Since early April, the United Arab Emirates has strengthened its relationship with Libya’s Government of National Unity (GNU). Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah solicited Emirati support for Libya’s interim government during an April 6 trip to Abu Dhabi, and on June 5, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed met with the chairman of Libya’s Presidential Council Mohamed al-Menfi. After their meeting, al-Menfi praised the UAE’s generosity and support for Libya in international forums, and Mohammed bin Zayed pledged to upgrade UAE-Libya diplomatic relations.
The UAE’s Policy Transformation in Libya
The UAE’s transformation from being the primary backer of Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar to an outspoken supporter of the GNU can be explained by three factors. First, Haftar’s military setbacks in the first half of 2020 alarmed the UAE, causing them to fear that exclusively relying on the LNA chieftain would marginalize its influence in Libya. The LNA’s May 2020 surrender of the strategically significant Al-Watiya Air Base, which is located on the outskirts of Tripoli, expedited the UAE’s policy shift. In response to this setback and Haftar’s prior declaration of self-rule, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash expressed frustration with Haftar for making “unilateral decisions.” The UAE’s outreaches to Dbeibah are a natural consequence of this shifting strategy in Libya.
Second, the UAE has faced growing pressure from the United States to scale back its military support for Haftar. In September 2020, the UAE’s violations of the UN arms embargo against Libya — which were achieved through 150 covert flights to LNA-controlled areas — received widespread attention in the U.S.. In November 2020, the Pentagon accused the UAE of financing the activities of Russia’s Wagner Group private military contractors (PMCs). On January 29, 2021, the acting head of the U.S. mission to the UN, Richard Mills, urged the UAE, along with Turkey and Russia, to “respect Libyan sovereignty and immediately cease all military intervention in Libya.” The UAE reacted swiftly to this criticism, as the UAE Ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh pledged to work towards peace in Libya with the Biden administration. To appease the U.S. and ensure that its $23 billion arms package proceeded, the UAE has illustrated its commitment to Libya’s stability.
Third, the UAE has doubts about the staying power of its war-time partnerships in Libya. While the UAE’s influence over French President Emmanuel Macron’s policy towards Libya has gained widespread attention, France has pursued a divergent course in recent months. France’s engagement with the Government of National Accord (GNA) Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, the establishment of cordial relations with Dbeibah, and de-escalation of tensions with Turkey in Libya have raised doubts about the strength of the France-UAE partnership in Libya. The UAE’s alleged obstruction of the January 2020 Moscow peace talks on Libya and opposition to former Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra’s appointment as UN Special Envoy to Libya has underscored the limits of Moscow-Abu Dhabi cooperation in Libya. Egypt’s engagement with the GNA in its final months, which occurred without consultations with the UAE, created friction between Cairo and Abu Dhabi. Due to these tensions, the UAE views the establishment of close ties with the GNU as its most effective means of competing with Russia, France, and Egypt in Libya’s post-conflict reconstruction phase.
The Future of the UAE’s Policy Towards Libya
While the UAE is likely to continue strengthening relations with the GNU and officially support the December 2021 elections in Libya, its ability to convert its war-time leverage into peace-time influence remains unclear. As the UAE is pursuing arbitration roles in international conflicts ranging from the India-Pakistan standoff over Kashmir to the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, it is likely to try its hand at intra-Libyan diplomacy. From 2017 to 2019, the UAE regularly hosted talks between Khalifa Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez el-Serraj, which resulted in a February 2019 agreement between both parties to hold Libyan elections. While the UAE’s diplomatic ambitions were derailed by Haftar’s April 2019 offensive against Tripoli, its ability to balance favorable relations with Haftar, House of Representatives speaker Aguila Saleh, and Dbeibah could revive its arbitration role. The UAE could also utilize its recent election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to promote intra-Libyan diplomacy.
Converting its diplomatic presence to lucrative reconstruction contracts may pose a more difficult challenge. The NOC’s allegations that Abu Dhabi was behind the LNA’s oil blockade severely damaged the UAE’s relationship with Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC). External competition could also undermine the UAE’s ability to compete for economic influence. Turkey has already established a formidable advantage in Libya’s construction sector, and Egypt’s nine-country African land road project, which originates in Libya and Russia’s prospective Benghazi-to-Sirte railway project, could crowd the UAE out of the infrastructure sector. The UAE is also mindful of China’s potential emergence as a major economic stakeholder in Libya, as the Maghreb is a critical vector of its Belt and Road Initiative.
If the UAE’s diplomatic efforts fail or reconstruction contracts fall short of expectations, Abu Dhabi could revive its prior role as a disruptor in Libya. This scenario is especially likely if growing tensions between Haftar and Dbeibah — which caused Dbeibah to delay his trip to Benghazi in late April — reignite the conflict or delay Libya’s upcoming presidential elections. There are signs that the UAE is preparing for this contingency. While the UAE reportedly considered withdrawing its Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries from Libya in early March, Abu Dhabi has also established direct links with military commanders in Darfur. The Wagner Group sent 300 more Syrians in late April and, due to its reliance on Emirati funding, the Russian PMC could aid the UAE’s aspirations in Libya. Even if the elections proceed as planned, the UAE could engage in election interference on the behalf of Haftar, who is rumored to have presidential aspirations and is naturalizing Egyptian and Chadian tribes in eastern Libya to expand his electoral base. While the UAE’s policy has made a discernible shift, it could easily revert to its old destabilizing tactics if conditions on the ground favor this approach.
Six months before Libya’s presidential elections, the UAE’s policy towards the North African country is at a crossroads. While the UAE’s interests appear to be maximized by a strategy that focuses on diplomacy, reconstruction investments, and soft power, Abu Dhabi’s desire to crowd out foreign competitors could cause it to revert to its spoiler role in the months ahead.
Dr. Samuel Ramani is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum. He received his DPhil from the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations in March 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.