Saudi Arabia and UAE Fuel Conflict in Libya to End Protests in Algeria

Just days after his return from Riyadh, Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar advanced from his base in eastern Libya to seize control of western Libya. At the same time, the unrest in neighboring Algeria continues as the UAE supports army chief Gaid Salah. Why are Saudi Arabia and the UAE worried about the protests in Algeria and what are their interests in Libya?
Helal Aljamra
A Yemeni journalist, graduated from Sana'a University, Media Faculty in 2008 and has worked in the Yemeni press since 2007. He worked as an editor for the Yemeni newspaper Al-Nida. In 2010 he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the same newspaper. He co-founded the Yemeni Parliamentary Observatory and worked as a press editor for the Al Marsad website in 2009. He carried out numerous investigations and worked on the enforced disappearance cases during the Yemeni wars (Saada war 2009-2010), which provoked great reactions as well as press inquiries about Yemeni prisons and abuses. He was awarded the second best news article Award at the 12th session of a competition organized by the Center for Arab Women for Training and Research «Kawther», based in Tunisia in 2014. Participated in a number of specialized training courses in the field of journalism as well as the preparation and conducting of investigations. He holds a Master's Degree in Political Communication from the Higher Institute of Media and Communication in Rabat in 2018.

While Algeria is experiencing a second wave of Arab Spring-like uprisings that resulted in the resignation of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika last month, Libya has been entangled in a power struggle between Fayez al-Sarraj’s internationally-recognized government and eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) recent involvement in Algeria and Libya hints at a link between the ongoing turmoil in Libya and the recent upheaval in Algeria. It appears that the two Gulf countries, as well as France, have encouraged Haftar to advance on western Libya to divert attention from, and sideline Algeria’s nationwide popular movements.

The Gulf-Driven Offensive in Fragmented Libya

Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, Libya has been plagued by a full-scale civil war. In 2014, Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) aligned with a regional government in opposition to al-Sarraj’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

Since the LNA controls major parts of Libya, Haftar would likely have been recognized as the country’s dominant political force in a UN conference that had been scheduled for mid-April.

However, the conference, which aimed to end the conflict by agreeing upon “a consensual position to address the causes of Libya’s long-standing political impasse and to produce an electoral roadmap,” was canceled as a result of Haftar’s raids on Tripoli on April 4. The attacks indicate that the LNA leader does not seem interested in winning the Libyan presidency through fair elections. Haftar’s bold move, with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s supposed support, took many by surprise.

In late March, King Salman of Saudi Arabia met with Haftar to assert Riyadh’s desire to achieve “security and stability [in] Libya.” However, after Haftar deployed his forces to the west of the country ostensibly to “eradicate terrorist groups,” Saudi officials revealed that Riyadh had promised tens of millions of dollars of funding to Haftar’s offensive.

The LNA is attacking Tripoli with arms supplied by Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, who are allegedly seeking to establish a military regime in Libya, according to the chief of military intelligence under al-Sarraj. He claimed that the eastern warlord could not afford the financial and military assets needed to combat al-Sarraj’s army until after his trip to Riyadh.

The two Gulf monarchies support Haftar because they see him as someone who can help them counter Islamist factions in Libya. Abu Dhabi is also keen to support the Libyan commander for economic reasons. In July 2018, the UAE held secret negotiations with Haftar to explore how they could export Libyan oil through channels other than the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation, the sole UN-approved exporter. After the LNA seized control of a number of ports in Libya’s “Oil Crescent”—an oil-rich coastal area spreading from Tobruk to Es Sider in eastern Libya—in June 2018, Haftar redirected the daily export of 850,000 oil barrels to a non-UN-approved Emirati company.

In exchange, the UAE provided funding to pro-Haftar nominees in the national elections that were supposed to be held in December 2018, but were scuttled.

Libyan Escalation in Exchange for Algerian De-escalation

Although the UAE and Saudi Arabia have not officially made public their position on the current popular demonstrations in Algeria, their off the record involvement is beginning to stir up controversy.

While Libya has been struggling to achieve peace and stability for over eight years, Algerians successfully pressured their long-time dictator Bouteflika into resigning on April 2. Furthermore, Algerians have continued to protest insisting on the removal of all remnants of Bouteflika’s administration, including Algeria’s newly appointed interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and army chief and de facto ruler, Gaid Salah.

Indeed, in the wake of the people’s protests in February, Salah visited Abu Dhabi, which like Riyadh, is notorious for its hostility towards democratic movements. Since then, the UAE-state owned media has started promoting the Algerian military as the guarantor of stability in the country and Salah as the “man of the hour.”

It appears that the Gulf monarchs are trying to “re-envision” Algeria’s leadership, financially supporting and promoting Salah in the same way they did to buttress Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt when he overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi (Egypt’s first democratically elected president) in 2013. Aware of the behind the scenes intrigue, the Algerian people have been protesting against the UAE’s intervention in their country’s politics and explicitly rejecting the Algerian military apparatus they deem no longer trustworthy.

There are multiple potential drivers behind the Gulf countries’ interventions in Algeria and Libya. First, the UAE fanned the flames of conflict in Libya to discourage the Algerians from rising up against their government because the Gulf country is afraid that the success of Algerian protesters might trigger Emirati demonstrations.

Second, it appears that the Gulf monarchs are attempting to deepen the rift between Algeria and Haftar. Algeria is a serious regional power, and as such, it presented an obstacle to Haftar’s advance into Libya. Since 2014, Algerian officials have refused to hold talks with the Libyan commander regarding Algerian-Libyan border security, stating that they would only communicate with UN-backed Libyan officials.

In 2018, Haftar threatened Algeria, claiming that the current Libyan “war could be spread, in moments, to the Algerian border.”  Still, Algerian authorities refused to legitimize Haftar’s leadership and ignored his threats. Since then, Haftar has taken advantage of the Algerian leadership’s internal preoccupation with popular demonstrations to launch his long-awaited expansion into his own country.

Haftar’s threats against Algeria may be yet another ploy by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to intimidate the Algerian people and leadership to capitulate by prioritizing concerns for security over hopes for reform. To be sure, heightened tensions between Algeria and Libya could serve as a justification for Salah to declare a state of emergency to force Algerians to curb their demands.

At the moment, Haftar is gearing up to seize complete control of his own country, thus hindering the UN’s attempts to lay the foundations for a stable and democratic Libya. Algeria, which continues to be consumed by daily protests, is scheduled to hold elections on July 4. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who fear that pro-democracy movements might undermine their own regimes, continue to plot against other Arab nations and terrorize dissenters by propping up repressive al-Sisi-like regimes across the Arab world.