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Saudi Arabia Positions Itself For Larger Afghan Role

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (right) meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) at King Khalid airport in Riyadh in 2010.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (right) meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) at King Khalid airport in Riyadh in 2010.
By Frud Bezhan
Saudi Arabia's support for Afghanistan has been steady but inconspicuous over the years. But that is about to change.

The powerful Sunni-majority kingdom is embarking on a very public effort to carve out a bigger role in Afghanistan, pitting the oil-rich Gulf state directly against Shi'ite rival Iran in the race for influence as foreign forces leave.

That much became clear on October 29, when the Afghan government announced that Riyadh would build a multimillion-dollar Islamic complex in Kabul, marking its largest and most expensive foray into post-9/11 Afghanistan.

The project, which is expected to cost between $45 million and $100 million, was agreed between the two countries in Jeddah. Construction is expected to begin next year. The Islamic complex will cover 24 hectares on Maranjan Hill in central Kabul. It will feature a university, a hospital, a sports hall, and a mosque capable of holding around 15,000 worshippers at a time.

When completed, it will become a rival to the massive Iranian-built Khatam al-Nabyeen Islamic University in western Kabul. The Shi'ite religious school, which was opened in 2006, was built at a cost of some $17 million by one of Afghanistan's most Iran-leaning clerics. The campus has a mosque, classrooms, and dormitories for its 1,000 Afghan students.

Late On The Scene

Thomas Ruttig, a former UN and European diplomat and director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, sees the Saudi move as part of the intensified competition for influence as U.S. and NATO troops look to draw down by 2014.

Riyadh's chief motivation is clearly to counter the significant sway of archrival Iran. But Ruttig says that Riyadh has its work cut out for it, considering its late arrival.

Iran, in contrast, has had a highly visible presence for the past decade.

Iran has built on its lingual and cultural links with Afghanistan by spending millions on infrastructure, including roads, power grids, and railway projects. Tehran also leaves its mark through its export of cultural and political views via its strong media presence and funding of religious schools.

Now the scene is set for an aggressive competition between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, which promotes the extremist Wahabbi sect of Islam, and Shi'ite-majority Iran. This raises the potential, Ruttig says, for sectarian tension in Afghanistan, whose population is estimated to be about 85 percent Sunni and 15 percent Shi'ite.

"There are very strained relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both those countries will be competing for influence in Afghanistan, with the sectarian differences between both sides in the background," Ruttig says. "So far, Sunni-Shi'ite relations in Afghanistan have been quite stable, but that can be undermined if both sides are much more aggressive than before in vying for influence in what they might perceive as a post-2014 [political] vacuum."

Seeking Leverage

The possibility of increased sectarian tension in Afghanistan would be cause for alarm in Central Asia and China, whose governments are wary of growing religious extremism.

It could be argued that Saudi Arabia was always a major player in the competition for influence in Afghanistan: Riyadh was a key financier of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s; it helped fund and arm the Taliban in the 1990s; and it has in recent years sought to broker behind-the-scenes peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

But those efforts were always behind the scenes, and other than the provision of food and relief supplies and the occasional business venture, there were few obvious examples of Saudi involvement in Afghanistan.

Adel Darwish, a British journalist and political commentator who specializes in Middle Eastern politics, says Saudi Arabia is poised to make an important contribution. He says the Saudis can convince the Taliban leadership to enter peace negotiations and to encourage Pakistan to cut its ties with the militant group.

That leverage comes in part because of Riyadh's close ties to regional powerhouse Pakistan, which has long supported the Afghan Taliban, and the kingdom's role as a spiritual authority in the Muslim world as the guardian of Islam's two holiest shrines. Riyadh was also a staunch backer of the Taliban in the 1990s, when it was one of only three countries -- along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates -- to recognize the group during its rule in Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

Darwish says although Riyadh severed ties with the Taliban after 2001 when the militant group failed to handover Osama bin Laden, who was a Saudi national at the time, the kingdom still has considerable leverage over the militant group. 

Both Kabul and Washington have endorsed an expanded Saudi role in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai reiterated that Saudi Arabia was "an important player" in Afghanistan and "has facilitated talks [with the Taliban] in the past and now."  U.S. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has said Riyadh's involvement in Afghanistan could shape the success of the NATO-led mission.

Broken Broker?

Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, the foreign-relations adviser for the Afghan High Peace Council, the presidentially appointed body tasked with negotiating with insurgents, says the Saudis have shown a genuine willingness to broker reconciliation talks.

"We welcome the promises of Saudi Arabia and we hope that this friendly cooperation will lead to an effective outcome," Qasimyar says. "We hope that we will witness these promises coming to fruition."

Others, however, note that the Saudis have been active in behind-the-scenes peace negotiations between members of the Taliban and the Afghan government in the past. But those talks, which took place in recent years, have yielded no breakthroughs.

Wahid Muzhda, a political analyst and former Taliban spokesman, is among the skeptics. He says many Taliban feel betrayed by Riyadh after Saudi authorities arrested and jailed a former Taliban representative, Mawlawi Shabir Ahmad. Ahmad was jailed with his four sons in Riyadh in 2001. He was released in 2011.

"The Taliban say that Saudi Arabia has acted as an enemy toward us," Muzdha says, suggesting the Saudis have taken the side of the West. "They have not been neutral. The Taliban doesn't recognize Saudi Arabia as a [peace] broker."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report

Frud Bezhan

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
November 06, 2012 00:29
I start with basics of humanity and law of God,
Comprising any nation has right live in dignity in its land.
However, late wars of expanding lay a dangerous trend.
Beside Suni Arabs and Shia Iran it's big World.

Most of it was conquered by Arabs, old times.
They leaved their descendents there, but left.
Now they consist of genuin nations and tribes
Mixed with "Arabised", with mix of Suni-Shias.

Is it new attempt to create one World Halifat?
Is it an attempt to cleanse non-Arab nations?
Syria was once populated by Lidians-Hetites
And others, from pre-Georgian Minor Asians.

German, British and Russia archeology plot
And perversion of history created false base,
So Syria must belong to quite different race,
I gessed which one - till Halifat invaded bust.

Why a nation must be destroyed by Russia,
Brits and Germani-Austria - like in Abkhazia,
Yugoslavia, or even worse - if blades swing,
As rivalry of the Muslim and Christian wings.

It shouldn't be such rivalry competition at all.
Afghanistan genocided by Russia unhealed,
To much for many years. Is it a Taliban goal,
Pushed by insurgents, from outside leading?

Is it USA goal, provoke anger by nazi soldier,
Coached by international East-West nazi air?
Nations must not fall for an imperio-resurrect
By Russia, Brits, Germani-Austria 1954 pact.

Saudies can help to rectify such forged trend.
OK if everyone contribute, as long as Afghan
Come of it independent nation among friends.
It is time for all sides to rebuilt - even Taliban.
In Response

by: Alex from: LA
November 07, 2012 02:29
pre-Georgian Minor Asians, hahahahahahahahahahahahha.
WHere on earth did you find a such a term. First time Georgia is mention in history is 985AD established by royal Armenian family, go chew on the truth and spit that plastic gum out of your mouth.
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
November 07, 2012 11:22
Dear Alex,Konstanteen is a georgian BS BW con man or a lgbt team-these posts are written by many people judging by the deliberate grammar mistakes and different styles of BS.These are very poor teasers designed to provoke an opposite reaction and prove only that the Bechtels have got not Konstanteen / Rin tin tin`s mother but him or rather it as well!!!
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
November 07, 2012 13:55
Pre Georgians - oldest maps of first agriculture and setlments,
11.5 Milleniums ago, started in heart of pre-Georgia - going
To Blck and Caspean Sea, inviting the few local families,
Ethno-groups of Colhis and Albanian were emerging.
South direction same way - including Erevanies.

Eastern Asia minor was populated by setlments
Of "pre-Georgians" about 10 Milleniums ago, as,
South-West "Common Wealthes", Hetian-Lidian
That were created, because of some barbarians,
Specially Chald, part Nenderthal bists, agressed.

"Pre-Georgian" or "pre-Iberian" is well known fact.
Alex must be lying for Russian animals by a pact
Of 1954 - to repopulate CIS and East Europeans,
Starting with Georgia by Russians and Quislings,
Including Alex and his relatives, Urartu and Levits.

The 12 "ha" is typical for coarsed by Jacob Levita,
Lying dirty bist, playing Kaballa Judas anti-semita.
The "Royal Armenian" Bargationi is a typical GRU,
Dirty propaganda of Urartu ass-messer for TcRU.
I am truth. Your lie smell bad from both your ends.

As Urartu Chaldea apes invaded Ararat 3,500 ago,
Using weakening of Media, Lidia and Hetia CIS-es,
They tried greedy-grabb as much they could craw,
Encroached small pre-Georgian states, Erevanies
Deed, only in part, intermarried a few encroachers.

Guria and Muhrani resisted impudent "Hachics" try.
In 5 Century AD, King of Kartly had only a daughter,
He chose Muhrany principal - to protect his borders
From breeding Urartu, encroaching as stealing flies.
Erevania was also pre-Georgia, Chaldea snake-lier.

Even so, Iberian Muhrany principal wasn't royal, lier.
He became one - only marrying family of real Kings,
Known in ancient World as Kings of Iberia. Cut vire
Alex, connecting you to Russia Imperial dirty theafs.
Russia hate Iberian CIS-es - they sent you spoil air.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
November 07, 2012 14:10
Have shame before your "Anush", what are you, Urartu?

I forgot about that bad mouth "camel" again.
His post should be blocked, for repetative lies.
RFE knows I post alone with my real name.
Why RFE wouldn't repent camel's tries?
Camel steals my time, is it RFE game?

by: Jack from: US
November 06, 2012 15:23
peaceful Wahhabi activists from Saudi Arabia "positioned" themselves with the sleepless helping hand of US government and the brilliant mind of Hillary Clinton. Saudi Arabia, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hillary, and US government all come together as one happy family
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
November 06, 2012 21:00
Just opposite what you always trying to pull with your Russia's
Full of lies agents on Forums. Pact of 1954 of Russia, British,
Germans and Austrians are "one happy family" with Cohen's,
Litvak, Swartckof and now Obama, Hillary, as other friendlish
To imperial resurrectors that even know not what they doish.

USA is only guilty of being fat-greedy ignorants, manipulated
By those make them angry and vindictive by your fingerated,
As Eugenio and Russians did on RFE and in USA - slender
You used against many people and nations, even I labeled!

By Eugenio's Russ-Fritcy macaques in CIA "anti-Ameriker"
Activety was alleged for Eugenio writing some stupid pups
By which they blackmaileds me and murdered my mother.
As old movie revalation, Russian Senator Women got US:
"We know your Imperialistic secrets, don't not try stop us!"

So, Russia expanding its Empire and using USA as a fool.
Both corrupted, plagiarizing, sucking my blood and co-rull.

by: William from: Aragon
November 06, 2012 23:02
"The Taliban say that Saudi Arabia has acted as an enemy toward us". Given the possible makeup of a future Afghanistan government after the US "withdrawl" by 2014, I am not convinced that the Saudis will have the influence that is being forecast.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
November 07, 2012 09:20
When the Taliban takes over Kabul by the year 2015-2016, the Saudis - just as all other friends of the US - will look exactly the same way the govt of South Vietnam looked when the victorious tanks of Viet-Cong entered the then South-Vietnamese capital of Saigon in 1975. Namely, they will be running very fast trying to catch the last US helicopter that would take them out of the country and transfer them to Turkey or some other NATO state for an excile from which they will never return.
In Response

by: William from: Aragon
November 07, 2012 22:22
EUgenio, I am hopeful that once the foreign invaders have "withdrawn with honour" (that is an Orwellian term of which I am sure you know the true meaning of), I anticipate that all parties will sit down and cobble together some form of coherent government that works for the Afghan national interest and not that of outside parties. Else, there will be civil war again, and having been down that path before I do not forecast that there will be much interest in that option. Then, having control of the oil and gas pipelines running out of Central Asia, the new government will be in a position to broker some deals - they may even enter into contracts with US-based multi-national corporations. Then, the Talibs will return to where they came from i.e. back to their religious schools. Pragmatism was made in Afghanistan.

by: Tajik
November 07, 2012 18:07
"... regional powerhouse Pakistan, which has long supported the Afghan Taliban"

Regional powerhouse Pakistan? Ahahahaha... What the hell kind of powerhouse is Pakistan? A powerhouse of failure?? Yes, thats all that Pakistan succeeds at: failing!
In Response

by: William from: Aragon
November 07, 2012 22:15
Their correspondent uses a bit of "artistic license" in his story; you will have to forgive that. :-)

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