How the Gulf Arab Rivalry Tore Libya Apart

Qatar and the UAE have deadly opposing interests in the North African state.

When the Qaddafi regime fell in 2011, centralized power quickly dissipated and Libya fell into chaos. A wide range of armed groups asserted control over large swathes of territory in the oil-rich nation without any effective central authority strong enough to exert control of the entire country. Since then, Libya has become a battleground for outside powers with competing interests and conflicting visions.

Several weeks after losing the July 2014 election, a Muslim Brotherhood–led coalition (“Libya Dawn”) seized the capital city of Tripoli. The Libya Dawn fighters established an administration (the New General National Congress) pushing the nation’s UN-recognized government into Tobruk, situated along the Mediterranean coast near Egypt. Despite UN efforts to broker peace, forces loyal to Libya’s Tripoli- and Tobruk-based governments remain in conflict. The fact that both sides have foreign sponsors has unquestionably prolonged and intensified the country’s multitude of problems.

Two Gulf Arab states, the UAE and Qatar, which both played pivotal roles in the Libyan uprising as sponsors of anti-Qaddafi rebels, have emerged as rivals in this grander geopolitical struggle. The UAE, along with Russia and Egypt, backs the Tobruk-based government; Qatar, along with Turkey and Sudan, supports the Islamist-led government in Tripoli. Abu Dhabi and Doha’s proxy war in Libya is illustrative of a division within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is proving highly influential in shaping Libya’s post-Qaddafi political order.

At the heart of the Emirati-Qatari rivalry in Libya lie sensitive political issues for the Gulf monarchs. Specifically, how should the Council’s ruling families react to the rise of grassroots Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), which promote democratic institutions and espouse social justice concerns across the region? Naturally, the Gulf Arab monarchs were unsettled by the potential for anti-government activism in countries like Egypt to add momentum to opposition groups in the GCC. Yet, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s various political wings gained power in multiple countries through post–Arab Awakening elections, the Gulf monarchs reacted differently to the political apertures that Islamists secured in 2011 and 2012.

On one end of the spectrum, the UAE has for years conducted a staunchly anti-Islamist foreign policy. Since 2011, Abu Dhabi has invested substantial resources in efforts to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, most notably in Egypt and Libya. On the other end, Qatar has sponsored Muslim Brotherhood branches across the Arab world, viewing such factions as vehicles capable of spreading Doha’s influence and extending its geopolitical leverage. Saudi Arabia, the Council’s powerhouse, sits somewhere in the middle. The kingdom has aligned with the UAE in Egypt, where Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have invested billions of dollars in the Egyptian military since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. But in Syria, the Saudis have worked with Doha to back Sunni Islamist rebels seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.

Historical Context

Abu Dhabi’s interest in countering the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region is rooted in its concerns about the movement’s potential to challenge the status quo in the UAE’s poorer emirates, where the local Muslim Brotherhood branch has maintained a support base for decades.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt’s Arab nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood; many of its members fled to the Gulf. After the UAE gained independence in 1971, many of these Brotherhood members, in their capacity as educated and upwardly mobile members of society, gained prominent positions of power in the Emirates’ public and private sectors. They also held influence in the nation’s judiciary and education system. In 1974 they established Al-Islah, an official NGO which is understood to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s Emirati branch. By the 1990s, UAE authorities grew unsettled by Al-Islah’s increasingly political activity and banned the group’s members from holding public office.

After Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood won the 2011–2012 elections, Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Cairo grew tense. Emirati officials accused Egypt’s Islamist-led government of “encroach[ing] upon the sovereignty and integrity of other nations”. Yet, in the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the UAE announced a $4.9 billion aid package to Cairo, effectively resetting the Egypt-UAE alliance.