As tensions heat up in Libya with barely a glimmer of hope for a ceasefire, let alone a lasting peace built on a national consensus, some have noted with a certain degree of shock that one of the primary antagonists in the Libyan civil war is not even Libyan, but is, in fact, the full economic might of the United Arab Emirates bearing down on its fellow Arab League member.
The diminutive Arab oil monarchy has been wreaking havoc for years in Libya, a country almost 3,000 kilometres away, and in a manner that has been so destructive as to cause the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, Fayez al Sarraj, to condemn the UAE’s meddling in his country’s affairs.
But what reason does the UAE have to meddle in a civil war thousands of kilometres away? And why does Abu Dhabi believe that it has skin in the game?
The short answer to that is that no one fears a democratic and free Libya more than the Emiratis.
The Arab Spring effect
If one looks at the world map, it is easy to see why Sarraj would say that the UAE has “no right” to intervene in his country’s affairs. After all, Libya and the UAE share no common borders and the Emirates already have their own significant oil stocks and a thriving economy, making them one of the wealthiest countries in the world and with no particular need for Libya’s vast oil wealth.
However, this goes far beyond the usual narratives of colonial exploitation, expansionism, and imperialism that can be applied to major global powers like the United States, Russia, or China.
For the UAE, this is an ideological conflict, one which pits the Middle Eastern ancien régime of military dictatorships and oil monarchies against the swelling desire of Arab polities to live a dignified life under civilian governments they choose.
In other words, such thinking is anathema to the ruling monarchs of the Arabian Gulf, and no other country has taken to the counterrevolutionary fight with as much gusto as the UAE.
The most recent, often violent, expression of this popular desire for freedom came about in the Arab Spring that shook the region in 2011 and was the first real threat to the old guard’s grip on power. Their reaction was to respond with overwhelming brutality and state-sponsored terror, crushing the people’s will in Egypt by way of a UAE and Saudi-backed coup, creating a proxy war in Yemen between Arab powers and Iran, instigating the mass slaughter and displacement of the people of Syria, and triggering the internecine strife that has racked Libya since the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Indeed, the only country able to avert total disaster against its democratic process has been Tunisia which recently conducted free and fair elections.
Despite the Arab Spring’s “failure” to bring about freedom across most of the lands that felt its effects, the fact that it happened at all served as an early warning system to the region’s monarchs and dictators.
The Gulf oil monarchs, for example, went to expensive lengths to buy the continued loyalty of their populations, with the UAE agreeing to pay off more than a million dollars of debt to any citizen. This demonstrates just how fearful they were of their people asking for more of a say in the country’s affairs.
Crushing freedom at home and abroad
The UAE’s threat perception of the political landscape both domestically and regionally changed entirely with the advent of the Arab Spring, an event which acted as the catalyst for a more muscular foreign and national security policy approach.
Domestically, Abu Dhabi has overseen a crackdown on political and human rights activists, most notably with the arrest and subsequent sentencing to ten years in prison of human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.
Mansoor was arrested in 2017 and held incommunicado for a year in degrading conditions without access to a lawyer. When he was finally put on trial in 2018, he was accused of fomenting sedition against the state through his human rights advocacy.
Crucially, testimonies of former American intelligence operatives show that a complicated cyber spying programme was used to illegally acquire the evidence against Mansoor, who is now being left to rot in an Emirati prison.
Regionally, and returning to Libya, the UAE has decided to pursue the strategy of backing any anti-democratic force capable of seizing power and smothering people’s hopes for freedom in the cradle.
They, alongside Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have thrown their weight behind warlord and former CIA intelligence asset Khalifa Haftar to the tune of billions of dollars to finance his mercenary Libyan National Army (LNA) which is staffed by significant numbers of foreign fighters.
Like other countries in Africa, the UAE has also financed the construction of its military bases inside Libya itself even though it barely has any of its own armed forces to speak of. They instead use bases like this and in neighbouring Niger so allied countries who do not have the independent ability to project power, such as Egypt, can utilise them for air strikes against targets to assist Haftar’s advance who is now struggling to breach the defences of Tripoli.
Should Haftar seize Tripoli and topple the GNA, it will prove to be a coup of regional proportions with the UAE being one of the main antagonists having puppeteered events from afar. It will send a message that Arab populations can expect to be under the boot for generations to come and they would be better off staying put or else risk losing all semblance of peace and stability in their lives.
If the UAE has its way, it will be generations before another attempt at freedom is made, and the next time might be even more violent than now as populations realise that protests and engaging in gradual reforms will not be respected and will instead be met with death and torture at the hands of warlords backed by the vast wealth of the UAE and its allies.
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