Saudis lag behind Iran in
Afghanistan 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 multi-million-dollar Islamic complex in
Kabul, marking its largest and most expensive
foray into post-9/11 Afghanistan.
project, which is expected to cost between US$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.
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 US
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 of dollars 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
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% Sunni and 15% 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
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
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.
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.
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."
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
"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
RFE/RL's Radio Free
Afghanistan contributed to this report.