Driven by burning ideological and avaricious motives, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has for years intervened in Libya, with whom it shares no common borders.
Yet despite its distant location, the oil-rich North African country’s political future presents a ‘make-or-break’ situation for the UAE’s wider geopolitical ambitions.
On April 2019, the Tobruk-based warlord Khalifa Haftar mobilized his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) and advanced on Libya’s capital Tripoli after vowing to topple the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and capture the entire country.
Haftar’s move, backed by various international states, had collapsed promising peace talks that had occurred previously.
Haftar has embarked on a diplomatic crusade, employing narratives that he is a force for ‘anti-terrorism’ and stability, which has subsequently won him support from various international powers.
Former leader Muammar Gaddafi forced Haftar into exile in 1987, and the warlord returned to Libya during the 2011 revolution.
Haftar has since established himself as the dominant force in eastern Libya and seeks to crush Libya’s diplomatic hopes and establish military rule in the country.
While Russia, France, Egypt and Saudi Arabia back Haftar for their own economic and geostrategic concerns, the UAE has taken a more proactive role, arguably greater than any other state, in empowering Haftar and facilitating his control over eastern Libya, while providing crucial support to his ongoing campaign.
Although Turkey’s military support for the GNA and Russia’s willingness to engage in talks had initially forced Haftar to the negotiating table in a ceasefire deal in January brokered in Moscow, Haftar stormed out and immediately resumed his offensive.
To this date, Haftar continues to push forward with his campaign to capture Libya’s capital, and has in recent weeks continuously shelled Tripoli, including through mortar attacks .
The UAE’s continued support for Haftar arguably gave the warlord continued confidence to abandon January’s peace talks, showing how dependent Haftar’s forces are on international backing.
Without such backing, Haftar would be unable to resume his offensive.
Yet Abu Dhabi is hell-bent on establishing its own regional empire while also crushing democratic movements and Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, where regionwide protests and movements called for reforms against traditional authoritarian regimes, the UAE has played a covert but significant role in combatting such calls, which could inspire pressure for reforms within Abu Dhabi’s own autocratic political system.
The UAE also finds it easier to manipulate authoritarian leaders, to ensure its own influence.
The UAE similarly shares Haftar’s ‘pro-stability’ rhetoric to justify its interference in various countries, making the two see eye-to-eye, and presenting Haftar as a useful partner for the UAE’s ambitions in Libya.
Abu Dhabi sees Haftar as a ‘Sisi 2.0’, as it seeks to replicate an anti-democratic military regime in Libya which depends on Emirati support, like in Egypt after the UAE, alongside Saudi Arabia, bankrolled  the military coup in July 2013.
Though it empowers Haftar’s military operations, the UAE presents its role in Libya as strictly humanitarian-  and security-motivated, often boasting of its aid donations to the destabilized country.
Yet such narratives are designed to give the UAE more diplomatic cover to conceal its interference and geopolitical aspirations from the international community, as it has done elsewhere regionally, particularly in Yemen’s conflict.
In direct violation of the UN arms embargo, Abu Dhabi has provided  military support to Haftar, which Haftar himself and LNA-aligned politicians have acknowledged.
The Emirati Air Force has played a crucial role in allowing Haftar’s forces to consolidate control over eastern Libya, along with more recent attacks  on Tripoli, to bolster Haftar’s advances. The UAE has also established military bases  in eastern Libya, showing how it seeks to forcefully secure its foothold in the country.
The UAE has also employed mercenaries to fight alongside Haftar’s forces, which provide more diplomatic cover than pure overt military support.
In January, Sudanese media reported  the UAE’s recruitment of Sudanese men, enticed with lucrative security jobs in the Emirates, who were then sent to fight in Libya.
Alongside helping the LNA’s advancements, the UAE seeks to bring Libya’s vast natural resources under Haftar’s control and exploit them for its own interests.
On March 16, Libya’s National Oil Company accused  the UAE of flouting international law, by exporting fuel to the country’s east, indicating Abu Dhabi’s wish to make Libya dependent on its own exports. And last June, the UAE and Haftar agreed to illegally redirect  oil from UN-directed channels and instead through Emirati oil companies, showing the UAE’s attempts to uproot the NOC and the GNA’s control over Libya’s resources.
Abu Dhabi has previously sought greater influence within Libya’s government, supporting pro-UAE politicians including Aref Al-Nayed , former presidential candidate and former Libyan ambassador to the UAE.
Though such initiatives have been unsuccessful, it shows how Abu Dhabi seeks to form a Libya government which it can easily manipulate.
Though the UAE seems to be helping Haftar capture Tripoli, its primary objective is to prevent an independent and stable oil-rich Libya from emerging.
Such a scenario would mean Libya attracts greater European and international investment, which would enable it to compete with the UAE and threaten Abu Dhabi’s desires to become a regional hegemon.
Therefore, the UAE would continue supporting Haftar to prolong Libya’s divisions while shoring up the LNA’s control over Libya’s east and its oil fields.
Its divide-and-rule policies in Yemen and Somalia, by supporting separatist groups to weaken the unmanipulable central governments in both countries to shore up its own influence, are indicative of the UAE’s wider regional tactics.
A fractured Libya is increasingly likely, as the UAE’s push to help Haftar capture Tripoli has shown signs of faltering.
After all, Turkey’s support  for the GNA has empowered it against Haftar’s advancements, delivering anti-aircraft devices and other equipment, while the GNA launched  a new offensive on March 25 to repel Haftar’s forces that encircled Tripoli. Yet there is only so much the GNA can do to defeat Haftar.
In the short-term, Abu Dhabi and others’ support has placed Haftar in a position where he will not disappear, and his presence must be acknowledged within Libya’s political future.
Even if Haftar cannot capture Tripoli, his power-hungry aspirations drive him to maximize his political sway in any upcoming government.
On the other hand, criticism towards Abu Dhabi’s harmful role in Libya has arisen, as GNA politicians including Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj have slammed  the UAE’s interference in the country.
Such acts of condemnation are helpful in raising awareness of the UAE’s actions.
Yet as the UAE’s Western allies, who have real leverage over Abu Dhabi, are either backing Haftar’s war or simply indifferent to Libya’s chaos –as is the case with the United States and United Kingdom–, the UAE will continue to enjoy impunity in its interference in Libya.
Meanwhile the current coronavirus pandemic, which could also grant the UAE more of a smokescreen, will further divert global attention from the political and humanitarian consequences of such regional interference.
Source: Anadolu Agency
*The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official opinion of the IPE Club.