PHOTO/REUTERS – The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani
The situation in the Middle East has been tense for a long time, and many conflicting events are taking place. With the start of 2021, the situation has changed from the past. Despite the conflict between Palestine and Israel in May and the complete occupation of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the situation of regional powers is generally stable, and there are clear signs of improving relations between them. Thus, the severance of diplomatic relations in the Arab world has ended, and diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries, and Qatar have been revived. The second decade of the 21st century seems to have brought irreplaceable opportunities for Qatari decision-makers. On the one hand, with the rise of Joe Biden to power in the United States, the coalition of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain ended the siege of Qatar (2017-2021), and each of the governments decided to improve relations with Doha; on the other hand, with the announcement of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a new chapter in Qatar’s mediation diplomacy has opened.
In other words, with the start of the Arab uprisings in the West Asian region in 2011 and the adoption of an aggressive foreign policy by Doha in the face of developments in the region, Qatar turned away from the role of mediator in the region. It actively sought to change the situation in the troubled regions. The wait was not long, yet Qatar’s minimal capacity for large-scale planning emerged as a major power in the region when al-Sisi came to power in Egypt, and on the other hand, Western powers’ dissatisfaction and reaction to Qatar’s destructive role in the region that prompted the new Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad (2013), to resume mediation diplomacy in the region.
However, because one of the most critical conditions for mediation in the region is to take a neutral position and not interfere in the internal affairs of countries, Doha, like in the 2000s, managed to play an active role in the form of mediation diplomacy during the 2011 decade partly because of a biased and aggressive foreign policy, especially in the Arab world. However, the US’s troops withdrawal from Afghanistan and the start of a new round of talks between the United States and the Taliban hosted by Doha in 2020 was an irreplaceable opportunity for Qatar to return to its traditional role as mediator in the region.
In other words, the Qatari decision-making body has always considered relations with the Taliban to be a comparative advantage. Although Doha did not recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, it maintained formal and informal contacts with the Taliban. Doha has also hosted talks between the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban since 2001 to end the civil war in Afghanistan. It should be noted that the first Taliban representative office was reopened in 2013 in Doha. Qatar’s intelligence service has repeatedly played a vital role in the prisoner exchange between the United States and the Taliban. We can mention the release of an American soldier named Bo Bogdal in March 2012 in exchange for five Taliban leaders in Guantanamo Bay and Anas Haqqani, the Taliban deputy leader, in exchange for the release of two American professors in November 2019. It should be noted that Qatar has always hosted Taliban leaders and their families in Doha, such as Mullah Abdul Salam Zaif. Therefore, given Doha’s relationship with Taliban leaders, Qatar’s is playing its role in Afghanistan. First, Qatar is seeking to once again act as a mediator and guardian of regional peace. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan has put Doha in the spotlight due to its long and extensive relationship with the Taliban as a mediator.
In conclusion, regional and supra-regional governments seem to be consulting with the Qatari government on developments in Afghanistan. Such an opportunity would allow Doha to upgrade its regional and international system, as it did in the 2000s. Second, unlike in 2011, Doha does not seem to take a clear stance on Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban. Although Al Jazeera, unlike other Arab media outlets, refuses to associate radical Islam with the Taliban, it is essential to note that any economic, military and diplomatic relations with the Taliban may create sparks with regional supra-regional powers, such as China and Russia. In general, Doha will continue to maintain formal and informal contacts in mediation with the parties involved, especially the Taliban. At the same time, it will seek to expand its covert influence over Taliban leaders and Afghan society in the form of humanitarian aid, media support, and so on.
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About the author:
Amin BAGHERI is a Research Fellow at the International Studies Association in Tehran, Iran. His primary research interest lies in international relations, transnational governance, international peace, and conflicts in the Middle East.