Qatar, the UAE and the Libya connection

The UAE perceives the possibility of a stable, peaceful and prosperous Libya as a threat to its status in the region.

Members of forces loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar ride in a truck in the Benina area, east of Benghazi
Members of forces loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar ride in a truck in the Benina area, east of Benghazi [Reuters]

The recent outbreak of diplomatic and political turmoil between key Gulf countries – namely Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain supported by Egypt on the other – is probably the most serious since the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. One of the key accusations that has been levelled against Qatar by the other three fellow GCC countries is its alleged support for terrorism and its support for Islamist groups in the region, including in Libya.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and their allies have issued a terrorist sanctions list containing 12 organisations and 59 individuals, whom they claim to have been supported and financed by Qatar. One organisation and five individuals from this list are from Libya, including militia commanders and the Benghazi Defence Brigade, which is battling forces commanded by General Khalifa Haftar, who has the backing of Egypt and the UAE.

The accusations issued against Qatar imply that it has been contributing, through supporting such groups and individuals, to the conflict and instability in Libya. This totally distorts the reality as it attempts to turn a blind eye to the fact that the UAE has been detrimentally interfering in Libya by being deeply involved in fuelling the ongoing divisions and conflict throughout the country, especially in the last three years since the breakout of civil war. The UAE has been attempting to embolden one side of the conflict, namely Khalifa Haftar and his followers, in order to allow him to achieve a total military victory and takeover as an absolute ruler of Libya thus emulating the Sisi model in Egypt.

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Immediately after the breakout of the Libyan revolution in February 2011, both Qatar and the UAE have provided political and humanitarian support for the Libyan people. Qatari and UAE planes were lifting humanitarian aid to the east of Libya, mainly to Benghazi airport, as the region was already free from Gaddafi regime control since the early days of the revolution. Once the Libyan revolution was successful in bringing down the Gaddafi regime in August 2011, the nature of both the Qatari and UAE involvement in Libya has evolved and diverged markedly with the UAE taking a much more active role militarily.

The UAE's direct military involvement in the Libyan conflict is a stark contrast to the Qatari involvement, which has been offering mainly political support and financial backing at best.


Qatar continued to offer mainly political and possibly financial support to mainstream Islamists and even to some of their ideological opponents. There has been no confirmation or proof that Qatar has financed or given any logistical support to the UN classified “terrorist” groups operating in Libya such as al-Qaeda, Ansar Sharia and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Nor have they been proven to offer support for the group not classified by the UN as a terrorist group, known as the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), which was named in the recent accusation list against Qatar.

Qatar has also maintained a consistent support for the UN-backed political dialogue which resulted in the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Morocco in December 2015 and the Government of National Accord (GNA) resulting from it.

The UAE anger at Qatari support for some Islamists and their allies, who are based mainly in Tripoli, stems from the fears of the leaders of the UAE. They view these groups in Libya becoming part of the Libyan political order and power set up as a threat and an unsettling development, due to the potential implications for the UAE’s long-term political and economic order.

In order to stem this perceived potential threat from Libya, the UAE went as far as waging air bombings in August 2014 of targets around Tripoli while “Libya Dawn” forces were fighting other militias aligned with Haftar. The UAE’s direct military involvement in the Libyan conflict (engaging in military air raids and effectively militarily aiding one side against the other) is a stark contrast to the Qatari involvement, which has been offering mainly political support and financial backing, at best.

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The UAE has been the main supporter of the military campaign waged by Khalifa Haftar in Libya since May 2014 known as the “Dignity” operation, with the help of Egypt and Jordan among others in providing this support. The UAE’s support of Haftar has not only been military but a comprehensive multi-dimensional support involving intelligence, media support and political and financial backing. Tens of millions of Emirati dirhams are spent every year on Libyan-operated media outlets, including satellite television stations beaming from Jordan and Egypt in addition to other news, internet and social media outlets. The role of the UAE-sponsored media has been very divisive in Libya by fermenting hatred and antagonism and prolonging violence and bloodshed.

The most recent high-level revelation of UAE military involvement in the Libya conflict came out only a few days ago in the form of a detailed report by the United Nations Sanctions Committee (UNSC) panel of experts and addressed to the UN Security Council. The UN report confirmed that the UAE has ignored and violated a UN arms embargo on Libya and as a result has significantly enhanced and strengthened the air power for forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar.

The UN panel of experts, which holds the responsibility of reporting on the violations of UN sanctions across Libya, stated that Haftar’s forces had received aircraft, as well as military vehicles, from the United Arab Emirates, which had also helped in building up an airbase at “Al Khadim” about 100km east of Benghazi. The report included satellite images of Al Khadim airbase, between July 2014 and March 2017, showing how there has been a gradual build-up of infrastructure and aircraft, including drones, most probably operated by the UAE.

The UN panel report confirmed a delivery of 93 armoured personnel carriers and 549 armoured and non-armoured vehicles to Haftar’s LNA through the port of the eastern city of Tobruk in April 2016. The personnel carriers included Panther T6 and Tygra models, both made by companies based in the UAE.

READ MORE: Libya – Will losing oil ports end Haftar’s power?

The report concluded that “The United Arab Emirates have been providing both material support and direct support to the LNA, which have significantly increased the air support available to the LNA. The panel stated that it requested clarification and information from the UAE but received no response.

Considering all this heavy military involvement by the Emiratis in Libya, one question has not received much attention and research: why? Why is it that the UAE is determined to manipulate events and prevent Libyans from realising national reconciliation, accord and stability? Possible underlying motives seem to be political and economic, in that the UAE sees a stable, democratic Libya as the only potential competitor in the region to its own model as an international business hub. Firstly: a genuine democratic rule model in Libya could become a source of inspiration and an aspiration for the people of the UAE. Secondly: Libya certainly has many competitive advantages over the UAE, such as its strategic location being so close to Europe, its vast natural resources holding the highest oil reserves in Africa and its moderate Mediterranean climate.

A stable Libya with its 2,000km Mediterranean coastline could potentially be the main northern gate into Africa offering multiple transit trading facilities, thus rivalling and even exceeding “Jabel Ali” in Dubai. Libya could simply become the new regional hub and international financial centre, attracting International investment and companies to set up operations as a close and convenient alternative to the UAE.

So how can Libya survive through this conspiring hostile regional environment? For start, some Libyans can stop being effectively local proxies used to serve the narrow agendas of outsiders like the UAE in Libya. Libyans need also to strive for consensus and unity in order to shut out the destructive interference of Gulf states or any others in their country.

Guma el-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.