By Ali Bakir
This paper aims to discuss the UAE’s interventions in Libya in terms of their nature, extent, motives, goals and repercussions.
In the last decade, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a leading counter-revolutionary force in the Middle East. Feeling the heat of change in the region, the small, oil-rich Gulf country adopted an aggressive foreign policy that defined the UAE as a disruptive force that aims to reverse the fledgling democratic trend in the Middle East.
After succeeding in Egypt in 2013, Abu Dhabi decided to support field marshal and warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya to overthrow the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, take over power, and control Libya by force.
To that end, the UAE offered massive military, financial, and diplomatic support to Haftar. In this context, the present paper aims to discuss the UAE’s interventions in Libya in terms of their nature, extent, motives, goals and repercussions.
It highlights the UAE’s efforts to weave regional and international alliances to support Haftar and tries to answer the questions why Abu Dhabi has been able to act with impunity in Libya despite being the top foreign player fueling the war there for many years, and whether it will be able to achieve its goals and continue its interventions in the oil-rich North African country or not.
At the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, a series of pro-democracy uprisings erupted in several Arab countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Libya, and Morocco. Within less than two months, the protests succeeded in toppling the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
At this stage, a domino effect in the Arab world seemed imminent. While some governments were convinced that their home fronts were sufficiently strong and immune, others considered the uprisings a serious threat.
The popular revolutions brought political Islam to power and sparked a state of panic among the autocratic and repressive Arab regimes. In the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) emerged as the leader of the counter-revolutionary efforts in the Arab world.
On June 3, 2013, the UAE and Saudi Arabia backed a military coup in Cairo that toppled Egypt’s first democratically elected president in the country’s history, Mohammad Morsi, who later died in prison.
The coup leader, then Egypt’s Minister of Defense General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi took power, and a trilateral anti-revolution camp emerged. The success of the coup in Egypt gave the counter-revolutionary axis led by the UAE a major regional boost.
Abu Dhabi built its case on the narrative that political Islam is a threat and that there is an urgent need to prevent Islamists from ruling or taking power. This message found resonance in some countries in the region and beyond.
Equipped with this narrative, its financial power and its ability to promote itself as a useful client state for certain international powers that might share its goals, the UAE pushed for an aggressive and hostile anti-revolutionary agenda.
By focusing on political Islam as a threat and promoting Islamism as a boogeyman, Abu Dhabi managed to distract attention away from the real threat it fears: democracy. This underlying agenda explains why the UAE has supported military coups and favored authoritarian autocracy in the region.
This does not mean that Abu Dhabi was not anti-political Islam, but rather that exaggerating the value of this factor as an explanatory factor of the UAE’s foreign policy was meant to shift attention and arguments away from the police nature of the state in UAE, which emerged after 2011 and Abu Dhabi’s anti-democracy effort in the region.
Another factor that can help explain the UAE’s anti-revolutionary agenda is the personal character of the de facto ruler of the UAE since 2014 –namely Muhammed bin Zayid (MBZ)– and his behavior, traits and ambitions.
Bruce Riedel, a former official in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who had extensive relations with several high-level Gulf officials, especially in Saudi Arabia, describes MBZ in these terms: “He thinks he is Machiavelli but he acts more like Mussolini.”1
As a result, since 2014, Abu Dhabi’s interference and involvement in many regional countries has reached an all-time high.
The UAE has occupied Yemen, supported the secession of southern Yemen, Northern Iraq and Somalia, imposed a blockade against Qatar, reportedly plotted and/or backed coups in countries including Oman, Turkey, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia, and Libya and spied on many leaders in the region, in addition to executing other malicious activities such as recruiting mercenaries to kill political figures in other countries and fight its proxy wars, money laundering and terrorism financing.
Consequently, Abu Dhabi’s policy orientation toward Libya in the post-Qaddafi era, and its interference in the oil-rich North African country is not an exception or an isolated case, but rather part of a comprehensive, holistic approach that is mostly related to the nature of the governance in the UAE and MBZ’s personal character, the regional ambitions of Emirati foreign policy and the Arab revolutions.
These three factors can help us better understand Abu Dhabi’s involvement in Libya, as they shape, to a great extent, the UAE as a disruptive regional force.
In 2011, when the Libyan people revolted against Qaddafi, the dictator reacted fiercely and his army responded with deadly force. NATO intervened, Qaddafi was ousted and the country entered into turmoil. On December 17, 2015, an UN-led initiative resulted in a political agreement between the conflicting Libyan parties in Morocco.
This agreement, which became known as the al-Skhirat agreement, created a Presidential Council and a High Council of State, and established the Government of National Accord (GNA).
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously endorsed the agreement and recognized the GNA as the sole, legitimate, executive authority in Libya.
The Tobruk Parliament later established a rival government to the GNA and supported warlord and former army officer Khalifa Haftar. The situation resulted in splitting the Libyan forces between the GNA’s forces and Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
Despite being internationally recognized as Libya’s sole legitimate government –to this day– the UAE chose to support Haftar in his quest to control Libya and overthrow the UN-recognized GNA in the capital Tripoli by military force.
This paper discusses the intervention of the UAE in Libya in terms of its nature, extent, motives, goals, and repercussions.
It explores the ties between the UAE and General Khalifa Haftar, and describes how Abu Dhabi has mobilized all its resources and forged a network of regional and international alliances to support Haftar’s military coup, disrupt the political process and ruin the opportunities for a peaceful solution and democratic transition in the country.
The UAE-Haftar Ties
Starting in 2014, the UAE emerged as the top political and military supporter for Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled forces, the LNA.
The UAE’s support was crucial in terms of enabling Haftar’s army to expand its territorial reach and control over strategic assets in the Eastern part of the country, such as oil fields, ports, military bases, etc., and sustain his military campaign against Tripoli.
Throughout the war in Libya, Abu Dhabi’s long and dedicated support for Haftar has taken many forms. The Emiratis literally bought the Libyan warlord an army.
They recruited mercenaries on his behalf, paid for Russian Wagner mercenaries to defend him and commissioned multi-national private military contractors to execute black operations to support him.
Additionally, the UAE secured Haftar aerial superiority over GNA forces by buying his army attack helicopters, offensive drones and even Russian-made fighter jets (at least six MiG-29s and two Sukhoi 24s).
The shopping list also included advanced military equipment, such as the Russian-made air defense system Pantsir; armored personnel carriers (including Panther T6 and Tygra models, both made by companies based in the UAE); armored vehicles; American, French, and Chinese weapons, including missiles; MANPADS; anti-tanks and other types of sophisticated weapons.
The Emirati support aimed to guarantee the LNA the upper hand over its opponents, mainly the UN-recognized government’s forces, and promote Haftar’s army as a professional, well-trained, and well-equipped army that deserves to control Libya in order to achieve stability and security.
To secure international support and gain legitimacy for its actions, Haftar began fighting against ‘Islamist and/or Islamist leaning groups’ as an attractive cause for Western powers and audiences.
However, in reality, Haftar’s army was nothing but a hodge-podge of local, regional, and international mercenaries, tribes, former regime militias, criminal gangs, and even radical Madkhali Salafi groups.
The fact that the LNA depends on radical Salafi refutes the claim that Haftar and his backers –mainly the UAE, Egypt, and France– are countering terrorism or radicalism in Libya, and instead reinforces the claim that this card has been used as a pretext to expand the LNA’s control over Libya, gain legitimacy and rally support from the international community.
Several facts can back this statement. In 2016, and while the GNA’s forces with the support of the U.S., Britain, and Italy were launching a military operation against the last stand of ISIS presence in Sirte, Haftar’s army seized the moment not to join forces, but rather to consolidate his power in the eastern part of the country by attacking ports and oil fields and seizing control of more lands.
In fact, ISIS presence in Sirte helped Haftar’s forces significantly by keeping Tripoli’s forces at bay while he cemented his position in East Libya. This is one main reason why Haftar and his allies such as France, the UAE, and Egypt never attacked ISIS in Sirte.
Besides buying an army for Haftar, the UAE had its own troops, advisers, trainers, bases and military equipment in Libya.
In 2016, satellite imagery released by UK-based defense and security intelligence and analysis HIS-Janes revealed that the UAE had set up a military base at al-Khadim airport, 70 km to the south of al-Marj, the town where Khalifa Haftar’s so-called military command is located.
According to the information uncovered at the time, Abu Dhabi continued to develop the infrastructure of the military base between June 2016 and November 2017.
Different types of aircrafts stationed at the base were identified via satellite images, and a UN report later confirmed these details. Based on open-source intelligence, the UAE has stationed Mirage jets at Egypt’s Sidi Barrani base near the Libyan border and sought to open a new military base in Niger close to the Libyan border.
In 2018, the UAE deployed its own, China-made offensive Wing Loong II drones in Libya. However, due to poor performance and incompetence, the UAE’s air superiority was not properly translated into effective gains on the ground.
Instead, the UAE ended up being responsible for committing massacres and mass crimes among civilians upon targeting hospitals, mosques, houses, schools and even migrant camps.
International investigations of mass-casualty bombings against civilian areas in July and November 2019 concluded that fighter jets were responsible for the incidents –most likely Mirage 2000-9 aircraft operating out of the UAE– military base in al-Khadim.
Likewise, an investigation on the airstrike that killed 26 unarmed cadets at a military academy in Libya’s capital in January 2020 uncovered evidence linking the UAE to this incident; according to the BBC news network, it was caused by a Chinese Blue Arrow 7 missile fired by a Wing Loong II.
To continue in part 2
Ali Bakir – Qatar University, Qatar.
Source: Insight Turkey / Fall 2020 / Volume 22, Number 4