By Giorgio Cafiero & Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Recent events in Libya and Sudan have further exposed the strong influence that Abu Dhabi wields throughout the greater Arab world.
With a powerful military and deep pockets, the Emirati leadership is determined to prevent anti-status quo political movements and groups from ascending to power in Arab countries in Africa for fear that such change could adversely impact its and other Gulf monarchies’ vital interests.
Yet, such interventions risk creating blowback for the Emiratis.
The paralysis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since the intra-regional rupture in May/June 2017 has had a major impact on the geopolitical order in the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
The visceral dispute that has pitted three member-states—Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—against Qatar has been felt across the greater Arab/Islamic world and has brought geopolitical, ideological, religious, tribal, and cultural differences to the fore.
Both the blockading states (which, along with Egypt, have proclaimed themselves the “Anti-Terror Quartet,” or ATQ) and Doha have sought to play their cards regionally and internationally to secure support from various players for their respective positions in the GCC crisis.
The rippling effects of the rivalry between the ATQ and Qatar have served to further polarize and destabilize weak MENA states.
Today, both Libya and Sudan are flashpoints in this regionalization of Gulf geopolitics and will likely remain so until either the Libyan civil war is resolved, or Sudan’s fragile political transition is completed.
While Libya and Sudan’s multifaceted internal crises are naturally fluid, it is difficult to predict how the political landscapes of both countries will emerge in the aftermath of General Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli and the end of Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year-rule in Khartoum.
Nonetheless, to understand how international and regional actors are seeking to influence the course of events in both Libya and Sudan, it is necessary to take stock of the role of the UAE—specifically Abu Dhabi—in the shaping of developments across a swathe of North Africa.
As scores of civil society organizations throughout the MENA region have pushed for participatory openings in governance, the Emirati leadership has invested heavily in efforts to strengthen the positions of “secular” authoritarian governments throughout the region, particularly those which share Abu Dhabi’s ostensible staunch opposition to virtually all forms of political Islam.
Abu Dhabi’s viewpoint has heavily influenced the Arab world’s political landscape following the immediate provision of Saudi and Emirati (as well as Kuwaiti) financial assistance to Egypt’s military-led government after the toppling of the country’s first democratically-elected president in July 2013.
Indeed, in the aftermath of Bashir’s ouster last month, it was difficult to interpret Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s support for Sudan’s ruling junta, to the tune of USD 3 billion, without recalling the billions that these two Arabian Peninsula monarchies began providing to Egypt’s transitional military leadership in (and since) 2013.
Such support for Sudan’s de factogovernment can be understood as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seeking to guide—or at least significantly influence—the political transition into the post-Bashir period.
Given that Sudan is a country where the Muslim Brotherhood has long been an influential player, and one which has been on friendly terms with the regime that took power in a military coup in 1989, Abu Dhabi is nervous about Islamists gaining greater clout in Khartoum as a result of a potential democratic opening.
Although Islamists did not drive the anti-Bashir protests that erupted in many Sudanese cities in December 2018, a lesson learned from the so-called Arab Spring revolts of 2011 is that Islamists are often best positioned to capitalize on political transitions in the MENA region.
Eight years ago, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia all exemplified this trend.
For Abu Dhabi, maintaining a semblance of continuity in both Emirati-Sudanese relations and Sudan’s internal political status quo is a high priority.
Emirati officials, along with their Saudi and Egyptian counterparts, have clearly identified figures in Sudan’s “Deep State” whom they will support politically, financially, and diplomatically in order to thwart any political opening that could enable Islamists to gain greater power in Khartoum.
While this anti-Islamist agenda is important to observe, the UAE’s support for Sudan’s junta is more broadly about preventing any political movement (Islamist or secular) that challenges the regional status quo, particularly given that political developments in Khartoum could trigger contagious overspill in other Arab/African/Muslim countries that Abu Dhabi would deem threatening to regional interests.
In Libya, where the civil war intensified last month because of Haftar’s offensive on the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli, Abu Dhabi is also closely involved.
Ever since the Libyan civil war broke out in May 2014, the UAE has been one of Haftar’s key foreign sponsors.
Not only have the Emiratis supported the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) financially, but since August 2014, the UAE has intervened militarily on occasion to combat Haftar’s Islamist enemies.
Emirati (and Egyptian) military intervention helped Haftar’s forces consolidate control of eastern Libya soon after the country’s civil war erupted.
Since Libya’s bifurcation, the LNA is believed to have received aircraft and military vehicles from suppliers in the UAE. In June 2017, a United Nations report found that “the United Arab Emirates have been providing both material support and direct support to the LNA, which have significantly increased the air support available to the LNA.”
The support that the UAE—along with Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, and Russia—have given Haftar has heavily influenced the course of events in Libya in recent weeks.
Backing from Abu Dhabi was a major factor that prompted Haftar to conclude that the LNA has the strength and resources to capture Tripoli and force Islamist militias operating in the capital, plus other cities such as Misrata, to surrender.
Whether Haftar’s forces successfully achieve their goal in “Operation to Liberate Tripoli” remains to be seen.
Yet what is quite clear is that this offensive on Tripoli has severely dimmed any remaining prospects for a diplomatic settlement to the Libyan crisis, a development that doubtless is unfortunate to certain stakeholders, such as the Italian, Qatari, Tunisian, and Turkish governments.
For Abu Dhabi, a negative scenario would be for Libya to move in the direction of Tunisia, meaning a transition to democratic rule.
Because the Tunisian military lacks the political strength and autonomy of militaries in other Arab/African states such as Egypt, the Tunisian military was not a viable partner for Abu Dhabi to cooperate with to undermine democratization in a post-Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Tunisia.
Indeed, Tunisia has proven an example of how Islamists and secularists in an Arab country can peacefully exist (at least for the most part) within a democratic system of government and respect the outcome of elections.
From an Emirati perspective, the “Tunisian model” seemingly legitimizes the role of Islamist groups within the fabric of mainstream Arab politics.
Such concerns are taken extremely seriously in Abu Dhabi largely due to the fact that Emirati leaders fear a future where more citizens in the UAE make demands that mirror those of Islamist groups (such as Tunisia’s Ennahda party) which mobilize citizens around causes involving social justice, democratic reform, anti-corruption measures, and so on.
But what risks do the Emiratis have to accept while siding against pro-democracy movements in the MENA region? Since late 2018/early 2019, significant numbers of citizens across a handful of Arab countries have gone to the streets to protest, undermining the notion that with Morsi’s 2013 ouster, the Arab Spring died.
To the contrary, more observers of the region are discussing an Arab Spring 2.0 after recent developments in Algeria and Sudan that resulted in autocratic strongmen having to step down from power due in major part to pressure from the bottom-up.
The grievances of Libyan and Sudanese citizens who call for civilian rule may yet end up living under military-led regimes could easily create a backlash of anger against the Emiratis or any others who are perceived as pushing back against the calls for change.
s the UAE’s interests in both Libya and Sudan become increasingly apparent, the UAE might find itself making new adversaries in both countries.
Such blowback could jeopardize Emirati interests if the participatory openings in public life succeed in taking root or if the cost of suppressing them becomes too great either in financial, material, or reputational terms.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an advisor at Gulf State Analytics.