By Nada Bashir
Despite hopes in the west that the Gulf would remain a pillar of stability amid ongoing political turmoil in the Middle East, the Qatar crisis has brought to light deep-rooted troubles which threaten to divide the region further.
The recent outbreak of diplomatic discord in the region has seen Doha isolated from fellow members of the GCC, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain aligning themselves alongside Egypt in an abrupt show of opposition to Qatar.
The accusations which lay at the heart of the damaging diplomatic rift have been conveyed in a list of demands and an official terrorist sanctions list featuring individuals and organisations who have allegedly been financed and ideologically backed by the Qatari government.
Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani is also alleged to have praised Iran, Israel and Hamas, in spite of longstanding tensions with the Gulf states, in quotes published on Qatari state media sites – these were swiftly removed and vehemently refuted by officials who claimed to have fallen victim to an organised hacking campaign seeking to publish false and defamatory quotes.
However, new US intelligence has come to light in a Washington Post report which not only supports the official line of the Qatari government, but also claims that the UAE is in fact behind the hacking of the Qatari news agency responsible for publishing the catalytic quotes. According to the report, the UAE orchestrated the media attack on Qatar’s emir and targeted key government outlets in an attempt to trigger a diplomatic crisis in the Gulf.
Whilst the UAE continues to deny such claims, it is undeniable that the crisis has somewhat served to bolster the regional foreign policy agenda of the UAE-aligned states, particularly with regards to their interests in Libya.
It is also no coincidence that the terrorist sanctions list features a number of organisations and individuals currently standing in opposition to Libyan Military Officer Khalifa Haftar – who is politically and militarily backed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – despite there being no official evidence to warrant the inclusion of such groups into the directory of UN-classified terrorist organisations.
So the question which must be addressed here is: how and why is Libya central to the Gulf crisis?
Of the 12 organisations and 59 individuals alleged to have engaged in terrorist activities with the backing of the Qatari government, one organisation and five individuals on the list are from Libya – namely the Benghazi Defence Brigade and militia commanders currently fighting against Haftar’s military campaign to overthrow the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
The classification of anti-Haftar organisations and individuals as religious extremists is far from uncalculated, particularly in light of the comprehensive and long-standing political and military backing of groups loyal to Haftar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The UAE and Egypt have actively opposed the GNA through their multifaceted campaign to reinforce Haftar’s battle for power.
In recent years the bloc has engaged in periodic air raids targeting rebel groups fighting against Haftar and have supplied ‘Operation Dignity’ (Haftar’s politico-military organisation against Islamist militant groups) fighters with weapons and resources, despite the ongoing UN arms embargo on Libya.
There are a number of factors which serve to explain why the UAE-Saudi bloc have turned their attention to Libya and why their support for Haftar has contributed to the outbreak of diplomatic hostilities with Qatar. Following the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in 2011, Libya has been left in an uncertain and fragile state with no central body of governance and increasing international attention from competing influencers.
Politically, the endurance of Libya’s Islamist movement has become a major concern for the autocratic leaders of the Gulf where grassroots organisations aligned with the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood organisation threaten to destabilise the political order by promoting revolutionary sentiments and the establishment of democratic institutions.
Much like the revolutionary wave which spread across North Africa and the Levant in 2011, Gulf leaders fear the implications of an eventual democratic triumph in Libya and the potential resurgence of revolutionary groups like the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.
Of course, the world has seen the organisation take power and subsequently face decimation once before under the leadership of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. As such, it will come as no surprise that the UAE-Saudi bloc have pledged their support for Khalifa Haftar, who promises to establish absolute military rule in Libya in a similar fashion to the Sisi-model.
Alongside this worrying perception of democracy as a threat to political security in the Gulf, Libya’s potential to achieve enduring peace and political stability is also among the primary concerns of the UAE-Saudi bloc. Libya’s valuable natural resources and strategic location have yet to be exploited to their full potential, and therefore the possibility of a rival power-hub in the Middle East has become a real and tangible threat to the continued economic prosperity of the Gulf States.
In addition, Libya’s expansive Mediterranean coastline has already attracted interest as a prospective alternative free-zone to rival Dubai’s Jebel Ali, whilst studies into Libya’s renewable energy capabilities have highlighted the country’s potential to become a leading exporter of solar energy to much of mainland Europe.
In light of this, Qatar’s competing support for the prevailing Islamist movement in Libya not only increases the probability of a democratic triumph, but also threatens the interests of the UAE-Saudi bloc by advancing Doha’s position as the dominant-influencer.
As such, the bloc’s diplomatic isolation of Qatar and opposition to Islamist groups in the region must not be taken at face value as a principled stand against religious extremism; the Gulf crisis is the product of fermented rivalries and political fears. The bloc exists as a union of states precariously holding on to an outdated and vulnerable system of governance.
This is a pre-emptive strike against the resurgence of grassroots democratic movements – a development which will only be further aggravated should Libya achieve the necessary conditions to attain its vast economic potential.
Nada Bashir – A Political Science graduate from University College London with a keen interest in Middle Eastern politics and current affairs.