DUBAI: 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. GAAC did not respond to a request for comment.

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.

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.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2022

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