The significant and ongoing presence of various international actors in Libya could further intensify, despite recent strategic gains. While the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, led by al-Sarraj, appears to have secured a significant win against the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, opportunities for wider conflict remain. Too many powers — Turkey, Qatar, and most of the EU on one side, and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia on the other — entertain competing strategic interests. These interests extend beyond the security factors related to ISIS, other militias, porous borders, and migration.
Libya’s hydrocarbon industry and reconstruction needs are a major factor in this international involvement. Regional and other international powers covet the chance to help rebuild both. Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, France, Russia, Italy, and Turkey see Libya as both an important export and project destination. Ankara, in particular, has gained an advantage in this direction, thanks to its crucial role in helping the GNA repel Haftar’s forces. As for Russia, it would like to gain a naval base in the southern Mediterranean. Of the EU countries, Italy and France are the most involved regarding their strategic interests in Libya. Rome’s priority is its own economy — particularly the interests of its energy company, Eni — and preventing undocumented migration. Paris’s interests largely center on regional security and counterterrorism, even if its energy company Total would love to gain control of Eni’s oil and gas fields.
Another common interest in Libya is the promotion of democracy. In an optimistic scenario, these actors could see Libya adopt the approach that has allowed Tunisia to achieve stability, thanks to the compromise between the Ennahda and the Tahya Tounes parties. Although the United States has no vital interests in Libya, Washington claims that instability poses a growing threat to US interests in the region. China must also not be discounted; it has interests similar to Russia’s, bolstered by its One Belt Road initiative.
Egypt, Libya’s closest neighbor and most important Haftar ally, is observing the situation closely. Claiming that Cyrenaica remains a base for ‘terrorists’ on its western border with Libya, Cairo maintains an excuse to continue backing forces that obstruct Tripoli’s reach. Tensions between the countries that support the GNA or the LNA have even further intensified. On June 20, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, declared that his country has the legitimate right to intervene militarily in Libya. After this opening salvo, Saudi Arabia’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubayr issued a statement confirming Riyadh’s support for Cairo and its solidarity with measures that al-Sisi might have to adopt to safeguard the security of its borders.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Ambitions Thwarted
While Riyadh’s position in Libya was initially low-profile, Haftar’s choice to launch the offensive on Tripoli more than a year ago was also decided by Saudi interests in intensifying the conflict between GNA and LNA. In March 2019, the Saudi capital received Haftar with great honors, where he met King Salman and many senior officials including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia affirmed that the security of Egypt is an integral part of the security of the Kingdom, and that Riyadh would support Cairo’s efforts to fight terrorism and extremism in the region.
The support that Saudi Arabia and the UAE offer Haftar is mainly linked to their confrontation with Qatar and Turkey. Saudi Arabia shares with Egypt and the UAE the perception of the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), as the expression of a participatory model that challenges the absolutist and vertical model expressed by the Gulf monarchies. Qatar and Turkey, however, repeatedly said that they are dealing with elected governments despite being MB, and not dealing with political parties, in the case of Libya and previously Egypt’s late president Mohammad Morsi. This exogenous element has served to further destabilize Libya’s already complex socio-political situation.
Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive conduct in Libya can, therefore, be explained by its desire to thwart Turkey’s military and political intervention in support of the GNA and to set up a long-term diplomatic foothold in Libya. The Kingdom regards Turkish assistance to the government led by Fayez al-Serraj, which coincided with the start of Turkey’s hydrocarbon exploration operations in the eastern Mediterranean, as a threat to regional stability – and to Egypt in particular. In order to demonstrate its solidarity with Egypt, one of Riyadh’s main allies in the Arab world, and to highlight its opposition to Turkish conduct, Saudi Arabia has strengthened its alliance with Haftar.
Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic and military involvement in Libya continues to intensify. Last January, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that Saudi Arabia paid the Wagner group, which is the Russian paramilitary organization that employs mercenaries to support Cyrenaica’s strongman-affiliated forces. Riyadh is believed to have offered tens of millions of dollars to back the LNA prior to Haftar’s offensive to capture Tripoli, and presumably unite Libya under his control. Saudi diplomats and media have also supported Haftar by delegitimizing Turkey’s conduct throughout the period of military operations. For example, a Saudi newspaper reported that ports in western Libya had suffered a sharp decline in revenue due to incessant Turkish sponsored trafficking of weapons and mercenaries.
Interestingly, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have kept a pragmatic economic relationship, the same cannot be said about the UAE and Turkey. The level of bilateral trade between Ankara and Abu Dhabi has sharply declined between 2017 and 2018, whereas Saudi exports to Turkey have not changed significantly in the past three years. Direct investment also stayed basically unchanged, as President Erdogan has been keen to attract Saudi capital – including some $100 million for agriculture alone.
No Real Winners and One Major Loser
It should be noted that Saudi Arabia was among the most vociferous Arab League backers of military intervention against Qadhafi’s leadership in Libya in 2011. Presumably, now, the Saudis want to control Libya’s energy projects, reaping benefits from post-war reconstruction, while also increasing security for Egypt, its loyal ally. Nevertheless, billion-dollar reconstruction contracts could see Riyadh compete (maybe even clash) with Abu Dhabi. Qatar, meanwhile, is poised to spoil that contest entirely. Although Doha has been guarded about its own investment ambitions in Libya due to the country’s instability, the shift of fortune in the GNA’s favor could trigger an influx of investments itself and from Ankara into the North African country. While Libya wants — and needs — considerable investment, geopolitical rivalries between the likely contributors could end up undermining and delaying the deployment of funds. Still, this does not necessarily imply that the GNA will defeat the LNA in Cyrenaica, succeeding in regaining control of the western half of the country, let alone the southern region of Fezzan. But, Haftar’s retreat could end up formalizing Libya’s partition.
If the EU, especially countries like Italy with key interests, will not like such an arrangement, the most practical solution may be to ensure the Gulf monarchies, Qatar included, can pursue their economic interests in Libya. As for interests of a more strategic nature, partition would also allow Egypt to maintain a security buffer from the MB’s influence in Tripoli, while Russia could explore its ambition to set up a naval base in the southern Mediterranean, notwithstanding American objections. Finally, Turkey and Qatar can claim the biggest prize. It has become the primary diplomatic interlocutor for Tripolitania, given that it was its armed effort that thwarted Haftar’s ambitions.
And the biggest international losers? Those roles belong to Italy and the United States. Italy, which enjoyed close diplomatic and economic ties to Qadhafi’s Libya — the national energy company Eni had all but guaranteed access to the best oil and gas fields — will likely lose concessions to Turkey. Also, Italy will likely have to cede to Turkish influence in controlling the flow of migrants. As for Washington, even while having few strategic assets in Libya, it will have to endure a redrawing of the geopolitical framework with the prospect of a Russian presence consolidating in the southern Mediterranean and within easy reach of some of its most important military bases.