By Tarek Megeris
This paper examines recent developments in the conflict and analyses the positions and interests of the many non-European foreign states that have intervened in Libya.
The UAE’s push for a new regional order
The UAE views the Arab uprisings’ promise of a push towards representative government – and the prospect that the (often Islamist-leaning) parties that remained in opposition for decades could one day come to power through the ballot box – as an existential threat.
Emirati leaders fear that the uprisings’ popular demand for rights and representation could reach their borders if successful elsewhere.
Since 2011, Abu Dhabi has positioned itself at the forefront of a regional battle against the Arab uprisings and political Islamist groups – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which it sought to push back by supporting Sisi’s takeover of Egypt.
The UAE views Libya as a central battleground in this struggle.
Libya’s geographic position makes it important to the UAE’s economic plan to dominate shipping lanes that flow into the Mediterranean.
Libya’s huge energy resources and need for reconstruction – both areas in which the UAE specialises – have created lucrative opportunities that the Emiratis aim to exploit, after they failed to do so in the past. This attractive mixture of political and economic interests has made Libya a key piece of the regional order Abu Dhabi seeks to create.
Like Egypt, the UAE sees Haftar’s political attitudes and military stylings as complementary to its vision.
Since 2014, the UAE has been key to strengthening his military capabilities, as well as his political support base (in Libya and abroad) and his international standing.
The UAE has allegedly violated the UN Security Council’s arms embargo to provide Haftar with a variety of military equipment, including armoured personnel carriers and even aircraft.
The Emiratis have built facilities at al-Khadim airbase – near the north-eastern Libyan city of Marj and Haftar’s headquarters at el-Rajma – that are capable of housing advanced jets, such as the F-16 and the Rafale.
The airbase has also been used to deploy Wing Loong drones and to fly sorties that were vital to Haftar’s military successes in Benghazi and Derna, and to his efforts to maintain control of the oil crescent in Libya’s east.
The UAE has even tasked a US private military firm (owned by Erik Prince) with operating a squadron of aircraft in Libya, to help Haftar maintain battlefield superiority and gain control of more territory.
This independent source of military support has also helped Haftar resist pressure to politically engage with the UN and western Libyan factions.
Moreover, the UAE has seemingly played a key role in waging the fierce narrative and media war that has racked Libya since 2011, driving conflict and deepening the rift between east and west.
Abu Dhabi is widely viewed as being key to the creation of several television stations and news websites behind the pro-Haftar propaganda machine that dominates the Libyan media landscape.
This machine has been crucial to strengthening Haftar’s public image, generating public support for his military advances, and slandering his opponents – including, at times, Salamé and others involved in the political processes.
From May 2017, the UAE took a direct approach to elevating Haftar to power, hosting meetings between him and Sarraj.
This process was essentially intended to legitimise – eventually by seeking UN support – a political agreement that would have installed Haftar as Libya’s de facto leader.
Yet it failed, due to both Sarraj’s refusal to sign off on it and Haftar’s unwillingness to accept the fig leaf of civilian authority the new system would have placed him under.
Since Haftar began his advance on Tripoli, there have been regular flights of transport aircraft between the UAE and eastern Libya – likely carrying shipments of arms and supplies – and a series of UAE-linked drone strikes on Tripoli.
As the war has progressed, it has appeared increasingly likely that representatives of Haftar’s Emirati and other foreign backers have been on the front line, providing strategic advice and targeting assistance to facilitate precise airstrikes.
Abu Dhabi has also propagated a domestic and international narrative that the campaign is part of a struggle to liberate Tripoli from criminal militias and terrorists, claiming that Haftar has abided by the political agreement while Sarraj-linked criminal militias and terrorist groups have broken it to provoke conflict.
The UAE seems to have been at the forefront of attempts to ensure Haftar’s forces maintain a qualitative edge, allegedly sourcing Nigerian Igirigi and South African Mbombe armoured personnel carriers, and even Russian-made Pantsir-S1 mobile air defence batteries, after GNA forces acquired drones of their own.
A turning point in Saudi policy
Having long seen itself as the de facto leader of the Sunni Arab world, Saudi Arabia initially took a very different path than other regional powers to influencing Libya’s transition.
Rather than engaging in overt political intervention, Saudi policy operated through a Salafist group that follows the teachings of Medina-based Islamic scholar Rabea al-Madkhali – a group that is on the fringes of the Sahwa movement but close to the state.
After decades of fraught relations with former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Saudi leaders viewed Libya’s revolution as an opportunity to transform the country into an ally.
Perhaps recognising that one arm of its traditional influence-generating mechanism, financial sponsorship, would be ineffective in oil-rich Libya, Riyadh seems to have focused on the other arm, religious authority.
Thus, it seemingly aimed to build influence and transform the socio-cultural identity of the Libyan state into one more amenable to an alliance.
Since 2011, the Madkhalist group has grown quickly to take a dominant role in Haftar’s security services (despite his avowed secularism, as well as Egyptian and Emirati disdain for Islamists) and Libya’s religious institutions.
The group’s belief in total obedience to the national leader (a concept known as wali al amr) and its animosity towards the Muslim Brotherhood made it an appealing early ally for Haftar.
With a semblance of nationwide cohesion, the group operates semi-autonomously: it responds to the Libyan political environment and sermons from Saudi Arabia, but also acts in line with its own religious reasoning and opportunistic interests.
The messages that Saudi-based scholars have directed at the Madkhalists appear to have shifted over the years in accordance with Saudi policy, suggesting a political link. However, the group’s independent goals make it less malleable than Riyadh may desire.
For example, while many Madkhalists in eastern Libya have joined Haftar’s forces, those in the west remain unwilling to participate in the conflict – having long claimed that their religious obligations demand loyalty to Sarraj as their leader and, seemingly, viewed the conflict as seditious.
The group can take this approach partially because it maintains independent revenue streams. Although there are rumours that it receives cash from Riyadh via the airports it controls, the group also runs a surprisingly lucrative business selling religious paraphernalia sourced in Saudi Arabia.
Haftar’s attempts to co-opt the movement’s adherents in the west, and to play up to Madkhalists in the LNA, were in evidence on 4 April 2019, when he announced the offensive on Tripoli in a speech laden with religious rhetoric. More recently, he has reminded his followers that Ramadan is a month of jihad.
Haftar’s visit to Riyadh a week before the launch of the offensive marked a turning point in Saudi policy, which shifted from a relatively quietist position towards more active support for him.
His meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is widely perceived as having prompted the final decision to launch the offensive, allegedly following Saudi pledges of financial support for the operation.
It is unclear what sparked the change in Riyadh’s approach – although it fits with a series of foreign policy initiatives under the young prince that pursue intervention and alignment with the UAE to fashion a new authoritarian regional order.
Saudi Arabia’s push for economic diversification, apparently another facet of this approach, is especially evident in the gas sector – an area in which Libya has great potential.
Yet it is possible that political tribulations in Algeria, Sudan, and Turkey led Saudi and Emirati leaders to believe they had a rare opportunity to act while their rivals were distracted.
Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia has also mobilised its propaganda machine to win the narrative war around Haftar and his offensive.
Through a network of blogs that published an average of 1,000 posts per day in the first 15 days of the offensive, Riyadh has sought to dominate the Libyan media landscape.
An army of bots that tried to shape Arabic social media coverage of the war, and gradually infiltrated English- and French-language social media, have been traced back to Saudi Arabia.
Since Haftar’s advance on Tripoli began, 34 percent of the total volume of content created on Libya comes from Saudi Arabia – relative to only 7 percent from Libya itself and 5.2 percent from Qatar.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is a political analyst and researcher who specialises in Libyan affairs and more generally politics, governance and development in the Arab world.