In Libya, UAE fingerprints are all over the incumbent coup

In Libya, UAE fingerprints are all over the incumbent coup
Comment: The UAE's outright support for General Haftar is undermining the country's efforts for a democratic transition, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
6 min read
08 Apr, 2019
'UAE aims to control Libya's significant oil reserves through Haftar' [AFP]
Libya is facing further instability as General Khalifa Haftar and his self-proclaimed 'Libyan National Army' (LNA) last week declared an offensive on Tripoli, which hosts its rival government, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

Since then, increased violence has erupted around the capital and more deaths have occurred. But, as with his previous campaigns, Haftar's latest offensive is enabled by his various backers, particularly the shady support support of the UAE, which has its own economic and geopolitical interests in Libya.

Not only is the UAE acting illegally, its intervention stagnates Libya's peace and democratic process, while further fuelling divisions in the country.

Already dominant in eastern Libya, Haftar's LNA seized vital southern territory this year, especially key oil fields. Not only had this gifted Haftar a vantage-point for advancing on Tripoli, he now has much leverage to establish himself as a key figure in any future Libyan political settlement.

Yet his move threatens the democratic transition sought by the United Nations and others in the international community which aims to unify the country's rival governments following the descent into chaos after Muammar Gaddafi's overthrow in 2011.

Haftar has often rejected any democratic initiatives and instead seeks to control Libya by military force.

Recent violence led to condemnation and calls for restraint from states such as the US, France, Italy, the UK and the UAE. The UAE's supposed concerns however, have understandably raised eyebrows, considering it is actually Haftar's biggest backer, providing material and direct military aid to his forces' military operations, including the latest towards Tripoli, in which it is arguably complicit.

The UAE's intervention stagnates Libya's peace and democratic process

Supporting Haftar is part of Abu Dhabi's wider foreign policy aims. It seeks greater hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, especially in southern Yemen, and East Africa. Libya, too, is a significant target for its regional ambitions for influence.

The UAE claims that it operates a strictly humanitarian role in Libya, often highlighting its aid donations. It has often also presented itself as a neutral mediator in the conflict. However, as is the case in other countries such as Yemen, this is arguably a PR effort to conceal Emirati political and military influence, while it maintains a covert relationship with Haftar.

Politically, the UAE wants to prevent any Muslim Brotherhood or Islamist influence in Libya, alongside Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who also back Haftar. Abu Dhabi is looking to replicate the Egyptian model post-2013 in Libya; installing military rule, undermining democracy, weakening Islamist presence, and keeping the country dependent on the UAE.

In addition to being a military general, Haftar's rhetoric appeases the UAE, claiming in 2014 after launching 'Operation Dignity' that he wanted to "cleanse" Libya of "terrorists". He made similar statements after recently declaring war on Tripoli, in order to justify implementing authoritarian rule.

The UAE after all aimed to undermine post-Arab Spring democratic transitions, and now aims to sabotage Libya's own process, fearing that a positive democratic government could inspire its own citizens to challenge Abu Dhabi's authoritarian regime.

To achieve this, the UAE has provided military equipment, in violation of a UN arms embargo. Haftar himself admitted in January 2015 that he received key military support from the UAE and Egypt, to help commence his expansion.

The UAE after all aimed to undermine post-Arab Spring democratic transitions

Key Haftar-aligned politicians have also thanked the UAE for their support, which included a vast array of military vehicles and other equipment. Many of these have likely been deployed in the Tripoli campaign.

The Emirati air force has even gone as far as conducting airstrikes in the east against anti-Haftar forces, to consolidate LNA authority. Though the international community is now paying greater attention to the conflict after Haftar's advance on Tripoli, the UAE may still try to provide further covert assistance to his latest assault.

Building strong ties with Haftar has helped the UAE develop its own influence in Libya. It has gradually built up infrastructure and air force bases in the east from 2014, as highlighted in a UN Panel of Experts report, showing its plans for long-term influence in Libya.

Last year it declared its wish to expand investments in Libya, indicating its desire for soft power, which it may well look to increase in the future.

The UAE's shady dealings reportedly also involve draining billions of dollars of Libyan frozen funds in Belgium, and giving them to Haftar to empower his forces, according to Mohamed Amazab, the second deputy chairman of the Supreme Council of the State of Libya.

Furthermore, the UAE aims to control Libya's significant oil reserves through Haftar. Haftar has secured much of Libya's oil reserves; in February it seized the 315,000 barrel-per-day El Sharara oil field and the nearby El Feel facility.

Already controlling much of Libya's eastern oil reserves, Haftar has forced the state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC) to bend to his wishes.

As Reuters reported last month, the UAE had tried to negotiate the opening of the El Sharara oil field, soon after Haftar had captured it, as it was previously closed by state guards. The UAE likely wants to benefit further from Haftar controlling oil fields, which it can keep open and access easily.

Controversially, the UAE and Haftar last June agreed to illegally reroute oil away from UN-directed channels and instead through Emirati oil companies, attempting to remove control from the NOC and the UN-backed government.

Even so, the UAE's growing hegemony in Libya led the NOC president to request Abu Dhabi to protect and prevent oil smuggling from Libya, despite the UAE having facilitated the situation in part itself. 

Haftar also seeks to gain control of the Tripoli-based Central Bank, which Haftar portrays as Islamist-run. Due to their shared ideological concerns, preventing the bank from being under the control of Islamist or Islamist-aligned forces is another incentive for the UAE to support Haftar's control of Tripoli.

In the event Haftar's military coup fails, and the UAE cannot recreate the Egyptian model in Libya, the UAE has backed and funded numerous pro-Haftar and anti-Muslim Brotherhood politicians.

The UAE's supposed concerns have understandably raised eyebrows, considering it is actually Haftar's biggest backer

This includes Aref Al-Nayed, presidential candidate for the delayed December 2018 elections and former Libyan ambassador to the UAE. Suhail Mohamed Faraj Al Mazrouei, UAE Minister of Energy also tried to negotiate cooperation and deals with the NOC chairman.

Abu Dhabi also supported other figures such as the House of Representatives envoy to the NOC, Edris Al-Maghrabi.

All of this suggests that, even if the UAE cannot replicate the Egyptian model in Libya through Haftar, it still aims to solidify links to the government to muscle-out Islamist politicians.

Such moves not only aim to subordinate Libya to UAE-influence, they risk creating further political instability and polarization between divided camps. The UAE is therefore unwilling to allow Libyan institutions to fall into "unfriendly hands", even if it means the country remains conflict-stricken and fragmented as a result.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.