Saudi efforts to divide and weaken the Taliban, or at least foster more moderate elements within the movement, have ultimately failed. Although it remains unclear how the Taliban will govern Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the more moderate elements of the movement will prevail. It is much more likely that hardliners will insist on implementing a severe version of Islamic law akin to that deployed from 1996 to 2001.
As such, Riyadh’s ability to influence the new Taliban government and events on the ground will be severely compromised, especially as Saudi crown prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) has sought to moderate his own clerical establishment since coming to prominence. Whereas Saudi Arabia and its intelligence agencies once held a close relationship with the Taliban leadership – political and religious – it has all but given up those linkages since 2001, and its ability, therefore, to re-establish ties – at least in the short term – has been diminished. In many ways, Riyadh has ceded ground to Doha, which now wields the most influence among the Gulf Arab states. As a consequence, relations between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban will further deteriorate.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has since cultivated close ties with the Taliban, and though they are unnatural bedfellows, Iran has spent considerable time filling the vacuum left by Saudi Arabia and will be keen to hold on to that influence and exercise it against wider Saudi interests. Under its influence, the Taliban leadership might begin a campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the Al Saud and appeal directly to the Saudi population to challenge the ruling family’s authority. At the same time, the Saudi leadership will be keen to align policy with the US and its Western partners and will follow their lead in establishing diplomatic relations with the new Afghan government and providing aid to the country’s population.
The nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a cause for concern in Saudi Arabia. President Biden’s speech about the withdrawal, wherein he noted that remaining in Afghanistan no longer constitutes a vital interest, has also sent shockwaves through the Saudi leadership. However, Saudi Arabia still believes that its massive hydrocarbon endowment continues to make it a vital interest to not only the US but also to the global economy – and this fact alone is a source of comfort for its leaders. As such, MBS does not believe that Washington will beat a hasty retreat from the Gulf, but it affirms his conviction that the US will over time exit the region, and that necessitates, even more, a transition away from oil and toward a more diversified economy.
One immediate area of concern, though, remains Yemen and the US commitment to support Saudi Arabia’s war effort there. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will be seen as a boon for the IRGC; and it may embolden them further in other regional theaters, including Yemen. Consequently, Riyadh will become more dependent upon US security support, which will make it more pliable to Biden’s focus on human rights, though it is difficult to imagine how he can instrumentalize that approach, given the human rights abuses taking place in Afghanistan. For the time being, the strategic relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia will not change, but the contours of the relationship will shift, giving Washington more tools to curtail the kingdom’s more wayward activities and bringing it into compliance with its human rights agenda.
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