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Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms in Saudi Arabia: Threats and Chances

Javad Heirannia

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Samuel Huntington believes that phenomenon of revolution is related to the characteristics of new communities and product of the fast process of social – economic renovation beside of non – development of the political institutions in order to attract and participation of the new forces. He says: “Revolution is an aspect of renovation. Revolution happens mostly in those communities who have experienced some kind of social and economic change and their derivations of renovation and political changes have been lagged. Fast expansion of political awareness and fast move of new entered forced into the political sphere is the ink of revolution.”

According to this assumption, unbalanced development is one of the main causes for revolution. Unbalance of economic and political development is one of instances for unbalanced development where we are witnessed for existence of economic development without political one.

Dictators of the Arab states recognize grant of essential rights and freedom of their citizens illegitimate. They believe that the Arab states need such strong authorities who are able to fulfill social and political stability of their states in post-colonialism era.

They see the social and political stability more important rather political freedom and rights which are prevalent in West while the new Arab generation are most globalized and ask for having relations with abroad thanks to means of mass communication and social media. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia needs some reforms in various aspects and the future this kingdom will be faced to serious threats without these reforms. Saudis and US as their supporter knows this fact very well.

Fall of oil price during past three years and vast deficits of Saudi Arabia demonstrated that those states that are relied on oil incomes will not be able to assume it as constant income.

Muhammad ben Salman, the son of the king, prince and minister of defense of Saudi Arabia tried to show his militaristic majesty by attacking Yemen. He tries to prepare required ground for those economic and cultural reforms which Saudi Arabia will face more economic and social problems without them.

Ben Salman’s Revealing and hidden attempts to control all key centers of decision making in Saudi Arabia after rise of his father as the new Saudi king demonstrates that he follows the two projects of reforms and integration at the same time.

He used his father power to dethrone the stated prince to get appointed as the prince deputy in the first step in order to get closed to achieve kingship. Then, he captured the major part of power in his hands and changed Prince Muhammad Ben Nayef as a useless element in the political structure of Saudi Arabia and finally enforced him to resign in order to announce himself as the new prince. His second serious competitor was Mutab Ben Abdullah who had been appointed as the commander of the National Guard after rise of King Abdullah. Ben Salman could sweep him from power also successfully.

He could prepare the required field for deposition of their other competitors one by one after his presidency on the committee for fight against corruption. He has the power to enforce the travel limitations or distraint against the other princes because of his post as the president of the Anti – Corruption Committee.

Financial disarmament of the heads, capitalists, Turki Ben Naser and Valid Ben Talal as the head of this pyramid has been because of preventing them to use their capitals against Ben Salman in future. Specially, some of them are opposed to full capture of power in his hands.

Ben Nayef and Motab both were dissatisfied to Yemen War and siege of Qatar. Therefore, Ben Salman has started these arrests in security aspect in order to integrate his policies in this sphere.

Ben Salman’s measures against the prominent figures of Saudi Arabia demonstrates that he wants to set the new rules of the power game for the future decades by his hands.

But these reforms include some risks and it backs to how he could manage and control these reforms? Will these reforms be expanded into the political field also? Will these reforms create serious and critical demands by people in the sense of political power?

The historical experiences of Perestroika in USSR and modernization process of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran shows that development needs enough capacity, specially fast and commanding development in closed states which will end to eliminate political regime sometimes.

According to the 2030 Vision for Sustainable Development, Ben Salman follows decrease of Saudi dependence on producing and sale of oil to eliminate this dependency. Saudi Arabia is going to eliminate its dependence on the oil dollars as it’s only source of income till 2020 and wants to establish a governmental fund with 2 billion dollars save in order to fulfill the needs of its country by using the revenues of this deposit. Then he tries to change Saudi Arabia to a modern state and great financial power.

One of Ben Salman’s destinations was consolidation of his power in Saudi family who could expunge the opponents one by one. He could made control over oil, economic, defense and militaristic politics to expand the Saudi power in Middle East by establishment of the economic committees. He could put many of Saudi princes aside from power structure and consolidated his power using the policy of moderation and control.

But about the Ben Salman’s reforms, we have to ask what the reasons are behind these reforms and which areas are covered by these? The Saudi government granted the right to drive for women in social sphere and has promised to allow them to enter the sport stadiums. The Saudi officials also talk about construction of opera house and creating tourism related industries.

There is no doubt that one of the main aims behind these measures is improvement of the Saudi Arabia’s face in international community that is damaged because of leading war against Yemen, increase of global awareness about the role of the Wahhabi ideology in terrorist acts of ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

But this is the questions that will the “Moderate Islam” create political development and democracy? Will Saudi Arabia as the leader of suppression against the roots of those movements like Muslim Brotherhood, moves into more tolerance?

We have to pay attention that the current conditions of Saudi Arabia’s society is one of the implications for these reforms. In fact, these reforms are not avoidable and the Saudi community will be spoiled if their officials couldn’t find a treat for these conditions. More than 70 percent of Saudi community members are below 35 and they are among the most active users of Tweeter.

The old social contract which was affected by the high prices of oil under support of the Wahhabi clerics is going to be eliminated. Most of Saudi population asks for change this contract with the new one that is able to fulfill more jobs along political, social and cultural freedom. For example, making new decision on cancelation of driving ban for women has not been faced to significant critics. The young defenders of reforms and even the opponents of patrimonial political regime are aware of this point that Ben Salman is the best choice for change of freedom agenda of Saudi Arabia.

That’s why Mohammad ben Salman is following introduction of a kind of “Moderate Islam” in Saudi Arabia as a new model opposed to the classic structure of the conservative Wahhabi clerics. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s high fear from Iran is one of the main causes of such decision. The assumption of “Moderate Islam” is a part of an ideological structure relating religious radicalism and the 1979 revolution of Iran while it declines the siege of Masjid Al- Haram in the same year by Wahhabis, existence of Salafi roots of thought in the ideologies of Al – Qaeda and ISIS beside of subversive actions like war of Yemen and support for extremists in Syria or interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs. This is a dangerous gamble. Because Iran has fully demonstrated its retaliation capacity to defend its national interests when it is facing endanger.

Ben Salman says: the newly created religious extremist method in Sauidi Arabia is result of the Iranian Revolution and siege of Masjid Al – Haram by extremists in Mecca. I’m young and about 70% of our citizens are young also. We never want to put our lives in such mire which have been lasted for 30 years back because of the Iranian Revolution. Now, we want to eliminate this era and focus on improvement of our community beside of keeping our religion and traditions safe. We don’t continue our lifestyle created after 1979. That era is finished!

It has to be attended that reforms could compose the most parts of modernists, youth and social castes as supporter forces for Ben Salman and his probable successor to make a modern face from him in media networks of the world and attract the world elites.

Beside of all, enforcement of these reforms could change the negative face of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism into positive one and demonstratesWahhabism as the symbol of moderate Islam that is responsible facing new needs of the communities.

We have to pay attention to this fact that changes in Saudi Arabia is enforced to execute from up to down and not vice – versa. Most of Saudi Arabian people are more conservative rather their rulers. The history of Saudi Arabia is full of cases for facing between Al – Saud family and the religious extremists. The Religious opposition to reform can lead to the polarization of the Saudi society and weakening of the value environment of Al – Saud regime. Those religious clerics who many of them have been linked to the generations of Muhammad Ben Abdul Wahhab compose a part of Saudi political regime. They had done some threatening revolutions.

One of the causes for these reforms is increase of Saudi attraction amount in eyes of other Islamic states. At the present time, there is no kind of theology or social system in Saudi Arabia to deliver a moderate interpretation of Islam like Turkey as its competitor. As the model of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is sectarian one, it covers just some parts of the Muslims world and it is not attractive for Shiite Arab or non-Arab Muslims. Because at least the drawn short time image of Saudi Arabia is a Salafi sponsor regime that supports the extremist groups like Al – Qaeda or ISIS.

Reforms in Saudi Arabia is defined following reduce of dependence to oil. Saudis are aware that oil could not be a stable source of income to fulfill the economy of their country. That’s why attempts for getting independent form oil economy have begun from the era of Malik Abdullah. He tried to revive Islam as a moderate and scientific force which this assumption inspired the idea for establishment of Malek Abdullah Technology University. The attempts of Mohammad ben Salman are have been done in the same direction.

That’s why try for attraction of tourist in such regions like the new city of Neom that is located in seashores of the Red Sea is getting done as a more liberal area. But the fact is that having economic freedom in a conservative society and interest economy like Saudi Arabia is impossible. Because it is necessary to create some changes in cultural norms of Saudi society like what were happened in in the era of reform in evangelic Christian world in order to achieve these reforms.

There has been emphasized on economic and social development in 2030 Vision while there is no evidence of political one in this document. In addition, the personality and adopted approaches by be Salman shows putting many past political traditions aside like relative family consultation and keeping moderation and conservatism. Then, the political authoritarianism of Ben Salman in internal sphere and his offensive behavior in external sphere along economic and social reformism has changed him as a specific and creative person in the historical process of Saudi Arabia.

The highly attended point here is that social and Bureaucratic reforms will be led to political reforms finally. Because awareness and expects of the new strata of society will be increased. This fact that how much Ben Salman is able to manage the changes is a dangerous gamble.

Ph.D Student of International relations in Islamic Azad niversity،Science and Research Branch (Iran) Visiting Fellow of the Persian Gulf Department in the Center for Middle East Studies

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Turkey’s Role in the Libyan Conflict

Ivan Bocharov

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On January 8, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan met in Istanbul. Discussions focused on the launch of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, as well as topical issues on the international agenda. After the meeting, both presidents called on all parties involved in the Libyan conflict to cease hostilities from January 12 and take a seat at the negotiating table. Putin and Erdogan confirmed the high level of contractibility demonstrated earlier by other politicians on other painful issues.

Of course, the ceasefire in Libya suits Ankara’s foreign policy interests, since in a one-on-one battle, the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey and recognised by the UN as the legitimate government of Libya, would have difficulty repelling new attacks by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the General Khalifa Haftar and protecting controlled territory. Due to the intensification of hostilities in December 2019 and the new LNA campaign in Tripoli, the head of the GNA Faiz Saraj turned to the head of the Turkish state with a request to provide military support to Tripoli. Turkish President Recep Erdogan forwarded the relevant bill to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, and, on January 2, the parliament approved the sending of Turkish troops to Libya by a majority vote. Soon after Erdogan announced that Turkish units are already in Libya.

In response to the decision of the Turkish parliament to support the sending of the Turkish military contingent to Libya, the LNA commander Khalifa Haftar announced a general mobilisation. His troops are currently conducting active hostilities and are gradually moving towards the centre of Tripoli. Recent major territorial acquisitions include the non-functioning capital airport, as well as the city of Sirte and its environs. However, the fact that Turkish troops are already in Libya can significantly complicate the further attack of the LNA.

Source: https://libya.liveuamap.com/en

The Establishment of a Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean

The conclusion of two agreements with the government of Faiz Saraj preceded Turkish interference in the Libyan conflict. On November 27, 2019, Turkey signed a memorandum with the GNA on the delimitation of maritime zones in the Mediterranean Sea, which establishes new maritime borders of Libya and Turkey. The signed document confirms the rights of Ankara to a significant part of the east of the Mediterranean Sea, where there are significant natural gas reserves. Previously, Turkey carried out illegal geological exploration in the economic zone of Cyprus in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.

Source: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/map-delineates-turkeys-maritime-frontiers-in-med-sea-149379

The agreement reached between Recep Erdogan and Faiz Saraj raised concerns among other Eastern Mediterranean states also interested in gaining access to hydrocarbon production in these areas. Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus have made statements that the memorandum violates international law. The European Union also declared a similar position, which even did not recognise the maritime agreement between the Republic of Turkey and the GNA in connection with the violation of the sovereign rights of third states.

The agreements reached between Ankara and Tripoli strengthened the Turkish position in the region. Certainly, the designation of an exclusive economic zone led to even greater isolation of Turkey and the notable deterioration in relations with other states of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also important to mention that the Republic of Turkey has become somewhat dependent on the stability of the Faiz Saraj regime. The agreement with him gives Ankara at least the fragile validity of Turkish claims for a hydrocarbon-rich part of the East of the Mediterranean Sea. This means that the Turkish leadership in Libya protects not only the pro-Turkish GNA, but also its interests in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.

So Why Does Egypt Support Khalifa Haftar?

In Libya, Turkey is confronted with the interests of its foreign policy opponents; in particular, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Arab Republic of Egypt (ARE). The latter is the main ally of General Khalifa Haftar. Cairo supports the LNA, because members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation banned in Egypt, are operating in Libya. The commander-in-chief of the LNA successfully fights with them, as well as with jihadists that pose a threat to the security of ARE. Besides, the instability of the situation in Libya negatively affects business activity in the region, which is detrimental to the Egyptian economy. The troops of Khalifa Haftar are the only force capable of restoring relative order in Libya. While Haftar’s troops have established control over most of the country’s territory, including major oil fields, it is difficult for GNA to control Tripoli. The geographical factor makes Egyptian support for LNA more effective.

Through the border with Libya, militants of the “Islamic state” enter Egypt and arms smuggling flourishes. The Egyptian leadership is trying to secure its borders with the help of additional troops and armoured vehicles, for example, the Egyptian space satellite used to control the border effectively. ARE authorities say that most of the weapons used by the ISIS cell in the Sinai Peninsula come from neighbouring Libya. The statistics demonstrate the scale of the problem. For example, from 2015 to 2017 Egyptian soldiers destroyed more than 1,200 trucks with weapons and explosives sent from Libya to Egypt.

The House of Representatives promises to build a border wall on the border with Egypt, although the effectiveness of the project raises great doubts – the length of the wall will be merely 1 km, while the length of the border between the two states is more than 1,100 km.

Nevertheless, the government controlled by Khalifa Haftar is demonstrating a willingness to tackle the problem of arms smuggling across the Libyan-Egyptian border. Additionally, Khalifa Haftar proved that he would rather fight terrorist groups than negotiate with them. The terrorist threat posed by militants in Libya is a serious security challenge in Egypt, so Cairo supports Haftar in the Libyan conflict. Besides, the GNA is a government focused on Ankara, Cairo’s foreign policy opponent. Any strengthening of the government of Faiz Saraj in Egypt is perceived as strengthening the position of Turkey in North Africa.

Cairo actively reacted to the signing of agreements between Turkey and the GNA, as well as to the introduction of the Turkish military in Libya. In particular, President al-Sisi called the President of Cyprus Nikos Anastasiadis and the President of France Emmanuel Macron to discuss measures to impede the implementation of the agreements reached between Ankara and Tripoli.

Egypt told the UN Security Council that it does not recognise the agreements. According to the representative of Egypt to the UN, Mohammed Edris, Egypt does not consider the signed memorandums as legitimate, because they were not ratified by the Libyan House of Representatives.

The Role of Extra-Regional Players in the Libyan Peace Building Process

The position of the Republic of Turkey on the Libyan issue is not shared with its NATO allies – France and the United States. Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron contributed to the formation of the diplomatic status of Khalifa Haftar and supported his political independence. When Haftar tried to take Tripoli in the spring of 2019, France blocked an EU statement urging Khalifa Haftar to stop the LNA attack on Tripoli. Besides, according to the media, France supplied anti-tank weapons to the LNA, bypassing the arms embargo. In particular, Javelin missiles were handed over to Khalifa Haftar’s troops.

In April 2019, the unique role of Field Marshal Haftar in the fight against terrorism in Libya was recognised by U.S. President Donald Trump. Then Washington threatened to block the UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and stop the advance of troops in Tripoli. Responding to the new offensive of Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan capital, the White House invited the parties to the Libyan conflict to refrain from receiving outside assistance, and thus again supported the actions of the LNA unofficially. This initiative was directed primarily against Turkey and the transfer of the Turkish military to Libya.

In addition to France and Egypt, Khalifa Haftar is supported by Jordan and the UAE. In addition to providing financial assistance, some countries supply weapons to the LNA, despite the UN arms embargo. UAE delivered LNA unmanned aerial vehicles. Turkey, of course, provided GNA drones.

To sum up, Libya is becoming one of the key strategic directions of Turkey’s foreign policy, which is probably considering the country as an arena for confrontation with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the UAE, and other unfriendly states. At the same time, the mutual dependence of Ankara and Tripoli on each other is growing. Turkey is the main ally for the GNA, for the sake of which it is ready to send its troops to the combat zone. The formal legitimacy of the Turkish geological exploration and Ankara’s rights to the exclusive economic zone depends on the durability of the Faiz Saraj regime.

Dissatisfaction with Ankara’s actions continues to grow: the decision to introduce Turkish army units was condemned by the United States, the EU, Russia and some regional actors. Turkish troops will not leave Libya as long as Haftar’s forces besiege Tripoli. A major problem remains the agreements reached between Turkey and the Saraj government on military cooperation between Ankara and Tripoli, as well as the delineation of exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean Sea. Washington promised to support Cyprus and Greece in resolving the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, and Erdogan promised not to recede from concluded deals even though, as we know, it is a clear violation of the arms embargo and inconsistency with the principles of international law.

The USA, France and some other states continue to regard the LNA as the main bulwark of the fight against terrorism in Libya. Haftar’s troops remain the most combat-ready armed forces, which have a much higher chance of stabilising the situation in Libya than their opponents. It was demonstrated by the victorious struggle of the LNA with the terrorist groups Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, Wrath of Fesan, etc.

Al-Sisi supports Haftar for the same reason, besides the issue of ensuring stability in Libya is directly related to the security of his state. Also, both politicians declare their tough stance towards Islamism, which makes them ideological allies.

Unfortunately, the establishment of a ceasefire can only lead to a temporary de-escalation of the conflict. In this situation, Russia may call on its partners not to violate the arms embargo on Libya. Besides, Moscow could initiate the adoption by the UN Security Council of a troop withdrawal resolution of any units of foreign states from the territory of the Libyan State. This measure would significantly reduce the degree of tension that has arisen in Libya in the past few weeks. Also, Russia can be an intermediary in the negotiations between the Libyan House of Representatives and the GNA. This is especially evident after Russia’s victories over ISIS in the Syrian Arab Republic, the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, it’s possible that the role of Moscow as a broker of dialogue will bring positive results.

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Libyan reconciliation: Via Moscow on to Berlin

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During the January 8 talks in Istanbul, Turkey and Russia, acting as “mediators,” called on all parties in Libya to “cease hostilities from midnight on Sunday, January 12, 2020, declare a sustainable ceasefire, supported by necessary measures to be taken for stabilizing the situation on the ground and normalizing daily life in Tripoli and other cities, to immediately sit down at the negotiating table in order to put an end to the suffering of the Libyans and return peace and prosperity to the country.” The leaders of the warring parties – the Prime Minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Sarraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) – were invited to Moscow for talks.

While the GNA, hard-pressed by the situation at the front, was quick to accept the Russian-Turkish proposal, Haftar, whose forces are advancing on the capital, took his time.

“We welcome [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s call for a ceasefire. However, our fight against terrorist organizations that seized Tripoli and received support of some countries will continue until the end,” Haftar’s spokesman said.

However, Haftar was eventually persuaded by Russia to attend the Moscow parley.

The negotiations between the rival Libyan leaders, preceded by consultations by Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers, were conducted through intermediaries. Sarraj refused to meet in person with Haftar, saying that the LNA continued its advance, but still agreed to a ceasefire deal proposed by Moscow and Ankara. Khalifa Haftar first said he needed time to think it over, and then left Moscow altogether, explaining to the Russian military representatives that he was taking a time out to consult with his allies. According to media reports, he was not content with the absence in the text of the agreement primarily of clauses concerning the dissolution of GNA units, the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Libya and the annulment of memorandums signed by Tripoli and Ankara. Buoyed by their gains on the battlefield, the LNA leaders apparently prefer to talk with their opponents from a position of strength.

It was apparently with this understanding in mind that, immediately after their commander’s departure from Moscow, the LNA representatives said they were all set to achieve “the complete liberation of the capital from terrorists.” According to media reports, shortly after that, hostilities resumed south of Tripoli.

Meanwhile, the GNA’s ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to “teach” Haftar “a lesson” if he did not stop his military advance on Tripoli. As to his ally, Sarraj, on his way back from Moscow, he made a stopover in Turkey, where he met with the US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, at a hotel in Istanbul to discuss “issues of mutual interest.”

Well, the foreign policy context of the Libyan crisis is by no means less complicated than Syria’s. Sarraj is backed by Turkey and Qatar, and has Muslim Brotherhood units fighting on its side, while Haftar’s Libyan National Army faction is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Europe is trying to reconcile the warring parties, and Italy, France, and more recently Germany, have equally been active in this effort. The United States is “waking up” too.

While Syria is of little interest to most Western nations, Libya happens to be a sort of Europe’s underbelly the main flow of African refugees goes through. Besides, Libya’s hydrocarbon reserves are incomparable with Syria’s. Notably, just as Russian and Turkish officials were meeting in Istanbul, Sarraj was in Brussels meeting with EU representatives, and Haftar was on a visit to Rome.

Moscow has always kept an equal distance from both Tripoli and Tobruk (the seat of the House of Representatives and the interim government of Libya, supporting LNA), emphasizing its contacts with both sides of the conflict.

Now, Turkey and Russia have apparently decided to implement the successful Astana format, as some experts believe that the role once played by Iran could be assigned to Algeria both Moscow and Ankara are on good terms with now. During his inauguration ceremony last year, Algeria’s new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, prioritized the development of closer ties with Libya.

This won’t be easy though, just as the rival Libyan leaders demonstrated to a full extent in Moscow. Still, after many hours of negotiations, the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers spoke about having achieved “certain progress.” As a result of the two countries’ diplomatic effort, the irreconcilable (at least for now) Libyan enemies eventually arrived in Moscow – the last time Sarraj and Haftar met was a year ago, even before the LNA launched its “decisive attack” on Tripoli (April 2019). Moreover, “the main result of the meeting was the achievement of agreement in principle between the conflicting sides to maintain and indefinitely continue the cessation of hostilities, which creates a more favorable atmosphere for the Berlin Conference on Libya,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Russia wants much more than just to replicate Syrian developments, even the most successful ones. Moscow wants to get Europeans and regional actors working together to end the bloodshed in Libya.

“We want to combine the efforts being made by Europeans, including Germans, French and Italians, and by Libyan neighbors – Algeria, Egypt, and also the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, and the Russian Federation, to make sure that everyone works together to encourage all the Libyan parties to come to an agreement,” Russia’s acting Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said ahead of the Berlin Conference on Libya, scheduled for January 19.

Germany hopes to bring Fayez Sarraj, Khalifa Haftar, representatives of Russia, the US, China, Britain, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, the African Union, the EU, the United Nations and the League of Arab States to the negotiating table to discuss and, quoting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, “possibly adopt” a document that will lead to a sustainable cessation of hostilities and start the political process under the auspices of the United Nations.

Skeptical as many experts are about the outcome of the Berlin meeting, it still seems that chances of success look very real. On the one hand, the position of Fayez Sarraj, who earlier said he was ready to agree, remains precarious. On the other hand, the highly representative lineup of participants in the Berlin forum may well convince Haftar (or his representatives, if the Field Marshal does not show up) to more realistically assess his capabilities. Therefore, the LNA’s activities following the Moscow talks could just be an attempt to strengthen its negotiating position ahead of the Berlin Conference.

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The battle for Libya: The UAE calls the shots

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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This week’s inauguration of a new Red Sea Egyptian military base was pregnant with the symbolism of the rivalries shaping the future of the Middle East as well as north and east Africa.

The inauguration took on added significance as rebel Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, backed by United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, snubbed Russian president Vladimir Putin by refusing to agree to a ceasefire in the Libyan war.

Mr. Haftar’s refusal thwarted, at least temporarily, an effort by Mr. Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to structure the ceasefire so that it would align opposing Russian and Turkish interests, allow the two parties to cooperate in the exploitation of Libya’s energy resources, and protect a Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement creating an Exclusive Economic Zone that strengthens Russian-backed Turkish manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean.

The manoeuvres are designed to thwart a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli agreement to build a pipeline that would supply gas to Europe, reducing European dependence on Russian gas in the process.

Critics charge that the maritime agreement that would limit Greek-Cypriot Israeli access to hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, violates the Law of the Sea.

Warning that it would block European Union backing for any Libyan peace deal as long as the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement was in place, Greece was one of the countries Mr. Haftar visited in the days between his rejection of a ceasefire and a conference on Libya hosted by Germany that is scheduled to be held in Berlin on January 19.

Mr. Haftar’s rejection came as Turkish troops arrived in Libya to bolster forces of the internationally recognized government of prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj defending the capital Tripoli against an eight-month old assault by the field marshal’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) that is backed by Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Kremlin, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Prince Mohammed’s presence at the inauguration of the Egyptian naval base underlined the UAE’s influence in Egypt since it backed Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratic elected president and the Emirates’ determination to counter Islamist forces as well as Turkish influence in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

UAE and Egyptian backing of Mr. Haftar is not just about countering jihadist and non-jihadist Islamists as well as Turkey, but also Qatar, Turkey’s ally, which also supports the Libyan rebels.

The UAE-Turkish-Qatari proxy war in Libya is increasingly also coloured by Prince Mohammed and Mr. Al-Sisi’s opposition to efforts to resolve divisions among the Gulf states that spilled into the open with the declaration of a Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in 2017.

Saudi Arabia has hinted in recent months that it may be amenable to an easing of the boycott, a move that is believed to be opposed by the UAE as long as Qatar does not make significant concessions on issues like freewheeling broadcaster Al Jazeera and support for political Islam.

The new naval base’s location symbolizes Egypt’s conundrum that also poses a problem for the UAE at a time that Egypt is at odds with Ethiopia over the operation of a giant dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

Stepping up involvement in Libya risks Egypt becoming embroiled in two conflicts at the same time.

Egypt claims the dam puts a million Egyptian jobs, US$1.8 billion in economic output annually and electricity valued at US$300 million at risk.

The base is aimed at “securing the country’s southern coasts, protecting economic investments and natural resources and facing security threats in the Red Sea,” according to a spokesman for Mr. Al-Sisi.

The president has warned that Egypt would take all the necessary measures to protect its rights to the Nile waters.

So far, Egypt is banking on mediation helping it avoiding being trapped between a rock and a hard place by achieving a ceasefire in Libya that would keep Egypt’s hands free to deal with Ethiopia were a conflict to erupt.

The question is whether Mr. Haftar, who without signing the ceasefire agreement reportedly told German officials that he would adhere to its terms, and the UAE are willing to play ball.

The proof will be in the pudding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes by insisting in advance of the Berlin talks that they ensure “that the weapons embargo is adhered to again.”

The United Nations has accused the UAE together with several other countries, including Turkey, of violating the UN embargo.

As a result, it may be the UAE rather than Mr. Haftar who has a decisive voice in Berlin.

Said North Africa expert Ben Fishman: “Until Abu Dhabi pulls back its drones, operators, and other crucial military support, the prospects for Libya’s stability will remain dim. Besides the fact that they provide the greatest advantage to Haftar’s forces, focusing on the Emiratis also makes sense because the other foreign players currently have reasons to de-escalate on their own.”

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