Previously achieving limited results in its efforts to undermine Tunisia’s relatively successful democratic transition, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has shifted in its goals to win over the north African country, as its attention is now directed towards its rivalry with Turkey and achieving its geopolitical aims in Libya.
On April 14, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) had an unprecedented phone call with Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, with discussions of cooperation over the coronavirus pandemic apparently dominating the agenda, according to the Emirati News Agency WAM. As it was apparently the first communication between an Emirati and Tunisian leader in many years, Abu Dhabi is clearly abandoning its colder ties with Tunis.
This came after a meeting on January 27 between UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al Nayhan and Saied in Carthage, with the Tunisian President also receiving an invitation to visit the UAE.
Growing communication presents Abu Dhabi with an opportunity to win over Tunis and keep it from Ankara’s influence.
Though these may seem like good will gestures, such growing communication, especially over coronavirus concerns, presents Abu Dhabi with a new opportunity to win over Tunis and keep it from its nemesis Ankara’s sphere of influence. This would also benefit Abu Dhabi in its geopolitical proxy war in Libya, where the UAE supports warlord Khalifa Haftar’s ongoing attempts to conquer Libya, against the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which borders Tunisia.
“The phone call came a few days after Khalifa Haftar lost control in parts of Libya and more specifically the loss of towns near the Tunisian-Libyan border,” Mehdi el Behi, an independent Tunisian researcher, told Inside Arabia.
El Behi therefore suggested that the call aimed to ensure that the UAE could acquire Tunisia’s support for its war efforts, and that Tunis could open its borders in case Emirati-backed military personnel needed to flee Libya.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia initially sought to interfere in Tunisia’s democratic transition, to undermine their rivals Qatar and Turkey after the 2011 Arab Spring, as they perceived Tunis’ Ennadha party-led government as uncomfortably close to Doha and Ankara.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia initially sought to interfere in Tunisia’s democratic transition, to undermine Qatar and Turkey.
Though Tunisia has been less caught up in this regional tug-of-war compared with Syria, Egypt, and Libya, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh were also fixated on undermining Tunisia’s democratic success. Both had shared concerns that any positive transition from Tunisia’s pre-revolution dictatorship could inspire other regional revolutionaries to push for reforms – and ultimately encourage greater challenges within Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s own autocratic systems. Both, particularly Abu Dhabi, also perceive political Islam as a threat to their desired regional status quo, and therefore targeted Ennahda, given its soft Islamist nature.
Prior to Tunisia’s first democratic Presidential elections in 2014, the UAE and Saudi Arabia supported the nationalist and secular Nidaa Tounes party, seeing it as a reactionary force to counteract Ennahda. Yet Abu Dhabi went even further than Riyadh in trying to undermine Tunisia’s flourishing democratic transition.
Firstly, the UAE attracted suspicions that it encouraged anti-Ennahda protests in 2013. Following the 2014 elections which resulted in a Nidaa Tounes-Ennahda coalition, the UAE reportedly persuaded the late President Beji Caid Essebsi to seize power from Ennahda in a Sisi-style coup. These colder relations persisted, as there were suspicions that the UAE may also have stoked anti-government protests in January 2018 after a fall-out the previous month following Emirates airlines’ refusal to allow women on board over “security measures.”
Yet the UAE was unsuccessful in its efforts, as Tunisia’s election of political outsider Saied last October suggests the country had largely withstood such interference and retained independence.
MbZ has since taken a new pragmatic approach in order to win over Tunisia, through friendlier gestures and diplomacy. He is currently more focused on Turkey and Libya’s war than the UAE’s regional counterrevolutionary strategy.
Following Turkey’s signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA last November, and then its military intervention in December to support the Tripoli administration against Haftar’s campaign, Ankara has been a thorn in the side of Abu Dhabi’s ambitions in Libya.
Ankara has been a thorn in the side of Abu Dhabi’s ambitions in Libya.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Saied in Carthage on December 25, and stated he believes Tunisia could contribute to Libya’s stability. The GNA’s Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha also suggested a Tunisian-Algerian-Turkish alliance was formed to support the Tripoli administration.
After all, Tunisia has largely pursued neutrality over Libya. Saied also met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on January 9 to discuss Libya’s developments. Like the UAE, France also supports Haftar, and given Paris’ significant soft power over Tunisia, Tunis would therefore avoid taking an overt stance in favor of the GNA.
Having thus far has avoided being caught in this regional struggle of interests, Tunis simply calls for a peaceful solution to Libya’s conflict and prioritizes avoiding security repercussions from the violence spilling over into its own borders. El Behi also added that France will not be able to sway Tunisia from its neutrality.
Nonetheless, the UAE may still fear such claims that Tunisia is drifting towards Turkey and is therefore acting pre-emptively to counteract such a potential bond, while also seeking its blessing for its ambitions to install Haftar as Libya’s leader.
“Tunisia is neither in the Turkish nor in the Emirati sphere of influence, although the UAE would like to sway Tunisia to support the Emirati project in Libya, which is one of military rule and stability through authoritarian control,” Dr. Andreas Krieg, Assistant Professor at King’s College London, told Inside Arabia.
“Even if not with Haftar, the UAE are promising Tunisia stability through an authoritarian state in Libya that could control the militia – an illusion which becomes ever more obvious as the Emirati client Haftar is unable to neither control the militias under the LNA umbrella nor the political factions in the East of the country,” said Dr. Krieg.
“The UAE do not only provide material support to Haftar but also political legitimacy.”
“What is important to understand here is that the UAE do not only provide material support to Haftar but also political legitimacy by selling Haftar’s now three coups to the international community as a necessary evil in the fight against ‘terrorism’,” Dr. Krieg added.
Krieg explained that as the UAE is shopping around in the West and North Africa for political support for its project in Libya, it will continue targeting Tunisia and could seek to entice it through financial aid. Tunisia’s own security concerns may also be used as bait.
Aid and diplomatic courting within North Africa are evidently key policies for Abu Dhabi’s legitimization of Haftar. Several top Emirati officials visited Sudan on April 29, to gain Khartoum’s support for Haftar and recruit pro-Haftar fighters, according to Al Jazeera. Following local media reports in January of Emirati recruiting of Sudanese mercenaries to fight alongside Haftar, Sudan launched an investigation into this, which may have compelled the UAE to further court Sudan to secure support for its involvement in Libya.