It is possible to imagine Abu Dhabi returning to a more muscular foreign policy in Libya and once again intervening militarily to weaken Libya’s Islamist militias to the greatest extent possible, especially if tensions between Haftar and GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dabaiba continue to mount.
This year, the United Nations has sponsored a peace process aimed at restoring political unity in Libya and resolving the beleaguered country’s stalemated civil war. Although it is far from guaranteed that Libya’s national elections will take place at all, let alone on time, they are currently scheduled for December 24. Amid the tense peace in Libya, it is worth asking where the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the most powerful foreign actors in the country, stands. Despite the changing political landscape in Libya, Abu Dhabi ultimately remains committed to the same goals that it began hawkishly pursuing in the North African country in August 2014, albeit with new tactics and strategies which illustrate how Emirati officials are pragmatically contending with new realities on the ground in Libya.
Soon after the Libyan civil war erupted in May 2014, the UAE established itself as General Khalifa Haftar’s most important foreign patron. The Emiratis boosted Haftar’s position in the country through monetary support, weapon transfers, and positive media coverage. However, the renegade general was unable to achieve his objectives after the failure of the Libyan National Army (LNA)’s westward offensive toward Tripoli, the nation’s capital, in April 2019. This failure was largely attributed to the intensification of direct Turkish military intervention in late 2019 and early 2020, resulting in the LNA being pushed back hundreds of miles from Tripoli’s outskirts to Sirte amid Operation Volcano Rage.
The high-profile failure of the LNA’s offensive on Tripoli forced the UAE to come to terms with Haftar’s inability to achieve an all-out military victory, leading Abu Dhabi to pursue other avenues for securing its interests. The realization prompted Emirati officials to officially endorse the UN-led peace process. In late January, one day after Washington’s then-acting ambassador to the UN called on the UAE, Turkey, and Russia to “respect Libyan sovereignty and immediate cease all military intervention in Libya,” Abu Dhabi’s ambassador to the international body wrote a letter recognizing the “urgent need for renewed diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Libya.” The Emirati diplomat said the UAE “stands ready to work closely with all Security Council members, including the new U.S. administration, to achieve a peaceful settlement for the Libyan people.”
Same Conflict, Different Methods
Crucially, however, none of this diplomatic posturing means that the UAE’s core objectives in the North African country have changed. As experts have explained, officials in Abu Dhabi have viewed the UN-led process with suspicion, mostly because they fear it could ultimately serve the interests of Libya’s Islamists.
“I think the UAE is still pursuing the same goals in Libya, largely based on opposing Islamist influence throughout the Arab world, but it’s going to have to do that in Libya now politically and diplomatically, just like all the other major players,” Dr. Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington told the authors in an interview last month. “The patrons of both sides in Libya helped their clients survive efforts by the other side to unseat them, which means there is a de facto partition in the country between East and West. This is not in the least surprising, but this stalemate gives rise to the potential for a more orderly management of fracture rather than fits and bouts of armed civil conflict. Beyond that, which is a question of tactics, I don’t believe the basic goals and interests of the outside parties have really changed just because the war stalemated.”
So far, despite these suspicions, Abu Dhabi has seen it as beneficial to its own interests to go along with the UN-led process, as forces loyal to both Tripoli and the East have proven capable of maintaining their own ground but incapable of conquering territory held by the opposing side. “Under such circumstances, a political process to manage this stalemate is necessary, including for all the outside forces that have helped to shape this outcome, most obviously Turkey, which launched a huge rescue campaign to save the GNA and its allied militia groups in Misrata, which is absolutely crucial for Ankara for a number of strategic reasons, and Tripoli, but it also applies to the UAE, Egypt, Qatar and others that have been involved, and even Italy and France,” argued Dr. Ibish. “So, it’s necessary for all of these powers and their local clients to be involved in the process and try to shape whatever national government can be cobbled together when there is, in fact, a de facto partition in the country and a division between areas held by different factions that still would like to conquer each other if they could.”
One way of understanding this situation is that Abu Dhabi only stood to lose from a continuation of the conflict, considering the extent to which pro-Tripoli militias were pushing eastward in the summer of 2020. If the conflict had continued, this might have led to a direct Egyptian-Turkish clash in or near Sirte, a possibility that worried both sides as well as NATO.
“The heavy loss inflicted to Haftar on the gates of Tripoli in 2020 represented a serious threat to the strategic interests of the UAE and its regional allies, Egypt in particular,” explained Dr. Umberto Profazio, a Maghreb Analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation, in an interview with the authors. “An eventual collapse of the LNA would have also undermined the regional policies of this counter-revolutionary front, seriously curbing their influence in Libya. This could be the main reason that convinced Abu Dhabi and Cairo to give diplomacy a chance, moving away from the ‘red lines’ rhetoric and the risk of a dangerous escalation with Turkey that was visibly present in the summer of 2020. At the same time, Egypt and the UAE in particular recalibrated their policies without making substantial concessions to local rivals and their foreign supporters. They carefully cultivated special relations with important political stakeholders both within and outside the [UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU)], providing essential time for Haftar to regroup, laying the groundwork for his political resurrection and his expected return to the electoral contest.”
Causes for Optimism
Despite the UAE’s concerns about the potential for Islamists to become the main beneficiaries of the UN-led peace process, which would represent a major threat to Abu Dhabi’s agenda in North Africa, the UAE can nonetheless be optimistic about its interests in Libya. This is due to both the country’s internal developments and regional trends in North Africa.
The Libyan House of Representatives (HoR)’s approval of controversial election laws, and Haftar’s agreement to relinquish (at least temporarily) his position as head of the LNA to become eligible to participate in the election, are indicators of “a more favorable environment for the policies of the UAE in Libya,” according to Dr. Profazio. Furthermore, reports indicate that Haftar has pushed to naturalize Egyptian and Chadian tribes in eastern Libya, a move that would expand his base of support in elections. At the same time, Tunisia’s July 25 autogolpe, in which President Kais Saied’s seizure of power put his country’s democracy on ice, has boded positively for the UAE and its clients in Libya. As Dr. Ibish explained, the coup in Tunisia “reinforces the sense that Islamists are not well-positioned to command strong majorities in most Arab countries and that it is easy for their opponents to blame them when things go badly.”
In the final analysis, it is unclear how Libya’s peace process under UN auspices will move forward. It remains uncertain if the country’s long-awaited elections will take place next month or not. While the country’s relative stability is a positive sign, it is still at risk of destabilizing with a resumption of fighting at any time. Under such circumstances, it is possible to imagine Abu Dhabi returning to a more muscular foreign policy in Libya and once again intervening militarily to weaken Libya’s Islamist militias to the greatest extent possible, especially if tensions between Haftar and GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dabaiba continue to mount. Either way, with President Joe Biden’s administration not committing the U.S. to play any leading role in Libya, there will remain opportunities for other actors, such as the UAE, Russia’s Wagner Group, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, France, or Italy, to fill to various extents. Ultimately, no matter the outcome of the hypothetical elections, power struggles between foreign powers in the country will persist, with Abu Dhabi pursuing whatever strategy it feels necessary to advance its own counter-revolutionary goals as well as pursuing the possibility of lucrative reconstruction contracts in the conflict-ridden North African country.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gulf International Forum.