DUBAI – Afghanistan’s president, driven out by the Taliban, is the latest leader on the run to turn up in the United Arab Emirates. Others who found refuge here include Spain’s disgraced former king and two Thai prime ministers.
In nearby Qatar, meanwhile, the Taliban's political leaders have been given refuge for years.
Qatar and the UAE have much in common, despite their sharp political differences. The two Gulf Arab states have close security partnerships with the United States and both have taken in political fugitives and exiled leaders on the run.
The skylines of Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai offer an array of stunning high-rise towers and opulent five-star hotels. Man-made coastlines provide reclusive, palatial waterfront properties — plenty of options for political exiles looking for privacy and a place to park their money.
But most importantly, these cities built by vast underground reserves of oil and gas provide near-guaranteed security to controversial, once powerful figures. Iris-scanning technology at the airport, untold numbers of security cameras, and widespread surveillance helps ensure protection — as does an autocratic grip on power.
It's perhaps why Afghan President Ashraf Ghani surfaced in Abu Dhabi after the Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday and why the Taliban's political leaders have for years resided in Qatar.
The UAE announced late Wednesday it had accepted hosting Ghani and his family, citing humanitarian grounds — even as members of his own government slammed the Afghan president for his escape from Kabul.
Over the past year, Qatar has hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and before that, between the Taliban and the United States as Washington hashed out the terms of its withdrawal from Afghanistan and an end to its 20-year war. Top Taliban political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar returned to Afghanistan this week from his residence in Qatar.
The role the UAE and Qatar have played as hosts to wanted politicians and top figures gives them potential leverage — political chips that can be played or held for a later date.
“Qatar has positioned itself as the go-to mediator with the Taliban. It was a risky bet, especially considering the optics with the wider public, but it paid off,” said Cinzia Bianco, Gulf research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Now, Qatar is well-positioned to be the first contact point for regional and international players who want to explore the possibility of engaging with the Taliban ... without compromising themselves,” she added.
The Taliban's capture of Kabul was so swift that by nightfall the same day, gun-toting Taliban commanders were seated at Ghani's desk in the presidential palace. Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan citizens and foreigners are still scrambling to flee the country.
Just this week, a senior U.S. military commander met face-to-face with the Taliban in Doha to negotiate the safe passage of thousands of people wanting to leave Afghanistan, underscoring the crucial role Qatar is playing amid the muddled U.S. exit.
The UAE and Qatar are also staging grounds for key U.S. military operations. Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base hosts some 10,000 American troops. Americans also fly out of the al-Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi.
“Each country is positioning itself in the best way possible to pursue its interests in this crisis,” said senior Mideast adviser at Crisis Group, Dina Esfandiary.
She says that while Qatar's bet as “regional mediator” seems to have paid off, it remains to be seen how it will work out in the long term. For its part, the UAE aims to show its ally the United States that it too is a reliable partner, she said.
From his new base in the UAE, Ghani released a video statement Wednesday, for the first time since escaping Kabul. He made a point of mentioning he was forced to leave Afghanistan “with one set of traditional clothes, a vest and the sandals” he was wearing.
To live in the UAE, however, he'll need a lot more than that. The country's cost of living is as sky-high as its towers, even if some support is offered.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan accused Ghani on Wednesday of stealing $169 million from state coffers and said he'd call for his arrest via Interpol. Russia's embassy in Kabul alleged that Ghani fled Kabul with four cars and a helicopter full of cash. He had so much money he couldn't fit it all, and left cash lying on the tarmac, Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the embassy spokesperson as saying.
The AP could not independently verify the claims. The Western-backed Afghan government he presided over has long been rife with corruption.
Ghani joins a roster of high-profile exiles who've sought shelter in the UAE in past years. Some have resided in Abu Dhabi, others in the UAE's commercial and tourism hub of Dubai.
Siblings and former Thai prime ministers, Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra — the former ousted in a military coup amid charges of corruption, the other fleeing a criminal conviction — are among them.
For years before her return to Pakistan where she was assassinated in 2007, so did ex-Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Another ex-Pakistani prime minister, Pervez Musharraf, maintains his base as Dubai. He was sentenced at home to death for treason, a sentence that a high Pakistani court later annulled.
Others include former Spanish King Juan Carlos, who is facing financial probe; Palestinian figure Mohammed Dahlan, who was banished by his party and sentenced to prison, and Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the eldest son of Yemen's longtime leader who was also assassinated.
Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ayaelb