UAE mercenaries reveal divisive ambitions in Yemen, Libya

UAE mercenaries reveal divisive ambitions in Yemen, Libya
5 min read
19 Feb, 2020
Comment: Abu Dhabi is securing influence through a 'divide-and-rule' policy in the Middle East and Africa, but not always using its own forces, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army relies on UAE backing [AFP]
Global attention on the involvement of foreign powers in Libya's war is growing, and increasingly exposing the United Arab Emirates' malign role in the country and elsewhere in the region, as it pursues counter-revolutionary and "divide-and-rule" objectives to secure its own geopolitical empire.

The Berlin Conference on 19 January, with subsequent UN peace efforts in Libya, was designed to halt the violence between the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and Khalifa Haftar's so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). It also sought to curtail various states' military support to parties to the conflict which entered a new phase with Haftar's war on Tripoli that began last April.

While the media and policymakers did pay more attention to this foreign involvement, external backing for Haftar has continued unabated.

Efforts to address it have also come too little too late. Though Egypt, Russia, France and Saudi Arabia have also backed Haftar, with more of a spotlight on their actions, the UAE has been interfering in Libya since 2014, boosting Haftar's forces which now heavily rely on Emirati backing.

Observers previously underestimated Abu Dhabi's key role in driving Libya's instability and empowering Haftar, allowing him to wage war on Tripoli.

However, domestic complaints over the UAE's role in Libya arose in January, when Libya's High Council of State called for the Presidential Council to the GNA to cut ties with the UAE. The GNA Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj also questioned UAE interfere in Libya's conflict, and its motives for establishing a military base in Haftar-controlled eastern Libya.

After all, the UAE has recently ramped up its involvement in the country. Libya analyst Jalel Harchaoui highlights that heavier traffic between the UAE and Libya's eastern airports in recent months indicates more large weapon transfers to the LNA. Furthermore, in November, the NGO Drone Wars reported increasing Emirati drone activity in Libya.

The UAE is actively seeking to restrict a stable, democratic state from emerging in Libya

The UAE's use of mercenaries extends beyond Libya, and into the theatre of Yemen's war. One Sudanese man recently called on his country's transitional government to stop the UAE recruiting mercenaries, local Sudanese media reported in January.

Abdullah al-Tayeb Yusuf told Al-Jazeera Mubasher that his brother was lured into Abu Dhabi after applying to a security guard job, but was forced into a military camp, where he was later was offered work in Libya or Yemen.

Mercenaries and non-Emirati militias have often carried out the UAE's dirty work in countries in addition to Libya, particularly Yemen. Not only is this exploitative of Sudanese citizens, it minimizes an Emirati footprint of its own foreign policy actions. After all, it was able to stage a "withdrawal" in Yemen last June, reducing its own troops while retaining a presence through proxy forces in the country.

France, Russia and Egypt are all looking out for their own economic and security interests in Libya, but the UAE, in addition to smuggling its oil via Haftar, is actively seeking to restrict a stable, democratic state from emerging in the country. Haftar's military rule over Libya, following much destruction in the country, would prevent this.

Even if Haftar fails to claim Tripoli and his campaign stalls, the UAE would still be content with Libya's ongoing destabilisation, as it would prevent a unified government over which it would have little influence. Particularly as a strong, oil-rich Libya could attract greater international investment and pose competition to the UAE.

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This approach resembles Abu Dhabi's "divide-and-rule" policy elsewhere in the region. The UAE has pushed for the balkanisation of both Yemen and Somalia, working with separatist causes in southern Yemen, Somaliland and Puntland, seeking to undermine the central governments in both countries that oppose its interests.

While caring little for the livelihoods of civilians in southern Yemen and Somalia's autonomous regions, it uses these causes to divide and even destabilise both countries, to secure its own access to ports, military bases and natural resources.

The UAE has used a deceitful fusion of counterterrorism and humanitarian concerns as a pretext for its foreign policy actions. Abu Dhabi in May last year claimed that "terrorist" militias operated alongside the GNA in Tripoli, while also highlighting its aid deliveries to the country. Similar to narratives about its activities in Yemen, this line acts as a smokescreen for its real ambitions. After all, it has used the term "terrorist" to demonise actors it cannot influence.

Even in the ongoing Gulf crisis, in which the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain have severed ties and blockaded Qatar since June 2017 under audacious charges of supporting terrorism, among other accusations, Abu Dhabi will pursue a "divide-and-rule" strategy to disrupt any reconciliation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE has pushed for the balkanisation of both Yemen and Somalia

The UAE still seeks to outmanoeuvre its ally Saudi Arabia in the long-term, as shown from its distinct policies in Yemen, of supporting secession against Riyadh's wishes. Keeping the Saudis and Qataris at odds with each other therefore benefits Abu Dhabi.

However criticism of the UAE is growing not just within Libya, but among government figures in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere too. Sudan's Information Minister Faisal Mohamed Saleh urged the UAE to allow Sudanese mercenaries to voluntarily return home, after Sudan pledged to investigate the UAE's illicit use of mercenaries.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey also criticised UAE's use of mercenaries in Libya's war, further raising the issue.

Meanwhile, the British law firm Stoke White filed a legal suit with the UK, US and Turkish authorities last week, hoping to arrest senior Emirati officials tied to war crimes and torture in Yemen.

Libyan families in the USA also filed lawsuits against Haftar and the UAE in February for war crimes that killed their family members.

The prospect of a UN investigation into Abu Dhabi violating Libya's arms embargo was raised last May, yet enforcing it would still require greater support from the international community which has otherwise seemed apathetic towards addressing the UAE's actions.

While this year has already seen greater attention on UAE's role, particularly as Libya's conflict has become internationalised, greater awareness could force Abu Dhabi into being held more accountable for its policies in Libya, and then elsewhere across the Middle East and Africa.

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.