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The Trigger-Points.

Saudi Arabia's support for Afghanistan has been steady but inconspicuous over the years. Now the Sunni/Wahhabi kingdom is embarking on a very public effort to carve out a bigger role in Afghanistan, pitting it against Iran in the race for influence as foreign forces plan to leave the country in 2014.

Riyadh will build a huge Islamic complex in Kabul, marking its largest and most expensive foray into post-9/11 Afghanistan. Construction of the complex, to cost up to $100m, is to begin in 2013. It will cover 24 hectares on Maranjan Hill in central Kabul, featuring a university, a hospital, a sports hall, and a mosque for 15,000 worshippers at a time.

This will rival the massive Iranian-built Khatem ul-Anbia' Islamic University in western Kabul. The Shi'ite religious university, opened in 2006, cost some $17m; the campus has a mosque, class-rooms and dormitories for its 1,000 Afghan students.

The rivalry raises the potential for sectarian tension in Afghanistan, whose population is 85% Sunni and 15% Shi'ite.

The possibility of increased sectarian tension there will cause sectarian conflicts in Central Asia and China, whose governments are wary of growing religious extremism. And 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 Kabul.

Riyadh is to counter the significant sway of Iran. But Riyadh has its work cut out for it, with Iran having had a highly visible presence for the past decade. Iran has built on its lingual and cultural links with Afghanistan by spending millions of dollars on infrastructure, including roads, power grids, and rail-way 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 Saudi Arabia and Iran.

So far Sunni-Shi'ite relations in Afghanistan have been stable. But that can be under-mined if both sides are much more aggressive than before in vying for influence in what they might perceive as a post-2014 vacuum, with Saudi Arabia poised to make a huge contribution. Riyadh can convince the Taliban to enter peace negotiations and to encourage Pakistan to cut its ties with the militant group. That leverage comes in part because of Riyadh's close ties to Pakistan, which has long supported the Taliban, and the kingdom's role as the leader of the Sunni world and the guardian of Islam's two holiest shrines.

Riyadh was the staunchest backer of the Taliban in the 1990s, when it was one of only three states - along with Pakistan and the UAE - to recognise the group during its rule in Afghanistan from 1996-2001. Although Riyadh severed ties with the Taliban after late 2001, when the militant group failed to hand over Usama bin Laden (a Saudi national at the time), the kingdom still has considerable leverage over the militant group.

Both Kabul and Washington have endorsed an expanded Saudi role in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai reiterated that Saudi Arabia was "an important player" in Afghanistan and "has facilitated talks [with the Taliban] in the past and now".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Date:Nov 26, 2012
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