While the pandemic and the collapse of oil prices as well as the post-coronavirus economic crisis concerns hit the headlines, the devastating conflicts in the Middle Eastern countries do not abate, such as Libya.
Despite these challenges, global and regional powers are still committed to their role in this geopolitically strategic game.
Washington’s approach to the dispute in Libya is ready-made; it just follows the role of Moscow.
However, there are emerging regional actors who constantly violate the UN arms embargo. Maybe you have not noticed yet, but the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is deeply involved in some of the most harmful activities in Libya, such as supporting rebels and mercenaries led by the warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar. If the UAE is not stopped, peacemaking efforts of the international community will not go anywhere.
Over the last 18 years, the UAE has been pursuing an aggressive foreign policy to increase its military and economic interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Abu Dhabi intervened in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the U.S. are its closest military partners. Additionally, it is widely believed that it has a growing military partnership with Israel behind the doors. The UAE has recently ranked third importer of arms. This is intriguing when you look at the tiny size of the Gulf country.
The UAE has been overshadowed by its regional partner KSA for a long while. In fact, it has chosen to hide itself behind the largest country of the Middle East. For instance, in Yemen, it played the biggest role in the civil war since March 2015, but KSA was seemed to be the responsible country which brought the never-ending war into one of the poorest countries of the countries.
While both countries are close allies, their policies diverged until recently. KSA’s foundation is based on the ultraconservative doctrine of Islam, Wahhabism. On the other hand, the UAE’s ruling families believe that political Islam is the biggest threat against their influence in the region. After King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s death in 2015, the UAE has increasingly taken hold of the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz. Especially, the King’s son, the crown prince and the de-facto ruler of KSA, Muhammed bin Salman, has become a puppet of Muhammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the de-facto ruler of the UAE. In that way, the UAE started to direct the KSA’s policies.
The UAE was one of the states which was disturbed and panicked due to the 2011 Arab Spring. It has been deeply involved in the counterrevolutions, such as the coup d’état in Egypt in 2013, the rise of Gen Khalifa Haftar and et cetera. It has started the smear campaign against the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, who was slowly killed in prison in 2019, spreading black propaganda about Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was a member. It is known that it has an extensive disinformation network in the Middle East and in the West, which does not care any moral codes of conduct. It also financially supported the then Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the new pharaoh of Egypt, to stage a coup and it was successful. Later, in 2015, the Sisileaks revealed its role in the bloody events in Egypt. Even though Riyadh previously paid al-Sisi more than enough, and Haftar of Libya as well, the UAE has overtaken the KSA gradually as their leading boss.
Moreover, the UAE does see Turkey and Qatar as rivals, and its policy towards both countries has become increasingly hostile. The UAE had a finger in the 2015 failed coup attempt in Turkey, and it was the mastermind of the ongoing blockade of Qatar in 2017.
In Libya, the UAE still continues its military support to Haftar’s forces, which fight against the UN-recognized government, namely the Government of National Accord (GNA). Disregarding UN arms embargo, the UAE has sent quite a number of weapons and aircrafts to the war-torn country. What is more, it has conducted a lot of drone strikes in Libya, which have killed many civilians. Since the start of this year, it reportedly carried out more than 850 drone attack, which means it speeds up its activities in the North African country, while international community is trying to bring the warring factions to the table and pave the way for a political solution.
Abu Dhabi is also believed of bringing mercenaries from Sudan to fight for Khalifa Haftar. In addition to tons of weaponry carried in aircrafts, it also uses the neighboring country Egypt for land transportation.
The UAE even established its own airbase in eastern Libya in 2017. The airbase in question has helped Haftar expand its territory following his achievements in Benghazi and Darna as the UAE provided aircover to his forces. In the latest offensive towards Tripoli, the Emirati pilots have directly joined the fight.
Ironically, the UAE is among the countries which are invited to peace talks in Libya, although it is the leading country which brings a catastrophe in Libya. And it looks like it will not stop until Haftar takes Tripoli, the capital of Libya, which is under control of the GNA. The UN and many countries are aware of Abu Dhabi’s exacerbating role, but none of them speaks up. That is why, Turkey recently signed an agreement with the GNA on military cooperation to make more contribution to the efforts to bring stabilization to Libya and support the UN-recognized GNA against the warlord Khalifa Haftar backed by the UAE.
The primary goal of the UAE’s support for Khalifa Haftar is related with its hatred towards political Islam. It wants to prevent political Islam’s rise; in order to do that, it aims to establish a new dictatorship in Libya knocking all the efforts for a democratic governance out. Other than that, it certainly seeks for its hegemony in Libya, which would be consolidated under Haftar’s rule. It looks like the UAE wants to expand the territory under its influence from Benghazi to the East Mediterranean. Furthermore, it has a desire to have access to the area from the Red Sea to Aden, with its increasing visibility in the Horn of Africa. The UAE also seeks for investing in Libya’s vast oil reserves.
All the countries which overlooks the UAE’s dirty deeds, such as France, might claim that their objective is countering terrorism and restoring security in Libya, however, they are just ignoring democratic-values and the possibility of another dictatorship. Abu Dhabi’s money laundering and terrorism financing as well as its arms embargo violations cannot go unnoticed. The international community has to take notes of the UAE’s actions and do something about it, if it is serious about forging a resolution in Libya.
Merve Şebnem Oruç is an award winning editor and columnist for Daily Sabah and HABER. She is on Twitter here.