By Alexander Cornwell
DUBAI (Reuters) -The Taliban and the United Arab Emirates are poised to strike a deal for the Gulf nation to run Kabul airport and several others in Afghanistan that could be announced within weeks, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
The Taliban, whose government remains an international pariah without formal recognition, have 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 one point raising the possibility of a joint UAE-Turkey-Qatar deal, the Taliban is set to hand the operations in their entirety to the UAE, who had previously run Afghan airports, the sources said.
An agreement would help the Islamist militants ease their isolation from the outside world as they govern an impoverished country beset by drought, widespread hunger and economic crisis. It would also hand Abu Dhabi a win in its diplomatic tussle with Qatar for influence.
Under the deal with the UAE, Afghans will be employed at the airports, including in security roles, crucial for the Taliban who want to show they can create jobs but also because they staunchly oppose the presence of foreign forces, sources said.
An Emirati state-linked contractor had been contracted to provide security services, which should be announced soon, while negotiations over airspace management are ongoing, they said.
The militants in May awarded the ground services contract to UAE state-linked GAAC, which was involved in running security and ground handling services at Afghan airports before the Taliban takeover, shortly after Taliban officials had visited Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, Qatar and Turkey’s joint negotiations with the Taliban broke down around the same time, sources said.
Emirati officials had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.
A GAAC spokesman told Reuters, after this article was initially published, that after negotiations the firm had been granted approvals to resume its services at Afghan airports.
GAAC would provide specialised services to “safeguard civil aviation from unlawful interference” and was capable of handling air traffic management and other services, he said in an email.
The spokesperson said GAAC had helped restore operations at Kabul airport last September, and all staff providing services at Afghan airports were GAAC employees.
“It was GAAC’s decision to engage in discussions with Afghanistan’s authorities and formalize new arrangements to our services at Afghan airports,” he said.
A Taliban transport ministry spokesman confirmed an aviation security contract had already been signed with the UAE but said the air traffic contract was not finalised or confirmed yet.
There is little direct commercial benefit in the airport operations, but Kabul airport would provide a key source of intelligence on movements in and out of the country, Western officials say.
The sources said UAE airlines, which have not flown to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover last year, were expected to resume flights to Kabul and possibly other Afghan airports after the deal was finalised.
Other airlines, who too have stayed away, could also again operate flights if the UAE deal can address substantial security concerns, including the threat posed by the Afghan branch of the Islamic State whose targets have included the Taliban.
In the months leading up to the ground services being awarded to the UAE, the Taliban repeatedly made unexplained changes to its team negotiating with Qatar and Turkey, the sources said.
Then the Taliban sought to alter agreed terms by upping airport fees and taxes and weaken Qatar and Turkey’s control over revenue collection, they added.
A Qatari official had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters. A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed talks with the Taliban had stopped “some time ago”.
The UAE’S efforts are part of a quiet but assertive push by Abu Dhabi to expand longstanding ties with the Taliban that have included government aid and diplomatic efforts in the months since the hardline militants took power in August.
Western officials say Abu Dhabi sees Afghanistan, which shares a large land border with UAE’s Gulf neighbour Iran, as part of its wider backyard and so believes it has legitimate interests in the country’s political and economic stability.
But those officials also say the UAE is keen to counter the influence in Afghanistan of Qatar, a Gulf state lauded by Western nations for serving as gateway to the Taliban but a rival of Abu Dhabi’s in a contest for regional influence.
Western officials worry that rivalry is now playing out in Afghanistan. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, cut ties with Qatar from 2017 until 2021 as part of a long-running, bitter dispute between the two rich Gulf states that was largely resolved last year.
Qatar has hosted the Taliban’s political office in Doha, long one of few places to meet the militants and where the United States negotiated with the militants to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Qatar also helped run Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport after the collapse of the Western-backed government last year. Its 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 being too dependent on any one nation.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell, additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Mohammad Yunus Yawar in Kabul; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, William Maclean)