Essential Driver, Trivial Factor or Something in Between?

By Inga Kristina Trauthig & Amine Ghoulidi

This paper does not seek to determine who is Islamist or how blurred the lines are between Islamists and “anti-Islamist” forces. Instead, the question of the role of ideology and how it might drive or shape the actions of certain foreign meddlers in Libya will be tackled.


United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The small but wealthy Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and especially the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammad bin Zayed (or MbZ), is seen by many Libya analysts as one of the most invested foreign actors in the country.

Given the geographical remoteness and the vast amount of natural resources the UAE has itself, the question emerges why it is putting so much energy into impacting Libya’s development and most importantly for this paper: Do ideological factors count into this?

The UAE’s foreign policy is mostly steered by MbZ and generally speaking, the perspectives and personality of this leader are of crucial influence on UAE’s state policy.

Most importantly for this paper, MbZ is one of the most ardent detractors of Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood – and has been especially since 2011.

In line with this, the UAE is among the countries that have labelled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation – together with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Ideologically, this decision is not directed against the Islamic core of the Muslim Brotherhood but instead MbZ’s inherent conviction that populist Islamist movements represent an existential threat to authoritarian, top-down governance.

This is also why the UAE has been called one of the most influential “counter-revolutionary” forces in the MENA region.

Given the mixed outcomes of the popular uprisings in 2011 and the international decline of formerly more assertive moral powers such as the United States, the UAE is also convinced it is filling a void by promoting a model of “authoritarian stability” as cure for the region.

In doing so, the UAE seeks to quell Islamist fait accompli in Libya while putting a lid on any potential expansion eastward into Egypt, a significantly more strategic country in the region.

In view of this, the UAE’s local alliances in Libya are guided by its judgement on which forces are most capable of curbing the alleged Islamist influence in the country and in installing a system along its prescribed guidelines.

Therefore, the UAE has been propping and militarily supporting Khalifa Haftar, leader of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) and by some called “Libyan Sisi” – a label that is deeply flawed when factoring in the very different Libyan and Egyptian contexts.

However, that is not the point for this paper; instead, what matters is that the UAE has decided that Haftar is that potential authoritarian leader that can push the UAE’s vision of the Libyan state and wider outlook of the region.

Haftar has been deliberately employing and pushing rhetoric that portrays him and his LNA as an “anti-Islamist” fighting force, rhetoric deliberately utilised to fall in line with the Emirati/ Saudi-Arabian/Egyptian regional camp.

It is also rhetoric internationally promoted by regional powers like the UAE to convince Western powers (such as the US or France) of the necessity to support a military leader like Haftar.

In other words, the case of the UAE’s backing of Haftar portrays a prime example of a mix of ideological conviction with a significant amount of political calculation.

To sum up, in addition to geopolitical objectives, ideological drivers have to an extent shaped the actions of the UAE in Libya. The UAE’s Libya “adventure” can be said to be also driven by a long-term ideological agenda that aims to foster counter-Islamist forces in Libya and to erect the foundations of a “pro-stability” system centred around an authoritarian strongman – a role that (only) Haftar appears to currently (and maybe momentarily) fulfil.

Policy Recommendations for Europe and Germany

As stated above, the actions of certain foreign actors involved in the Libyan conflict are not only driven by geopolitical objectives, but they are also shaped by ideological prerogatives which are often less clear cut and hence predictable, but rather shaped in social interactions and theoretical discourse/ideas built over decades.

Turkey’s actions and positioning in Libya, for instance, appear to be in line with Erdogan’s stated pan-Islamist agenda, which in turn promotes more Turkish-centric Neo-Ottomanism.

Similarly, the UAE, concerned with what they perceive as inherent instability caused by the proliferation of local populist groups with Islamist, trans-nationalist agendas/tendencies, enables and promotes presumably quasi-secularist, counter-revolutionary forces led by the likes of Haftar as a containment mechanism.

In the meantime, European actors have sometimes pursued inconsistent if not contradictory policies that have opened space for the likes of Russia and Turkey to pursue bold objectives in Libya.

Therefore, the following recommendations to European and German policymakers are laid forth:

Avoid reductive analysis:

Stated interests and positions are only the tip of the iceberg. It can be convenient to explain the actions of certain foreign meddlers in Libya based on the reductive view that these states are driven by clear-cut, unambiguous geopolitical objectives alone.

While this may be a valid analysis, it is an incomplete one. States such as Turkey and the UAE can be said to have nurtured a specific worldview not only drawn from their respective histories and that of their leaders, but also one that is still developing in light of the diminished normative influence of the US-centric, liberal institutional, post-WWII order.

In particular, Turkey’s actions, for instance, while they could be mainly explained through the shrewd manoeuvring of its leader, are also shaped by his peculiar worldview, one that is influenced by aggrieved religious nationalism and nostalgia for a once dominant empire with Istanbul as its centre of gravity.

It is therefore important for European policy makers to look beyond immediate interests in seeking to explain the behaviour of non-EU foreign meddlers in Libya.

Interests are dynamic, ideology less so:

When engaging with foreign actors in Libya, it is imperative for EU policy makers to internalise that while interests are more dynamic, therefore more amenable to a negotiated outcome, ideology is less so.

An actor’s expression of its ideology, if not purely rhetorical, is usually framed within a self-sealed, inflexible, normative discourse which can render it impermeable to standard negotiated processes.

For an effective engagement of Turkey and the UAE on Libya, the EU in its Libyan policy could be better served by reconciling the framing of its objectives with elements of Turkish and Emirati expressions of their respective interests and ideologies.

Don’t be more royalist than the king:

Value-based expressions of ideology should not be taken for their face value. Oftentimes, those expressions are used as rhetorical devices masking specific interests that are more amenable to a negotiated outcome.

It is therefore important that EU policy makers not be more rigid than Turkish or Emirati authorities in interpreting the contours of their ideological expressions.

Both states have demonstratively taken actions that ran against their expressed values, speaking to a high level of pragmatism of their foreign policy.

Look beyond Libya:

Seeking to grasp the ideology and core interests of a foreign meddler in Libya, their statements and actions in Libya, is a futile endeavour.

Both Turkey and the UAE have been actively involved in other conflicts and on critical issues both within and beyond the EU’s immediate geopolitical space (Greece, Syria, the East Mediterranean, Yemen, etc.).

Additionally, their behaviour does not take place in a vacuum; it is also informed by the structure of an international order that is under considerable stress due in part to the continued erosion of US influence.

Therefore, to understand the actions of Turkey and the UAE in Libya requires looking not only beyond their Libyan footprint, but also at the challenges and opportunities created by shifting international power structures.


Inga Kristina Trauthig is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department at King’s College London and Research Fellow at ICSR (International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation).

Amine Ghoulidi is a PhD candidate at King’s College London researching geopolitics and security. A career political risk consultant, Amine advised leading multinational corporations on reputational risks and security threats particularly linked to their operations in Africa and the Middle East.










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