The Battle for Libya: The UAE Calls the Shots

By January 20, 2020

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,412, January 20, 2020

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Last week’s inauguration of a new Egyptian military base on the Red Sea was heavy with the symbolism of the rivalries shaping the future of the Middle East as well as north and east Africa.

The inauguration of the base took on added significance as rebel Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, backed by UAE Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Sisi, snubbed Russian president Vladimir Putin by refusing to agree to a ceasefire in the Libyan war.

Haftar’s refusal thwarted, at least temporarily, an effort by Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to structure the ceasefire so it would align opposing Russian and Turkish interests, allow the two parties to cooperate in the exploitation of Libya’s energy resources, and protect a Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement creating an Exclusive Economic Zone that strengthens Russian-backed Turkish maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Putin-Erdoğan maneuvers are designed to thwart a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli agreement to build a pipeline that would supply gas to Europe, reducing European dependence on Russian gas in the process.

Critics charge that the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement, which would limit Greek-Cypriot Israeli access to hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean, violates the Law of the Sea.

Greece has warned that it will block EU backing for any Libyan peace deal as long as the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement is in place. Haftar visited Greece, as well as other countries, following his rejection of the ceasefire and ahead of a conference on Libya hosted by Germany in Berlin on January 19.

Haftar’s rejection came as Turkish troops arrived in Libya to bolster forces of the internationally recognized government of PM Fayez al-Sarraj defending the capital Tripoli against an eight-month assault by the Field Marshal’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA), which is backed by Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Kremlin, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Prince Muhammad’s presence at the inauguration of the Egyptian naval base underlined the UAE’s influence in Egypt. The UAE backed Sisi’s 2013 military coup, which toppled the country’s first and only democratically elected president, and is determined to counter Islamist forces as well as Turkish influence in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

UAE and Egyptian backing of Haftar is not just about countering jihadist and non-jihadist Islamists and Turkey but also Qatar, Turkey’s ally, which also supports the Libyan rebels.

The UAE-Turkish-Qatari proxy war in Libya is also increasingly colored by Prince Muhammad and President Sisi’s opposition to efforts to resolve divisions among the Gulf states that spilled into the open with the declaration of a Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in 2017.

Saudi Arabia has hinted in recent months that it might be amenable to an easing of the boycott, a move that is believed to be opposed by the UAE as long as Qatar does not make significant concessions on issues like freewheeling broadcaster Al Jazeera and support for political Islam.

The new naval base’s location symbolizes Egypt’s conundrum—also a problem for the UAE—at a time when Egypt is at odds with Ethiopia over the operation of a giant dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile.

Stepping up its involvement in Libya puts Egypt at risk of becoming embroiled in two conflicts at the same time.

Egypt claims the dam puts a million Egyptian jobs, $1.8 billion in annual economic output, and electricity valued at $300 million at risk.

The base is aimed at “securing the country’s southern coasts, protecting economic investments and natural resources and facing security threats in the Red Sea,” according to a spokesman for Sisi.

The president has warned that Egypt would take all necessary measures to protect its rights to Nile waters.

So far, Egypt is banking on mediation to help it avoid being trapped between a rock and a hard place by achieving a ceasefire in Libya that would keep Egypt’s hands free to deal with Ethiopia, should a conflict erupt.

The question is whether Haftar—who, without signing the ceasefire agreement, reportedly told German officials that he would adhere to its terms—and the UAE are willing to play ball.

The proof will be in the pudding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes by insisting in advance of the Berlin talks that they ensure “that the weapons embargo is adhered to again.”

The UN has accused the UAE, together with several other countries including Turkey, of violating the UN embargo.

As a result, it may be the UAE rather than Haftar that has a decisive voice in Berlin.

Said North Africa expert Ben Fishman: “Until Abu Dhabi pulls back its drones, operators, and other crucial military support, the prospects for Libya’s stability will remain dim. Besides the fact that they provide the greatest advantage to Haftar’s forces, focusing on the Emiratis also makes sense because the other foreign players currently have reasons to de-escalate on their own.”

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Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.

Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey

(Ph.D. University of Utrecht). Specializes in the Muslim world's political, social, and economic fault lines as well as Chinese policy towards the region with a focus on geopolitics, social movements, and political and militant Islam. James also focuses on the nexus of sports, politics, and society. Email: [email protected]