Karim Mezran & Sabina Henneberg
Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya have experienced political turmoil since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia have been taking advantage of their vulnerability, thus influencing the internal and broader regional dynamics in the Maghreb.
By ignoring these dynamics, the U.S. risks being adversely affected as Gulf interference weakens governance and stability in the Maghreb, which will in turn permit the growth of human rights violations, unmanageable migration flows, and extremism.
By indirectly or directly encouraging the development of a stable, harmonious Maghreb, Washington can further its own strategic interests without expending additional resources.
War and Diplomacy in Libya
When the Arab Spring uprisings broke out in February 2011 in Libya, both Qatar and the UAE saw it in their interest to support the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
Unconditional and bilateral financial aid as well as equipment, fighters, and training from both countries immediately began flowing to anti-Gadhafi rebel groups, along with enthusiastic support for the U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya.
Qatar and the Emirates supported different rebel groups, however, based on existing ties, which eventually led them to back opposing Libyan factions and laid the seeds for their later rivalry, which emerged in the summer of 2014.
Gulf support for individual Libyans has also appeared to help fuel the conflict. For instance, Qatari support for Abdelhakim Bilhaj – a former member of the opposition Libya Islamic Fighting Group – may have contributed to Bilhaj’s defeat in his bid for a seat on the General National Congress in 2012, with some accusing him of being an agent of Qatar.
Former Libyan ambassador to the UAE Aref al-Nayed used his ties with Abu Dhabi to launch his own political career, aspiring to become the president of Libya following the elections initially planned for December 2021.
he Emirates also caused a scandal by hiring U.N. Special Envoy Bernardino León as director general of its diplomatic academy after he completed his term as the main mediator between the two conflicting sides in 2015.
This raised legitimate questions regarding Leon’s behavior as an impartial arbiter, undermining the U.N.’s authority.
Over time Qatar’s and the UAE’s approaches to military involvement in the Libyan conflict evolved. From approximately 2013, Qatari involvement scaled back, the result of backlash from other countries in the region, its own leadership change, and a growing awareness of its limited capacity to realize the kind of influence it had once envisaged despite its alliance with Turkey.
Meanwhile, Emirati involvement grew, particularly as tensions rose among coalitions identifying with or opposing political Islam.
The UAE’s intervention in the Libya conflict evolved into a multi-pronged strategy parallel to the one in Yemen, involving the use of proxy actors, a strong alliance with Egypt (necessary for its powerful military), working through tribes and expatriates (such as Nayed), and potential counterterrorism engagement.
Though neither Qatar’s nor the UAE’s goals have changed in the Maghreb, since 2011 both have transformed their engagements into more pragmatic diplomacy.
For Qatar, this took the form of direct partnership with the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
The GNA by 2019 was heavily supported by Turkey – another regional heavyweight with geostrategic and economic ambitions in Libya and the broader Maghreb.
Following the departure in early 2021 of U.S. President Donald Trump – with whom the UAE had been very close – and the defeat of the anti-GNA coalition in Libya, the UAE began deepening its diplomacy across the region, including with its once-rival in Libya, Turkey.
While kinetic conflict in Libya has abated for the moment, its political process has also collapsed, and many perceive these shifting regional dynamics as unstable.
Although Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates’ strategies for advancing their agendas in the Libya have changed since 2011, their goals have not. They aim to advance their regional influence while protecting their own regimes.
The forms and levels of Gulf intervention in the Libya vary across time, but they are always in the interest of the Gulf states, not the Maghreb.
While interventions may bring welcome downstream effects – for example, job creation through heavy Gulf investments in key sectors – these investments come with political costs that undermine democratic development by discouraging attempts at political negotiation and compromise.
The United States and its European allies should ensure that liberal values support those forces that are threatened by interventions from the Gulf.
For example, the Biden administration should exercise vigilance on the ground as Tunisia continues to experience political and economic tumult in order to ensure its policy is not dictated by the will of its Gulf allies.
The U.S. can also continue to support the regulation of social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter so they are not used by foreign countries to propagate disinformation campaigns that in turn perpetuate conflict.
Karim Mezran is Director of the North African Initiative and Resident Senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council.
Sabina Henneberg is the author of Managing Transition: The First Post-Uprising Phase in Tunisia and Libya.