The Criminal Role of Saudi Arabia and UAE

Mahmoud Refaat

War crimes and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated by the belligerents in Libya and continue to make victims. It is necessary to conduct thorough investigations into the actions of Haftar and his seconds, who participated in massacres of civilians, such as in Tarhunah. These individuals must be prosecuted and convicted.



Libya is located in a key strategic location. Its thousands of miles of Mediterranean coast offer direct access to Europe, while its location in the African continent also enables it to have a very significant amount of influence and access to the rest of the continent.

These reasons with the addition of the vast amounts of natural resources that Libya has within its territory as for instance it counts with one of the biggest oil reserves of any country in Africa, offer a great explanation to why so many international actors have been particularly interested in obtaining influence over this country.

Several powers like the Ottoman Empire or Italy have been able in some form or another to obtain a significant amount of control over Libya, nonetheless, through history other powers like France or the Soviet Union (and later Russia too) have tried to exert their power over Libya in order to increase their control over the region and have the chance of reaping the before-mentioned benefits.

However, after the end of the First World War, Libya was able of using the new international order that was being created after the end of this event in order to establish a federal monarchy with King Idris as monarch.

This system lasted until 1969, when Gaddafi was able to carry out a coup d’état that instituted the Libyan Arab Republic, where he was the ruler. Gaddafi was able to stay in power through various decades where he gradually increased the repression in the country against any opposition that dared to challenge him.

Nevertheless, the changes that were occurring in the region severely affected the situation in Libya. In December of 2010, what is known as the Arab Spring started, where several revolutions asking for democratic regimes swept through countries like Tunisia or Egypt.

In Libya, this created a severe increase in tensions, which developed into a civil war between Gaddafi’s regime and a coalition of civilians that were backed by foreign actors like France, the UK, the UN.

This civil war resulted in the end of Gaddafi’s regime with his death. This lead to a complete change in the country, as a power vacuum was established and shortly after both national as well as international actors tried to take advantage of the situation and fill this vacuum.

This process is key for understanding the situation that Libya is experiencing at the moment as it crucially contributed to the divide that has torn the country in two and that still continues.

On one side, there is the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is led by F. Sarraj and controls the Western half of Libya and is located in the city of Tripoli. On the other side, the east half of the country is controlled by the House of Representatives, which is backed by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Marshal H. Haftar and is located in the city of Tobruk.

This conflict has had a severe impact on the Libyan population as they have had to endure life in a war-torn country, which all the negative aspects that this entails, like street violence or food shortages. Several international actors have been able to use this situation for their own advantage as they have gotten into the conflict in order to be able to increase their control over the country.

Countries like the United Arab Emirates or Turkey have pursued a very direct approach as they got into the conflict from the very beginning and strongly back one side. On the other hand, countries like Russia or China have been able to increase their influence in the conflict and in the country while remaining at a distance.

Not only that but, even Russia which strongly supports Haftar and the LNA has always maintained ongoing conversations with the GNA, thus ensuring that they will be able to garner their objectives no matter, which sides ends up victorious in the conflict.

This book will seek to give a detailed explanation of the objectives that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have in this conflict. It will also explore the different actions that these two international players are carrying out in order to ensure that their objectives in the Libyan conflict are met.

In addition, this book will give a brief overview of other international players like the United States or Russia, which are also immersed in the conflict. Finally, a series of recommendations will be given to showcase how the International Community should act in order to to stop the conflict for continuing and also stopping the UAE and Saudi Arabia from their ongoing actions in this country.

1. Saudi Arab and UAE Intervention in Libya

The US-led NATO pounce in Libya triggered a series of incidents. Firstly, after the North African countries carried out popular uprisings against dictators and former allies of the United States, like France and Britain, this brought this region into conflict and crisis.

In a military offensive launched by the West, after the fall of Gaddafi and his public assassination, many tribes sought take advantage of the power vacuum to take control in Libya. Competing territories were formed throughout the country, and later armed militias were formed to increase their strength. Khalifa Haftar is the 76-year-old leader of the Libyan National Army

(LNA), an army loyal to the Tobruk government in the east of the country. In April 2019, LNA announced an attack on Tripoli to overthrow Libya’s internationally recognized national government (Government of National Accord).

This attack caused the LNA to be driven out of several western cities by the Allied GNA forces. Furthermore, when Haftar launched the offensive, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Libya and said he was “deeply concerned and saddened” to have to leave the country.

Also, Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa region, said the attacks on residential areas were indiscriminate. The LNA said it was trying to restore security and take counter-terrorism actions. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the GNA called the attack an attempted coup.

Although there is a national government with international support, Libya has been in a state of lawlessness, instability and violence since 2011. After the end of Gaddafi ́s regime, Libya has become a war-torn country divided into two very differentiated camps.

This situation not only persists but it is also growing as different countries have surrounded Libya and tried to influence its future direction. In Libya, the UAE is testing its ambitions as a medium power, as it has in the past.

As it is the case in Yemen, the UAE has intertwined geopolitical and ideological goals and in order to achieve these goals, they need strong forces and reliable allies. Indeed, being influential in subnational geographic regions (such as Cyrenaica in Libya or areas in southern Yemen) means weakening competitors (Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey) and working to acquire a platform to predict power generation, especially at sea level.

Thus, this makes Libya a key region for the UAE ́s objectives as it location in the Mediterranean coast offer great geopolitical and strategic leverage. The UAE’s approachto control over the region is based on two different but connected strategies.

Firstly, the presence of capable and powerful actors on the ground, like the militia in Yemen and the traditional presence of powerful allies in 10the region of interest,like in Libya with Egypt.

Some units are still stationed in Balhaf, Riyan and Socotra, but the UAE is still the most influential actor in southern Yemen because the formations they created played a key role. This is key to understanding developments in Libya as the withdrawal of UAE troops from Yemen is related to the growing strength of Abu Dhabi in Libya.

This would not be possible in Serena without the support of Egypt. So far, in Libya and Yemen, the UAE has shown similar characteristics and differences, which proves Abu Dhabi’s tactics and purposeful pragmatism.

1.1 UAE’s Support for Haftar in the War in Libya

The UAE is providing a crucial support to ensure that Haftar remains a political force in Libya and is able to maintain the civil war. The UAE’s support for Haftar has been critical for victories in cities such as Benghazi and Derna.

A clear example of this is the air base that was established in 2017 in eastern Libya. In addition to continuing to recruit mercenaries in Sudan, the UAE also has provided direct military support to the Haftar forces. Since April 2019, UAE spokesperson stated that Haftar has been killing civilians, causing harm to Libyan citizens rather than NTC forces.

As of January 2020, more than 100 weapons have been shipped from the United Arab Emirates to Libya and Egypt (the United Arab Emirates’ main regional allies).

The conflict in Libya has been affected by the air strikes. Not only that but, the United Nations has also described the “terror” incident of the multinational company that recently discovered the Talka mass grave. Nevertheless, the UAE has pledged to unconditionally support Haftar’s pursuit of power and has continued to provide jet fuel.

Haftar has continued to play an important role in the Libyan crisis, which has been largely focused on liberating Libya from the LNA-controlled eastern half of the country.

However, this conflict has not gathered the importance that it deserves by some international actors, for instance, the United States and the United Kingdom have ignored the destabilizing influence of Abu Dhabi, whereas France, as an ideological supporter of Haftar, does not seem to bear the tremendous pressure to withdraw its troops from the LNA despite the security crisis.

The security relationship between France and UAE 1 was used to manipulate peace negotiations, prolong the civil war and strengthen Haftar’s position. At an international conference on Libya held abroad, Haftar launched a military operation that ran counter to the obvious purpose of the conference.

At the beginning of 2019, with the support of France, after the military operations, Haftar expanded to Fezzan in southwest Libya and took control of the country’s oil infrastructure.

Furthermore, the UAE welcomed Haftar and Prime Minister Sarraj to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. There are still contradictions in the UK, whereas France fully supports the UAE drone’s attack on Tripoli, which were carried out by Haftar in April 2019.Russia and Turkey are also involved in the Libyan conflict. They are at war with the United Arab Emirates.

1.2 Foreign Policies

The foreign policy guidelines of the Gulf countries are driven by specific threats to regional stability. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, the strategic goals of these countries have been constantly changing, based on variations in threat perception and the development of political changes in Egypt.

Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia have always been the traditional hegemons of geopolitics in the region, while Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have become new regional heavyweights hoping to get rid of the floods in the region.

13The formation of Libya’s political development after the Arab Spring, and its role was evaluated from the perspective of regional geopolitics. Libya has similarities with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in terms of its small population and energy-based economy.

In the past ten years, these states have embarked on economic diversification to reduce dependence on energy and are committed to increasing efforts. However, in Libya, oil is still the driving force of the economy.

In 2017, the oil sector accounted for approximately 82% of export revenue and 60% of GDP (OPEC, 2017). The foreign policy behaviour of the Gulf countries depends on the existence of an external security umbrella. Qatar has been particularly prolific in developing its security umbrella.

A great example of this is Al Udid Air Force Base, which was built in 1996 and now has 10,000 US soldiers stationed there. In addition, the US Joint Air Operations Center, the US Air Force Central Command and the US Special Operations Command have 5,000 maintenance personnel stationed at Al Dhafra Air Force Base.

The US military also uses Jebel Port and Fujairah Naval Base. With this security guarantee from the United States, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates can take strategic measures without fear of military retaliation. U.S. President Barack Obama turned to the Asian plan.

In addition, the gradual restriction of the number of Iraqi troops and the use of diplomatic means to resolve Iran’s nuclear program have been seen as a sign of the gradual withdrawal of American troops from the region.

After the Arab Spring in 2011, the government was turbulent and as a result of that, Iran has strengthened its political, diplomatic and military status in the region. Thus, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also see this as an opportunity to expand its diplomatic and strategic presence in the region.


Mahmoud Refaat is an expert in international law, politician and writer. Refaat is the president of the European Institute for International Law and International Relations in Brussels, Belgium.







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