The Proxy War in Libya: Part 1, The Triad

Map of regional rivalries in Libya: Egypt, Saudi Arabia & United Arab Emirates (UAE) versus Qatar and Turkey.

Libya Desk presents the first installment of a three-part investigation piece entitled “The Proxy War in Libya”.

Part 1 looks at the strategic geopolitical alliance between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt to fight off political Islam movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah — the so-called “Triad”.

Part 2 examines the private agendas of Qatar and Turkey, shedding light on their respective motives for being involved in the Libyan conflict.

Part 3 analyses Europe’s involvement in Libya and lays out the fundamental strategies and respective agendas of Italy, France and the UK.

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The birth of the Triad

One of the most important recent developments in Middle East politics has been the coming together of countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt as well as Bahrain in a strong geopolitical alliance meant to be the bulwark against the common threat of political Islam movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah. Whilst Bahrain is not relevant to the Libyan environment, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Riyadh have formed a Triad that has heavily lobbied Western diplomacies and sought to fight off Islamist groups at home and abroad, more particularly in countries like Yemen and Libya. The coalition, one could argue, became a matter of survival for the three as the weaponization of political Islam by Qatar and its fundamental overlap with regional rivals Iran and Turkey has become too big of a threat to ignore.

Mohammed bin Zayed and the Emirati federation, dubbed “the Sparta of the Middle East” by former Secretary of Defence James Mattis, is undeniably the cheerleader of this Triad. Contrary to other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries which have continuously harboured members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Emirati officials started their repression campaign in the mid-1990s and dealt a fatal blow to the local Al-Islahgroup in 2010, after the Islamist-inclined Sheikh of Ras al Khaimah, Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, passed away.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) in Riyadh.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) in Riyadh.

This repression campaign was a prequel to what the Emirates would do after the Arab Spring. Abu Dhabi strongly supported Abdel Fatah al Sisi’s 2013 coup in Egypt and refrained from arming the more radical branch of Syrian rebels throughout the conflict. As a result, Emirati officials developed a strong ideological opposition to political Islam movements, something that they share with Egypt’s military-held government and the new leadership of Saudi Arabia, which came to power in 2015 with King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Over the last few years, a formidable rapprochement has happened between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, with yearly informal bilateral meetings known as Khalwa al Azm, where both countries seek to homogenise their policies. More importantly, this rapprochement has been enabled by Mohammed bin Zayed’s close friendship with Mohammed bin Salman, the respective Crown Princes of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.

Both have used their diplomacies’ formidable lobbying power in the West, principally amongst Republicans in the USA, to guarantee Western support for their “counter-terrorism” actions in Iraq, Yemen, Syria but also Libya. As a result, Abu Dhabi is not only a big influencer of Saudi policy, it has also managed to be a prime influencer in Paris and Moscow, where Omar Saif Ghobash has been dispatched as ambassador. Born to a Russian mother, orphan to his father who was assassinated by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1977, the ace diplomat has made himself an indispensable interlocutor to the French and Russians when it comes to Middle East affairs. Reading his book, “Letters to a Young Muslim”, one can only gain a better understanding of the ideological positions of the circles close to MBZ: secular, tolerant but with a proclivity to favour authoritarianism over Islamic democracy. It is exactly this “liberal authoritarianism” that the UAE shares with Russia and to a lesser extent France. In Syria, Russia has increasingly sought Emirati support to restore Bashar al Assad’s legitimacy within the Arab League. Although this strategy has failed until now, the UAE has already re-opened a diplomatic representation in Damascus and sought to deepen ties with Syria through Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. Overall, for Abu Dhabi, the Baathists’ secularism represents a good enough reason to forget the Assad regime’s decade-long popular repression.

Vice President and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid (right) talks to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) during the Future Investment Initiative conference. AFP

Vice President and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid (right) talks to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) during the Future Investment Initiative conference. AFP

Of course, the Triad’s ideological opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood does not entirely impact the three countries’ foreign policies. Realpolitik remains an important part of the latter, which means that at times, the Triad does not mind allying itself with Islamists if the end goal is to avert the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah from taking power. In Yemen for instance, Abu Dhabi has time and again allied itself with the local Al Islahgroup to fight the Houthis and protect its mercenaries in the south of the country.

The Triad in Libya

In Libya, this hypocrisy is even more visible. Haftar’s LNA forces started off as a composite group made of tribal militias, Sudanese mercenaries and more importantly Salafists following the Saudi preacher Rabee al Madkhali. As long as these non-secular forces battle against Muslim Brotherhood affiliated camps in Tripoli, the Triad does not object to anything. There remains however a slight difference between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Triad in terms of tactics.

Whilst Riyadh prefers not to be engaged militarily on the Libyan battlefield and distributes money to Haftar so that the latter can co-opt militias, the UAE and Egypt prefer a more hands on approach. Although the new Emirati-aligned Saudi leadership could well change its arms-length policy towards Libya, it is important to state that it has inherited King Abdullah's non-interventionist stance, as the late-King refused to participate in "any bloodshed" in its fellow "Sunni nation", thus leaving the UAE with much free space to operate. Currently, it is possible to say that the Saudis' most important contribution in the war effort lies with intelligence, as its networks arguably overshadow that of any European state.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz, right, meets Khalifa Haftar, left, in Riyadh on March 27, 2019. Source:  Al Jazeera .

King Salman bin Abdulaziz, right, meets Khalifa Haftar, left, in Riyadh on March 27, 2019. Source: Al Jazeera.

Stronger in commitment than the Emiratis, the Egyptian military has been the LNA’s most public and unapologetic supporter, since it shares the same foundations as this military unit. Egypt's air force was quick to act in February 2015 when ISIS killed dozens of its nationals, by retaliating not only on the radical Islamists but also other Islamist groups facing the LNA. Similarly, the UAE have time and again been investigated by the UN’s Panel of Experts for violating the arms embargo and providing the LNA with logistical and technical support through the procurement of helicopters, armoured vehicles, jet fighters and drones. Most of this military hardware has come from third parties such as Jordan or Belarus, thus hinting at Moscow’s hand in the process.

Similar to Qatar, the UAE have also sought to influence the narrative on the conflict by creating two “Libyan TV channels” operating from Amman, which has also served as a “neutral setting” for GNA-LNA talks despite the Hashemite Kingdom’s visible closeness to the Triad. Both Abu Dhabi and Cairo have also been directly engaged on the battlefield through airstrikes and special operations supporting for instance Haftar’s Dignity Operation against Libya Dawn and Derna-based Islamists. Contrary to Qatar, which has found itself limited to merely supplying weapons via Tunisia or Musrata, the UAE have been able to continue such airstrikes thanks to military bases in the east of Libya: El Kharouba and El Khadem. It is also alleged that most of these Emirati operations have actually been financed by Libyan frozen-assets at the hands of Emirati authorities.

Satellite imagery from Sentinel-Hub dated September 24th and November 10th, 2017, El Khadem air base, controlled by the United Arab Emirates, in eastern Libya.

Satellite imagery from Sentinel-Hub dated September 24th and November 10th, 2017, El Khadem air base, controlled by the United Arab Emirates, in eastern Libya.

Unsurprisingly, commercial interests are also behind the Triad’s concerns. At the end of Gaddafi’s rule, the UAE were Libya’s second trade partner as the country attracted $1 billion of Emirati investments in 2008 and exported $130 million to the UAE in 2010. Logistics, construction and ICT groups from the Emirates such as the Al Ghurair Group, DP World and Etisalat are amongst the many UAE-based companies that see big money in Libya’s future and would like the country stabilised and unified to start business.

Clearly, the Triad sees in Haftar a secular strongman capable of acting as a bulwark against terrorism in North Africa. This is the narrative they have successfully built and presented to Western diplomacies. Most importantly, it is a narrative in which they believe strongly, to the point of ideological commitment. Some commentators go even as far as assuming that the Triad convinced Haftar to launch his offensive on Tripoli at the exact same time when Istanbul was changing its international airport, thus preventing Turkey from sending the needed help during the early hours of the conflict. However, libyadesk intelligence has led us to believe that the green-lighting of the operation was not the Triad's decisions alone.

When analysing the role of Gulf countries in Libya, and the extent to which they are ideologically motivated, one should not forget that the UAE were on the same side as Qatar in 2011 and that it was in Abu Dhabi that the short-lived National Transition Council was recognised as sole representative of the Libyan people. In fact, the UAE first took a realistic approach by creating links with the 'real' powers of Libya, and not just the governments and parliaments of the divided country. Abu Dhabi developed strong bilateral ties with Haftar, the strongman of the East, while simultaneously developing strong relationships with prominent militias in Tripoli, primarily Haitham Tajouri's Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and Hashim Bishir (aka “The Godfather”). This allowed the UAE to gain real influence over both regions in the country, utilising it in many scenarios to further its national interests in the country. What ensued however was the realisation in Abu Dhabi that the UAE could not rely on Libyan rebels without fearing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in that particular country, something that has put it at odds with Doha and turned Libya into another battlefield reflecting the fundamental divide that has come to characterise the Arab world current political landscape.

Hashim Bishir,  a local fixer dubbed “The Godfather” by the four Tripoli-based militias , and Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj seen in public together while touring central Tripoli on February 17th, 2017.

Hashim Bishir, a local fixer dubbed “The Godfather” by the four Tripoli-based militias, and Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj seen in public together while touring central Tripoli on February 17th, 2017.

Libya is not the first host to these countries' Cold War, nor will it be the last. Having had successfully deposed a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt, and now to an extent Sudan, the UAE-led Triad aims to do the same in Libya. The Triad sees the war in Tripoli as a regional one, where defeat is not an option. Although this is the first time the LNA has actively attempted to take Tripoli, it is actually the third plan drawn up by the Triad and Haftar to do so.

“New Mermaid Dawn” — Private & Confidential

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The Future of the Triad in Libya

As the battle for Tripoli rages on, the Triad is putting its all to ensure an LNA victory. The war itself is a culmination of years of planning and relationship building. As much as the Triad would have preferred a puppet or a "yes-man" to lead Libya, Khalifa Haftar has succeeded in making himself a recognised sovereign when dealing with the Triad’s respective leaders, giving them no choice but to deal with him as a partner, and not a proxy. This was most evident in Haftar embarrassing President Sisi behind closed doors during the Palermo conference, by downplaying Egypt’s efforts to unify the army in Cairo peace talks and declaring that a Libyan Army already existed, with him at the helm.

As the sands of conflict have yet to settle in Libya, the same could be said for the state of geopolitics in the Arab world. It is much too soon to deduce whether the Triad, is genuinely built upon the commitment to fight political Islam or rather a short-lived alliance based on national interests and Realpolitik. If the UAE and Egypt double down on their decision to support the LNA to defeat the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood, even if defeat seems imminent- we could conclude that the coalition is one built upon fundamental similarities. However, if the triad cools down its support for the LNA in order to adhere to any shift in the international community’s position on the matter, we then conclude the latter of the two.


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