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UAE wanted to host Taliban embassy at centre of Gulf dispute

The UAE has used the embassy to attack Qatar for hosting ‘terrorists,’ but leaked emails show they wanted the role for themselves
The unofficial Taliban embassy in Doha. Leaked emails show the Emiratis wanted to host the embassy in Abu Dhabi (AFP)

Despite criticising Qatar for hosting the Taliban in Doha, the Emiratis themselves wanted to house the group's embassy, leaked emails show.

“I don’t think it is a coincidence that inside Doha you have the Hamas leadership, you have a Taliban embassy, you have the Muslim Brotherhood leadership,” the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, said in an interview last week, as the UAE continued its long-standing criticism that Qatar is supporting terrorists.

But leaked emails exchanged between US officials and Emirati diplomats and obtained by the New York Times show that the UAE competed with its neighbour to host the embassy.

In one email dated from 12 September 2011, Mohamed Mahmoud al-Khaja, an Emirati diplomat, told Jeffrey Feltman, then Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, that the UAE believed it would host the embassy.

“There is an article in the London Times that mentions US is backing setting up a Taliban embassy in Doha,” he wrote.

Using "HH" to refer to his boss, His Highness Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister continued: “HH says that we were under the impression that Abu Dhabi was your first choice and this is what we were informed” by the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan.

The Taliban opened its "political office" in Doha in 2013, as part of US-led attempts to negotiate a peace deal between the militant group and the Afghan government.

Until then, the Afghan government and its Western allies had struggled to contact the Taliban, who had no known address. The Taliban had refused for years to meet with the Afghan government, whom it referred to as a US puppet administration.  

In a second email of 28 January 2012, from Otaiba to a US official, and using "ABZ" to refer to the Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, the ambassador wrote that he had “got an angry call from ABZ saying how come we weren’t told?”

'HH says that we were under the impression that Abu Dhabi was your first choice and this is what we were informed' by the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan.

- leaked email from UAE foreign minister

“They want to be in the middle of everything those guys,” he continued, referring to the Qataris.  

In a comment foreshadowing the UAE’s later attacks on Qatar for hosting the embassy he wrote, “So let them, it will eventually come back to bite them in the…”

In recent weeks, Qatar has been embroiled in a row with the UAE and other Arab states over accusations that Qatar is aiding terrorists and fostering ties with their Shia rival Iran.

The group of states, including Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt and led by regional kingpin Saudi Arabia, imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Qatar and issued a list of demands to the nation, including shutting the broadcaster Al Jazeera and reducing ties with Iran.

The presence of the Taliban embassy in Qatar has been one piece of evidence the coalition have used to justify the claim that Qatar is supporting terrorists.

Qatar has denied the accusations.

Who is behind the leaked emails?

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, the Qatari Foreign Minister’s Special Envoy on Counter-Terrorism, Mutlaq al-Qahtani, said that the country hosted the Taliban embassy at the request of the US government and that it was part of Qatar’s “open-door policy to facilitate talks, to mediate and bring peace”.

Several countries were considered as sites for the embassy including Turkey, Qatar, UAE or Saudi Arabia. Qatar was chosen as the Taliban considered the country to be neutral. The US also consented to the choice.

The leaked emails are just the latest in a string of leaked emails taken from the professional Hotmail email account of the UAE ambassador to the US, Otaiba.

The damaging emails, obtained by the shadowy hacker group Global Leaks, and distributed to Western media organisations such as the New York Times, Huffington Post and The Intercept, have led to several revelations regarding the ambassador and the UAE’s lobbying efforts in Washington.

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One disclosure showed that companies linked to the ambassador received $66 million from offshore accounts that contained money allegedly embezzled from a Malaysian investment fund.

Other leaks highlighted Emirati attempts to harm Qatar’s international image and showed a close relationship between Otaiba and a pro-Israel, neoconservative think-tank.

Otaiba is a well-known figure in the US capital, where he has been the ambassador since 2008, and has been called “the most charming man in Washington”.

According to Global Leaks, the emails were obtained from a paid whistle-blower in a Washington DC lobbying group and were first made public on 2 June after some were sent to the Daily Beast.

The previously unknown group has claimed it is “not affiliated with any country or religion”. But it has claimed an affiliation with DC Leaks, a group the US intelligence community considers to be a Russian operation.

It is unclear whether the group's claimed links to DC Leaks are real or whether the group is trying to give the impression of a Russian connection. However, the group told The Intercept that its goal was to “make America great again.”

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