How the Gulf Arab Rivalry Tore Libya Apart

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

Last month, the New York Times exposed leaked Emirati emails revealing the UAE’s shipment of arms to certain Libyan militias—in violation of a UN arms embargo—attempting to weaken Islamist groups allegedly sponsored by Qatar. Other leaked emails show how the UAE offered Bernardino León, former UN mediator for Libya, a high-paying position as director general of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, which he accepted while serving his then-role as mediator. Given the UAE’s outright support for the Tobruk government, many have called into question the viability of the UN’s ongoing efforts in light of the perception that León’s impartiality was compromised by a conflict of interest.

At the Camp David summit of Gulf Arab leaders earlier this year, President Obama told the Emirati and Qatari leaders that he favored an inclusive political solution in Libya. The Gulf Arab officials present agreed not to publically criticize the ongoing peace process and concurred that, as is the case with so many of the region’s conflicts, there can be no military solution. Yet, since the summit, the UAE and Qatar have reportedly continued to compete for power in Libya by backing their respective clients. Libya is certainly not the only regional battleground where Qatar and the UAE have supported opposing sides, but the stakes in that country are high for both Abu Dhabi and Doha.

Officials in Abu Dhabi have seen the rise of Qatari-backed Islamist groups in Libya and other MENA nations as an unsettling development, due to the potential implications for the UAE’s long term political and economic order. Viewing Al-Islah as a group committed to toppling the UAE’s political order, Emirati authorities have sought to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Emirati branch and antagonize the movement’s affiliates across the MENA region. In maintaining a legal, political and military campaign against political Islam, the UAE shares the Tobruk government’s conviction that the Islamist militias which have held Tripoli for the last sixteen months are “terrorists.”

Libya is where Doha is fully committed to backing its Islamist allies, which have proven resilient in many battles, have stood their ground in strategically vital areas of the country, and currently carry their share of leverage at the roundtable. Last year, the BBC described the February 17 Martyrs Brigade (a militia in the Libya Dawn coalition) as the “biggest and best armed militia in eastern Libya.”

Fighters loyal to Libya Dawn believe that they are waging the struggle against Qaddafi loyalists and authoritarianism by fighting forces loyal to the UN-recognized government in Tobruk. Whereas Qatar’s efforts to create a strong alliance with Egypt during Morsi’s presidency did not pay off, Doha sees Libya as an important battleground in the emirate’s ambitious foreign policy agenda.

Ideally, the Emirati and Qatari rulers would work together to promote peace in Libya after recognizing that stability and security in the North African nation would open many commercial and economic doors to the Gulf Arab states. In fact, one of the UAE’s main motivations for sponsoring the anti-Qaddafi uprising was to secure lucrative deals in the country following the dictator’s fall. In 2009, when Dubai’s real estate bubble burst, developers in the Emirates looked abroad, and viewed Libya as a valuable opportunity. Al Ghurair Group, DP World and Etisalat were among the major UAE-based companies which expressed interest in investing in post-Qaddafi Libya. However, Libya’s political unrest and violent turmoil forced such plans to be placed on hold.

Given that Libya’s eventual reconstruction will surely depend on support from the Gulf, the UAE and Qatar would both be wise to push toward a diplomatic settlement aimed at securing a long-term resolution of the dispute between Libya’s two governments. Doha and Abu Dhabi must recognize that neither will fully benefit from what Libya has to offer until a peaceful settlement is reached. By further militarizing the conflict, the prospects for stability in Libya will certainly diminish. If the UAE and Qatar can shift their focus in Libya from military issues to the diplomatic arena, and if both were to make ideological compromises in the process, the goal of securing peace in Libya could become more realistic. In the absence of that, the proxy war in Libya will likely continue for a long time to come, and neighboring states will continue to suffer from the destabilizing spillover effects.

The UAE and Qatar have an opportunity to positively shape the future of post-Qaddafi Libya. The question is whether they will seize that opportunity or continue to wage their proxy war in Libya.

Giorgio Cafiero is the Co-Founder of Gulf State Analytics. Daniel Wagner is the CEO of Country Risk Solutions.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Al Jazeera English

Pages