Qatar's ability to advance its interests in Libya will be tied to Turkey's success.
When the “Arab Spring” uprisings erupted across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) nearly a decade ago, Qatar was the one Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member which saw a need for revolution. Amid this period, Doha generally supported “Arab Spring” activism throughout the Levant and Maghreb, though not closer to home in fellow Arab Gulf monarchies such as Bahrain.
As the Qatari leadership saw it, Doha giving support to triumphant revolutionaries in their struggles against decades-old authoritarian regimes would serve Qatar’s long-term interests.
Arguably, Libya was the “Arab Spring” case where Doha’s engagement made the greatest difference. Qatari intervention in Libya’s first civil war (2011), which Doha justified on humanitarian grounds, was critical to the destruction of Moammar Gaddafi's government.
Qatar’s astonishing intervention in Libya
As the momentum was turning against Gaddafi, Qatar’s role in the crisis was intriguing. With deep pockets, Qatar invested in the revolution against a dictatorship in power since 1969. Doha deployed hundreds of troops to the conflict and used its special forces to give anti-Gaddafi Libyan fighters basic infantry training.
Qatar sent the rebels French MILAN antitank guided missiles and Belgian FN assault rifles, as well as food, telecommunications equipment, medicines, fuel, and water supplies. Furthermore, Qatar sent six Mirage fighter jets to help NATO’s campaign, underscoring Doha’s muscular foreign policy that challenged an assumption that a tiny Arabian emirate the size of Connecticut could never become a geopolitical heavyweight in the MENA region. Such actions on Doha’s part led to The Economist describing Qatar as a “pygmy with the punch of a giant.”
It was not all about weapons. Qatar also relied on its ‘soft-power’. Based in Doha, Libya TV gave the Libyan revolutionaries a platform for their voices to be heard all over the world and to counter Gaddafi’s messages. This highlighted Qatar’s ability to help influence narratives throughout the wider Arab/Islamic world.
Similarly, in other parts of the MENA region, such as Egypt and Tunisia, Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera took a ‘pro-revolution’ tilt that some scholars such as Marc Lynch have argued was significant in its impact on the outcome of “Arab Spring” uprisings.
The leader of the National Transitional Council, which held power after the 2011 revolution until its dissolution in 2012, stated that Doha had “planned the battles that paved the way for victory.”
In the city of Tobruk, one oil engineer on the side of the rebels said, “Even the little child [in eastern Libya] knows Qatar’s role and assistance to us.”
Doha also gave Libya’s rebels strong moral and diplomatic support. Qatar was the first Arab League member to recognise the legitimacy of anti-Gaddafi rebels. Significant was Doha’s success in rallying more Arab League members behind the UN Security Council resolution that provided NATO with an international mandate to “protect civilians” in Libya amid the 2011 revolt.
As Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen wrote: “Such declarations reinforced the Qatari leadership’s perception that the Libya crisis offered an opportunity for Qatar to align its support for the protection of human rights and democratic expression in a manner that resonated powerfully with the (Western-led) international community. The bloodshed unleashed by a flailing regime with few regional partners or international allies represented a safe target on which to make a high visibility stand against tyranny and authoritarian misrule.”
Yet the goodwill which Qatar gained in Libya began crumbling in 2012-2013 as chaos ensued across the country. With powerful militias carrying out scores of bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, there was a substantial backlash against 'Islamists' and, by extension, Qatar, which gained a reputation for backing them in Libya.
Some nuance is necessary here. Doha was not exclusively supporting so-called Islamist groups in Libya. In fact, Qatar backed diverse rebel groups while also offering residency to former high-ranking officials of the Gaddafi regime. Perhaps it is safe to argue that throughout the revolution of 2011, Qatar was hedging and ultimately supported 'Islamists' because they were the most successful revolutionaries, not because of their ideology.
Regardless, perceptions themselves are realities and during 2012-2013 more Libyans perceived Doha as guilty of fanning the flames of extremism in their country.
In Libya, as well as in Egypt and Tunisia, citizens angry at Qatar took to public places to burn the emirate’s national flag as well as effigies of Qatar’s emir.
In response to the tide turning against Doha in terms of Libyan public opinion, Qatar decided to significantly lower its profile in the country albeit without completely walking away from all that it had invested in Libya from trade to economic interests and diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing about intra-Libya reconciliation.
Qatar’s current agenda in Libya
Although Qatar’s Libya foreign policy became less active after Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani's ascendancy to the throne, Doha has maintained interests in the war-torn North African country. Moreover, Qataris have recently been increasing their involvement in Libya.
Last month, Qatar, Turkey, and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) announced their signing of a military deal. Reportedly, Ankara and Doha will establish facilities in Libya for military training with Turkish and Qatari advisors and military personnel on the ground in order to strengthen the GNA.
Yet this MoU will not drastically increase Qatar’s military footprint, at least not nearly as much as it will increase Turkey’s. Most likely, Doha will largely work in Libya via Ankara, which is how Qatar began asserting influence since the Turks intensified their direct military intervention against warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces in 2019.
While the countries blockading Qatar point to Doha’s ties with elements in Libya’s GNA as evidence of the emirate’s alleged sponsorship of “terrorism”, the Qataris see their support to the GNA as necessary for stabilising the country through a pluralistic system.
In fact, this is reflective of Doha’s approach to North Africa at large, where Qatar stands in contrast to the foreign policy agendas of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which view democratisation as a grave threat. These counterrevolutionary Arab regimes believe that “authoritarian stability” is the model that best ensures stability.
For the UAE and others which view the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, political pluralism constitutes a nightmare. Qatar, however, believes that lasting stability, as opposed to merely short-term stability, requires bringing Libya’s religious parties onboard into a national dialogue about how to govern the country.
“Qatar’s approach in Libya is far less zero-sum than the approach taken by the UAE as Qatar does not want to install any regime in Libya but facilitate the development of good governance structures whatever they may be, leaving the final decision on the post-revolutionary order in the country to Libyans,” explains Dr Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King's College London.
Looking ahead, Qatar’s ability to successfully advance its interests in Libya will likely be closely tied to Turkey’s own success.
At the same time, the extent to which the Qataris can bring western powers—chiefly the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany—to further support Doha’s Libya foreign policy will heavily impact the prospects for Qatar achieving its objectives in the war-torn North African country.
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