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Germany and the United Nations will host a conference in late June considering steps to forward Libya’s national elections and remove foreign mercenaries from Libyan territory. The event will be a follow-up to the January 2020 Berlin conference that helped lead to a cease-fire deal among Libya’s warring parties and the U.N.-mediated Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which in March elected a three-member Presidency Council and prime minister tasked with forming an interim government. Libya’s divided legislative body, the House of Representatives, approved Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibah’s government, allowing Libya to set up its first unified government since 2014. This unity government has been tasked with preparing for elections scheduled for December 24.
Following a 9-month blockade on oil exports after General Khalifa Hifter’s forces seized Libya’s oil fields, production resumed in November 2020 and has continued at above 1 million barrels per day. The unity government is aiming to export 1.5 mb/d by the end of 2021, which would vastly reduce the country’s budget deficit. According to the World Bank, for much of 2020, Libya’s economic performance “was the worst in recent record.” Nonetheless, the halt in fighting, resumption of oil exports, and creation of a unified government are promising steps for Libya, despite continued political divisions and disagreements over the process toward free and fair elections.
Signs of Progress
The United Nations has stipulated that Libya’s political process, even while U.N. mediated, be Libyan led and Libyan owned. Libyans are in favor of democracy and a political solution to the conflict. In an October 2020 Arab Barometer public opinion poll, 71% of Libyans said that “free elections are absolutely or somewhat essential part of democracy” and that it is “absolutely or somewhat essential that all people have the same rights regardless of religion or ethnicity.” The survey found that Libyans are most concerned about internal instability, foreign interference, and the economy.
Libya’s cease-fire agreed upon in October 2020 is holding, representing some level of consensus about the futility of continued fighting and the importance of supporting a political resolution to the conflict. In April, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted in favor of Resolution 2570 to deploy U.N. monitors before mid-September to help oversee the cease-fire. Through this framework, 60 U.N. cease-fire monitors will work with the 5+5 Joint Military Commission, which includes five representatives chosen by the former Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and five chosen by Hifter and his eastern-based Libyan National Army, to improve cease-fire monitoring mechanisms.
For the time being, major actors in Libya’s conflict, such as Hifter, are laying low. Hifter’s military discourse has shifted toward a more political narrative as much of his international and domestic support has dried up and an international consensus in support of the U.N.-mediated political process has gained momentum. Hifter seems to be gearing up to run for president, though there are potential obstacles to his bid. For example, Libya’s draft constitution, that is set to be voted on before the December elections, includes an article that forbids dual citizens (Hifter holds both U.S. and Libyan nationalities) to run for president. If Hifter is unable to run, he may decide to support a specific candidate to help maintain his relevance in Libya’s political and security landscape.
Even as accusations of vote buying marred the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum process and the election of Dbeibah as prime minister, the new unity government seems to have secured wide-ranging domestic and international support, including from international actors who were backing opposing sides in the conflict, such as Turkey, Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. This is a promising signal given the extent these and other countries contributed to stoking Libya’s divisions. The interim government is focusing heavily on restoring ties with the international community and neighbors as it seeks to resume trade and investment and garner support for postconflict reconstruction efforts.
Dbeibah’s first visit to the Gulf states was for a meeting in April with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in the UAE to discuss economic cooperation. Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly visited Libya in April to discuss trade and restoring broader economic and political ties; he was the most senior Egyptian official to visit Libya since war broke out in 2011. Turkey’s and Qatar’s foreign ministers have both visited Libya to meet with the interim prime minister. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani promised Qatari support for the interim government and committed to set up working groups to explore areas of cooperation during the transitional phase. Dbeibah also traveled to Turkey for a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in April. Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a bilateral 2019 maritime agreement, which provoked criticism from eastern Mediterranean rivals Greece and Cyprus. Erdogan pledged support for Libya’s reconstruction and security as well as medical support and vaccines to help Libya battle the coronavirus. Dbeibah additionally visited Russia, where he met with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to discuss energy cooperation and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to discuss military ties.
These meetings are surprising given that all of these countries invested heavily in supporting opposing sides in the Libyan conflict. But these international actors seem to be united in at least meeting and establishing ties with the new unity government – another positive sign for maintaining the cease-fire and supporting the political process. Of course, it is unlikely these foreign powers will readily let go of the political, economic, and defense ties that they established in Libya with various political and militia elements throughout the conflict. Turkey, the UAE, Russia, and other countries are seeking avenues for foreign influence and power projection with the new Libyan government while still maintaining a significant presence of foreign fighters in the country.
Causes for Concern
U.N. Special Envoy for Libya Jan Kubis told the Security Council in May that the process of withdrawing foreign forces from Libya had stalled. Kubis and Dbeibah have publicly criticized Russia, Turkey, and the UAE for the continued presence of foreign fighters. In a speech to parliament in March, Dbeibah argued that “The mercenaries are a stab in our back – they must leave … Our sovereignty is violated by their presence.” The continued intransigence of foreign powers, refusing to withdraw their proxy forces from Libya, highlights the risk for a return to military conflict.
Beyond the continued threats posed by foreign fighters in Libya, there are also concerns with the interim government and prime minister. Dbeibah is a billionaire businessman from Misrata who in many ways represents the corruption of the era of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Libya’s former leader appointed Dbeibah to run the state-owned Libyan Investment and Development Company in 2007, which managed Libya’s largest public works projects before Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011 by a NATO-supported uprising. However, Dbeibah’s focus on stability, jumpstarting economic activity, and attracting foreign investment in Libya is a strategy that seems to have garnered domestic and international support and secured a delicate political consensus – one that has avoided focusing on Dbeibah’s past. But, as elections approach, this fragile balancing act could very easily fall apart due to entrenched political and security divisions.
As Wolfram Lacher has argued, “So far, political actors have merely agreed to compete for access to state funds within a unified government. Distributive struggles could soon test the government’s cohesion. Meanwhile, substantive disagreements are being shoved aside.” He and other Libya experts also point to the possibility of Dbeibah’s government trying to postpone elections and hold onto power, which could ignite another political crisis. Moreover, the rush to hold elections – while driven by the mandates in the U.N. Security Council resolution – may overlook the importance of holding free and fair elections. The elections in Libya have the potential for significant irregularities and could provoke violence. And it is unclear whether they will substantively help to resolve the roots of Libya’s conflict. Moreover, elections could usher in the return of more Qaddafi-era political personalities, such as Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, who has stated that he wants to run for president. But despite the destabilizing forces elections could unleash, it is unclear if Dbeibah’s government and the entire edifice of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum are sustainable without the prospect of elections on the horizon, as promised.
Libya’s Security has Regional Implications
If the interim government can maintain this delicate political consensus, focus on economic cooperation and improving domestic stability, and prepare a legal and logistical framework for holding elections in December, this transition period could be relatively successful. But, crucially, this requires that the interim government honor its mandate to prepare for elections and step down after they take place. At the same time, serious concerns remain over whether the timing is right for elections. Libya’s security situation remains precarious, and elections could lead to a reeruption of fighting. Libya may not have strong enough institutions to hold elections this soon.
In his comments to the Security Council, Kubis emphasized that, “The high mobility of armed groups and terrorists but also economic migrants and refugees, often through channels operated by organized criminal networks and other local players across uncontrolled borders only enhances risks of furthering instability and insecurity in Libya and the region.” The ubiquity of armed groups in southern Libya has been raised as a significant concern for the security of neighboring countries. Mass displacement in Libya and the growing population of vulnerable groups, such as migrants and refugees, requires further government action and international humanitarian support.
The U.N.-mediated process on Libya has offered many reasons for optimism. However, the continued presence of foreign fighters and Libyan militias, political and military actors fearful of losing their access to state funds and protection, and a fragile unity government battling corruption and political challenges (and distracted by some of its members’ future political ambitions) all have the potential to undermine the political process and jeopardize Libya’s elections and stability.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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