Forces like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt that have destabilised the UN-backed government in Libya may be shifting their approach.

Beset by a decade of turmoil with various phases of civil war since the 2011 “Arab Spring” unrest, Libya might be one of the most difficult foreign policy files for the new US administration. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken now face a messy situation in the war-torn North African country.

The actions of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, Turkey, and other regional powers, which filled a void created by the Trump administration’s decision to take a more hands-off approach to Libya, leave Biden’s administration with difficult geopolitical dilemmas to take on. 

So how will the Biden administration deal with conflicts of interest between them and “counter-revolutionary” states like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt? Whereas the Trump administration condemned Russian actions and rebuked Turkey’s military interventions in Libya (even if not until the final month of being in power), the last president’s team never criticised Emirati, Saudi, or Egyptian conduct in the Maghrebi country. 

In many ways, Trump and his chief diplomat, Mike Pompeo, were keen to view issues pertaining to terrorism and extremism in ways that aligned closely with Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo’s perspectives, positions, and priorities. 

Now the new leadership in Washington is speaking out against not only Moscow and Ankara’s military roles in Libya, but also Abu Dhabi’s too. On January 28, the UN Security Council held its first meeting on Libya in which the American diplomat was representing the new US administration. 

The US’s acting ambassador to the UN Richard Mills said, “We call on all external parties, to include Russia, Turkey, and the UAE, to respect Libyan sovereignty and immediately cease all military intervention in Libya.” 

One can persuasively argue that Biden’s team will be much farther away from being on the same page as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on questions about political Islam and terrorism compared to Trump’s administration. 

Put simply, these three Arab states will need to contend with a new US administration that is much less sympathetic to their “counter-revolutionary” agendas and crusades against political Islam in Libya. 

Furthermore, the Biden administration’s decision to review arms sales to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi — including its temporary freeze of the transfers of F-35 fighter jets to the Emirates — means that Saudi Arabia and the UAE must adjust to new US leadership that will put their human rights abuses under more of a spotlight. 

If so, this would markedly contrast to the Trump administration’s positions that putting these stealth fighters in Emirati hands and arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth was important for heaping pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Are the UAE and Egypt embracing a new course in Libya?

One day after Mills’ remarks before the UN Security Council, the UAE’s ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh wrote a letter which recognised “urgent need for renewed diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Libya”. She said Abu Dhabi “stands ready to work closely with all Security Council members, including the new US administration, to achieve a peaceful settlement for the Libyan people.” 

The UAE welcomed the UN Security Council’s “call for all foreign forces to withdraw from Libya” and stated that external actors’ “intervention in the conflict must end now,” according to Nusseibeh’s letter, which said Abu Dhabi “firmly believes that diplomatic and political solutions are the sole path to end the Libyan conflict.” 

It would mark a significant change in the UAE’s approach to Libya if Abu Dhabi would abandon, or at least limit, its ambitions to install a dictatorial regime under the banner of promoting “authoritarian stability” in Libya. 

With much leverage over General Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) has received high levels of support from the UAE in the form of drones, aircraft, and heavy weaponry, Abu Dhabi would be in a strong position to pressure the eastern commander into giving up on his plans for achieving any sort of a military victory in the civil war while accepting the inevitable need to negotiate in good faith with the Turkish-backed and UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). 

To be sure, it is premature to determine whether the letter from the UAE’s ambassador to the UN was just purely rhetoric and aimed at creating optics to please the new US administration, or a sign of a major shift in Abu Dhabi’s Libya foreign policy. Experts such as Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, predict that the Emiratis will maintain their support for Haftar yet also diversify their options in Libya by expanding Abu Dhabi’s diplomatic role in the conflict. 

There are signs of Egypt possibly taking more diplomatic positions on Libya. The most recent one was the Egyptian delegation headed by Deputy Head of General Intelligence Ayman Badie visiting Tripoli for talks with the GNA late last year. The visit, which marked the first by Egyptian officials to Tripoli since the Libyan civil war broke out in May 2014, followed months of Egypt and the GNA gradually moving toward a rapprochement. 

Although the extent to which Cairo shifts its overall stance on Libya away from supporting Haftar’s push for a military solution remains to be seen, it should not be lost on observers that there is a real chance for Egypt to build on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s al-Ula summit’s easing of the Gulf crisis.

Looking ahead, the UAE and other counter-revolutionary states which have become deeply involved in Libya’s chaotic crisis must deal with the arrival of the Biden administration which will cease to give them the same free hand in Libya that Trump did throughout the previous four years. Thus, it would make sense for these countries’ leaders to accept realities created by Haftar’s losses on the ground amid the pro-GNA forces’ counter-offensive of 2019/2020 and pursue more diplomatic, balanced, and limited ambitions in Libya. 

With Biden’s administration likely to embrace a more pro-GNA agenda, this could also help safeguard their interests in fostering positive relations with the new White House inhabitants. 

For now, there are more questions than answers regarding how much we should read into Nusseibeh’s letter. Nonetheless, the words from the UAE’s ambassador to the UN are a positive indicator of what might become a more stabilising role that Abu Dhabi and others could begin playing in Libya’s simmering conflict.

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