advance the Gulf country’s long-term interests.

In 2019, Abu Dhabi’s then-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) reportedly told Trump administration officials that the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan would put “backward, bearded bad guys” back in power. So, he advocated weakening the Taliban’s negotiating position by hiring mercenaries to assassinate their leaders. Anti-Taliban stances helped the UAE present itself as a moderate Arab country standing for tolerance across the wider Islamic world.  

Yet, there was a more nuanced reality. For decades the Haqqani network, a hardline faction in the Taliban, used front companies and Afghan expats to recruit and launder money via the UAE. U.S. pressure in 2014 pushed such operations underground, but they continued. The UAE also positioned itself as a useful diplomatic broker when Trump’s team worked to wind down the Afghan war, highlighted by then-U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s December 2018 meeting with a Taliban delegation along with Emirati, Saudi, and Pakistani officials in Abu Dhabi.

Since August 2021, the UAE has contended with the reality of the IEA being Afghanistan’s only de facto government. Abu Dhabi has seen the situation as an opportunity to bolster its reputation as a valuable partner to Western powers and showcase its humanitarian credentials. Emirati assistance with the evacuation of foreign diplomats and 28,000 Afghan people at the time of the Taliban’s takeover and Abu Dhabi’s deliveries of food and relief supplies to Afghanistan underscore so. 

Politically, there has been a delicate balance. On one hand, the UAE took in ousted President Ashraf Ghani. On the other, Abu Dhabi referred to “brotherly people” in Afghanistan when initially addressing the IEA’s 2021 takeover and, according to the Taliban, Abu Dhabi banned Ghani and others from his fallen government from engaging in political activities from Emirati soil. Also, while praising some of the Taliban’s stated commitments to moderation, Emirati officials have not shied away from condemning the IEA’s violations of women’s rights.

The IEA began talking to the Emiratis about the UAE administering the main Afghan airport three months after the Taliban takeover. Yet, Kabul entered a preliminary airport security deal with Turkey and Qatar in early 2022. By May 2022, disagreements with Ankara and Doha resulted in the IEA signing a deal with UAE state-linked GAAC Solutions for the management of the airports in Herat, Kabul, and Kandahar. The third and final contract was finalized in September 2022 following the Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar’s covert visit to Abu Dhabi. On December 5, the IEA’s acting defense minister, Mullah Yaqoob, came to the UAE to discuss with MbZ opportunities to bolster Abu Dhabi-Kabul relations. 

Considering how the IEA is a global pariah, it is doubtful that Abu Dhabi will formally recognize the Taliban anytime soon despite the UAE being one of only three countries which did so during the 1996-2001 period. Nonetheless, the UAE has somewhat of a soft recognition of the IEA in ways that help advance Emirati interests against the backdrop of post-U.S. Afghanistan becoming more of a flashpoint in competition between great powers and smaller regional ones too.

Concerned about Qatar establishing itself as increasingly indispensable to the West vis-à-vis post-occupation Afghanistan, the UAE does not want to miss opportunities to leverage Afghanistan’s current situation to Abu Dhabi’s advantage. At the same time, there is unease in Abu Dhabi about Iran’s potential ability to gain clout in Afghanistan. Thus, for all the challenges of dealing with the Taliban, Abu Dhabi will likely continue pursuing a long-term strategy toward Kabul’s Islamist rulers based on careful engagement throughout 2023 and beyond. The UAE’s assessment is that the costs of not doing so are too high.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy, and an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero