Saudi Arabia Sets Its Sights on Afghanistan

As U.S. troops leave, Riyadh is positioning itself for the a future role in the country.

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Afghan President Karzai is escorted by Saudi Price Meshaal as he arrives in Jeddah on December 5th, 2005. (Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters)

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. This became clear on October 29, when the Afghan government announced that Riyadh would build a multimillion-dollar Islamic complex in Kabul, marking its largest and most expensive foray into post-9/11 Afghanistan.

The project, which is expected to cost between $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.

Late on 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 U.S. 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 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 schools.

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 percent Sunni and 15 percent 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 religious extremism. 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 government.

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