By Ali Bakir
This paper aims to discuss the UAE’s interventions in Libya in terms of their nature, extent, motives, goals and repercussions.
UAE’s Motives for Supporting Haftar
The UAE’s strategic, anti-democracy orientation is one of the main reasons why Abu Dhabi is the leading anti-revolutionary power in the region. The overwhelming majority of analysts tend to explain and rationalize the UAE’s foreign policy behavior through the lens of a perceived enmity with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or political Islam in general.
However, the fact that the UAE chooses to support military coups, install military dictatorships in many regional countries and even work with and/or support radical armed Islamists such as the Madkhali Salafists in Libya when its agenda requires, is conclusive evidence that its aim is not particularly to oppose the MB but rather the peaceful transition of power on a democratic basis.
The UAE’s logic behind supporting Haftar in Libya is no different. Aiding a warlord and military dictator is fully consistent with the strategic orientations of the UAE as an anti-democratic power and a disruptive regional force.
Second, by choosing to aid Haftar, the UAE has opted to clone its Egyptian model; its support for a military coup lead by General el-Sisi in 2013 resulted in the overthrow of the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt and the elimination of the fledgling democracy in that country.
Since then, Cairo has been reduced to a mere subordinate for Abu Dhabi and its regional agenda. Even when the interests of the two states differ, the Egyptian regime feels the need to make concessions to keep the UAE’s financial support flowing, which in turn enables Abu Dhabi to maintain its influence over Egypt.
Likewise, from Abu Dhabi’s perspective, the warlord Haftar meets all the necessary qualifications to be its man in Libya and serve its interests. A pro-UAE, oil-rich Libya could elevate the heavy burden of Cairo off Abu Dhabi’s shoulders, save billions of dollars that could be channeled into the UAE’s regional agenda and certainly open new business opportunities for the Emiratis.
Third, and in connection with the aforementioned point, an oil-rich Libya with its strategic geographic position, long coast and several ports on the Mediterranean controlled by a military dictator who is allied with the anti-revolution UAE-led block (Saudi Arabia and Egypt) would have a transformational effect on the North Africa region and beyond –especially on Tunisia, Algeria, and Sudan.
This outcome would offer new opportunities for the UAE in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean and boost its regional agenda in an unprecedented way, especially vis-à-vis its perceived regional rivals such as Qatar and Turkey.
Fourth, when it comes to hardcore economic and military interests, a Haftar-controlled Libya would offer Abu Dhabi a chance to expand its economic and military footprint in the country and in the region more broadly.
It would offer strategic political, economic, and military depth to the small Gulf country in Africa, a foothold where it can robustly operate militarily and economically via military bases installed in Libya and the country’s ports on the Mediterranean. A Haftar-controlled Libya could be used as a launchpad for the UAE’s economic and military activities in the region.
In this sense, Libya is an invaluable theatre –one the Emiratis can’t afford to lose. It is noteworthy that despite being the top foreign player fueling the war in Libya for many years, responsible for a high number of causalities among civilians in the country and the financer of Moscow’s military presence in Europe’s backyard, Abu Dhabi has enjoyed full impunity.
The permanent members of the UNSC, the great powers and even several international organizations have either turned a blind eye on Abu Dhabi’s destructive war-business in the region or become complicit. The fact that this is the case not only in Libya, but also in Yemen, Sudan, the Gulf, Somalia, and elsewhere in the region raises questions as to why the UAE enjoys full impunity.
One answer might be related to three particular factors among others.
First, the UAE’s financial power, which buys it an influence with the leading world powers such as the U.S., France, the UK, Russia, and China.
Second, as a top global importer of weapons, the mega arms deals of Abu Dhabi with these countries secure its powerful relations with one of the strongest and most influential lobbies in the world: the arms industry.
Third, the UAE’s tendency to act as a client state that is willing to execute the dirty job of the big players or black ops on their behalf. In other words, Abu Dhabi’s role in Libya and the region is designed to serve the interests of certain great powers along with its own.
Thus, Abu Dhabi aims not only to shield itself against any possible punishment but also to guarantee that it will never be held accountable. The fact that the UAE was able to work with France, Russia and the U.S. in Libya is a prime example of how it operates.
The UAE’s military investment in Haftar and his army went parallel with its effort to promote him as Libya’s strongman and secure him wide regional and international support. Abu Dhabi has worked to get Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Russia, and the U.S. on board with its plan for Libya.
Bringing in Saudi Arabia and Egypt
Although less visible than that of the UAE, Egypt, France, Russia, and Saudi support for Haftar has focused mainly on the diplomatic and financial fronts.
According to American and French sources, Saudi Arabia has provided tens of millions of dollars in financial assistance to aid the LNA offensive against Tripoli, buy the loyalty of tribal leaders, pay militia fighters and recruit members of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization that employs mercenaries, to support Haftar’s forces.
Saudi officials, diplomatic corps and media have lent Haftar support by trying to delegitimize his local opponents and their backers, especially Turkey. The less active role of Saudi Arabia in Libya compared to that of the UAE is believed to be an outcome of three main factors.
First, MBZ’s influence over Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), which resulted in reducing Saudi Arabia to a subordinate ally.
Second, Riyadh’s catastrophic military campaign in Yemen, which has led the kingdom to get bogged down there.
Third, financial constraints in Saudi Arabia due to falling oil prices and increasing economic challenges.27
As for Egypt, although typically a leading Arab country and a neighbor of Libya with direct interests in it, its role appears to be secondary compared to the UAE’s.
Egypt’s role and influence in the region have been massively downsized since it became incorporated as a follower in the UAE-Saudi regional agenda. Cairo now has almost no say in all the critical issues in the region, whether it is Syria, Yemen, the Gulf crisis, Palestine, Iraq, or Lebanon.
One interesting note, however, is Egypt’s arms shopping list during the period 2014-2018, which entitled it to become the third-largest importer of arms in the world despite its economic hardships.
The UAE sponsored Egypt’s arms deals to prop up el-Sisi’s regime, buy influence in Western capitals, especially France and Russia, and ensure that those capitals and the Egyptian army return the favor when needed.
In Libya, Cairo’s support for Haftar was important given the geographical proximity of Egypt to Libya and the ideological alignment between Haftar and el-Sisi. Egypt put its diplomatic weight behind Haftar.
Militarily, Cairo channeled the weapons –usually bought by the UAE– to Haftar via land and air. Just like Abu Dhabi, the idea of a democratic, stable and prosperous Libya is very scary to the Egyptian regime.
Dealing with a military regime in Libya would be much easier and more profitable. Cairo reportedly differed with Abu Dhabi in 2019 over Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli and the best way to empower him, but had to fall in line after all given two things:
First, Abu Dhabi’s huge influence on the Egyptian regime and el-Sisi, who owes his position to the UAE’s support to his military coup back in 2013.
Second, the fact that the UAE is Haftar’s primary financial and military supporter.
The Emirati plan, however, eventually backfired and ended up empowering Turkey and Russia in Libya and reducing Egypt’s role to that of a mere observer.
This had become clear by the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 when Haftar failed to capture Tripoli and his forces fell back, despite the huge support he was receiving. The Emiratis started to become more vocal about their desire to send the Egyptian army to Libya.
Figures close to MBZ threatened that if Haftar failed in his mission, the Egyptian army would achieve that mission on his behalf. The Emiratis even clearly instigated Cairo to engage in a military confrontation against Turkey in Libya, but Cairo had its own limitations in this regard.
When the GNA defeated Haftar’s forces in the second quarter of 2020 at the gates of Tripoli and in the Western part of the country with Turkey’s support, the LNA forces collapsed quickly, retreated to Sirte and Jufra, and started to fortify this line to prevent the fall of the Eastern part of Libya.
Russia’s fighter jets and mercenaries played a crucial role in blocking the progress of GNA forces beyond this line. This is when Cairo saw an opportunity to come back to the game without the need to pay costs; it jumped in to announce an initiative and declare the Sirte-Jufra line a red line for Egypt that should never be crossed.
By drawing this red line in Sirte and Jufra, el-Sisi was actually banking on the Russian role in the hope that he could score free gains out of Moscow, which was stalling the progress of the GNA forces.
El-Sisi calculated that if the GNA forces decided to stop, he could claim that his threat of military intervention was the reason behind it and boost his image as a power-player in the Libyan file without actually risking anything.
The UAE-France Alignment
The idea of a strongman ruling in Libya found resonance in Paris. As a UN Security Council member and one of the world’s great powers, France’s support for Haftar was critical.
While France under President Emmanuel Macron has publicly denied taking sides in the conflict, Paris has aided the Libyan warlord both diplomatically and militarily, providing him and his forces with the political legitimacy, weapons, training, intelligence, and special forces assistance to overthrow the UN-recognized government in Tripoli and rule Libya at least since 2015.
The UAE-France connection is important in this regard. Although French support for the authoritarian Haftar appears to conflict with its liberal-democratic values, it is broadly in line with Paris’s efforts to develop alliances with authoritarian regimes in the third world in general and the Arab region in particular –including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
In addition to France’s own motives, its alignment with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt prompted it to play the role of a foreign policy subcontractor for these countries. France ranks third in terms of exporting arms to the Middle East, and during the last five years, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have emerged as top buyers of the French weapons.
Further, France and these countries share anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish tendencies. Abu Dhabi’s focus on these elements in its relations with Paris have secured a more proactive and pro-Haftar French role in Libya.
Under the pretext of fighting terrorism and radicals, Paris expanded its secret military presence in Libya and increased its support for Haftar at least since 2015. Then Minister of Defense Le Drian saw Haftar as capable of cracking down on Islamists and securing French interests in the country.
Despite Paris’s consistent denial of involvement in aiding Haftar, several incidents and leaks exposed the depth of the French support, including the death of three undercover French special forces soldiers in a helicopter crash in Libya in 2016, the arrest of 13 armed personnel with French diplomatic passports on the Tunisians borders in 2019 and the seizure of French arms in one of Haftar’s bases during the same year.
Moreover, at the end of 2019, Haftar issued an official video statement in which he expressed his ultimate gratitude for France as one the first countries to aid him, especially in terms of intelligence and special forces.
In 2020, France used the European naval Force Mediterranean Operation (IRINI) to enforce an arms embargo against the UN-recognized government, the GNA, while turning a blind eye on Haftar’s forces, which continued to receive weapons and military equipment from the UAE via air and land. The GNA accused the mission of being “unbalanced, unfair and biased.”
On the diplomatic level, the French support for Haftar was probably even more important. Because of President Macron’s appetite for disruptive foreign policy, the French political role shielded the UAE and encouraged it to continue aiding Haftar.
In April 2019, France blocked a European Union statement calling on the renegade military commander to halt his assault on the capital, prompting GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in April to accuse the Macron Administration of backing a “dictator.” Macron’s effort to undermine the unity of the European Union (EU) and NATO served Abu Dhabi’s goals in Libya very well.
After the pro-Haftar French position was widely uncovered, Paris shifted to a new tactic that depends mainly on disguising the French role under the pretext of fighting terrorism rather than denying supporting Haftar.
In an interview with France’s then Foreign Minister Le Drian in May 2019, one month after Haftar’s military campaign to overthrow the GNA, Le Drian implicitly endorsed Haftar and promoted him as a fighter against terrorism.
When asked whether supporting Haftar was a bad idea or not, he didn’t say it was bad. He even boasted that Haftar always spoke to him of his desire to serve with civilian authority once elections were held.
In an official hearing for Le Drian in July 2020, he acknowledged supporting Haftar’s forces but claimed that “we offer advice and political support for the LNA as it is internationally recognized for its fight against ISIS.”48
Ali Bakir – Qatar University, Qatar.
Source: Insight Turkey / Fall 2020 / Volume 22, Number 4