EXCLUSIVE The UAE wants to operate Kabul Airport in deal with Taliban, sources say

Members of the Taliban stand on the runway at Kabul International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan September 9, 2021. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY/File Photo

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  • The UAE will beat rivals Qatar-Turkey’s joint bid
  • Taliban officials visited Abu Dhabi in May
  • Kabul Airport is Afghanistan’s main air link

DUBAI, July 7 (Reuters) – The Taliban and the United Arab Emirates are ready to finalize a deal for the Gulf nation to operate Kabul Airport and several others in Afghanistan, sources familiar with the negotiations said would be announced within weeks could become.

The Taliban, whose government remains an international pariah without formal recognition, has courted regional powers, including Qatar and Turkey, to operate Kabul Airport, landlocked Afghanistan’s main air link with the world, and others.

But after months of back-and-forth talks, and at a point where the possibility of a joint deal between the UAE, Turkey and Qatar has been raised, the Taliban are ready to hand over operations entirely to the UAE, which previously operated Afghan airports. said the sources.

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A deal would help the Islamist militants ease their isolation from the outside world while they rule an impoverished country plagued by drought, widespread hunger and economic crises. It would also give Abu Dhabi a victory in its diplomatic tussle with Qatar for influence.

Under the deal with the United Arab Emirates, Afghans are being employed at the airports, including in security roles vital to the Taliban, who want to show they can create jobs, but also because they firmly oppose the presence of foreign forces , sources said.

A state-linked Emirates contractor has been hired to provide security services, which are due to be announced soon while negotiations on airspace management are underway, they said.

The militants in May awarded the ground service contract to UAE-affiliated GAAC, which before the Taliban takeover was involved in running security and groundhandling services at Afghan airports, shortly after Taliban officials visited Abu Dhabi.

SECURITY CONTRACT

Meanwhile, joint negotiations between Qatar and Turkey with the Taliban collapsed around the same time, sources said.

Emirates officials had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters. GAAC did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for the Taliban’s transport ministry confirmed that an aviation security deal had already been signed with the UAE, but said the air transport deal had not yet been finalized or confirmed.

There is little direct commercial benefit from airport operations, but Kabul Airport would be an important source of information on movements inside and outside the country, Western officials say.

The sources said UAE airlines, which have not flown to Afghanistan since the Taliban took over last year, are expected to resume flights to Kabul and possibly other Afghan airports after the deal is finalized.

Other airlines that have also stayed away could also resume flights if the deal with the United Arab Emirates can address significant security concerns, including the threat from the Afghan branch of Islamic State, which has included the Taliban among its targets.

In the months leading up to the award of ground services to the UAE, the Taliban repeatedly made inexplicable changes to their negotiating team with Qatar and Turkey, the sources said.

Then the Taliban tried to change the agreed terms by raising airport fees and taxes and weakening Qatar’s and Turkey’s control over revenue collection, they added.

A Qatari official had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters. A Turkish official confirmed on condition of anonymity that talks with the Taliban had been halted “some time ago”.

The UAE effort is part of a quiet but confident push by Abu Dhabi to expand long-standing ties with the Taliban, which have included state aid and diplomatic efforts in the months since the hardliners took power in August.

golf rivalries

Western officials say Abu Dhabi views Afghanistan, which shares a major land border with the UAE’s Gulf neighbor Iran, as part of its larger backyard and therefore believes it has legitimate interests in the country’s political and economic stability.

But those officials also say the UAE is keen to counter Qatar’s influence in Afghanistan, a Gulf state praised by Western nations for serving as a gateway to the Taliban but a competitive rival to Abu Dhabi about regional influence. Continue reading

Western officials fear rivalry is now playing out in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates, along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, severed ties with Qatar from 2017 to 2021 as part of a long-running, bitter dispute between the two wealthy Gulf states that was largely settled last year.

Qatar housed the Taliban’s political office in Doha, long one of the few places where militants met and where the United States negotiated with the militants to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Qatar also helped operate Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport after the collapse of the Western-backed government last year. The state-owned Qatar Airways operated charter flights and Qatari special forces provided security on the ground.

But Qatar’s relationship with the Taliban now appears strained, according to Western officials, who say the militants have become wary of becoming too dependent on one nation.

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Reporting by Alexander Cornwell, additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Mohammad Yunus Yawar in Kabul; Editing by William Maclean and Jonathan Oatis

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