Libyan National Army forces under the command of Khalifa Haftar leave Benghazi on Sunday. Photograph: Esam al-Fetori/Reuters
Blame for the renewed Libyan crisis has been laid at the doors of some of Britain’s closest allies in the Gulf, highlighting again how the UK’s commercial interests so often trump its political priorities in the Middle East.
In exchanges in the UK parliament, the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, traced the crisis to Nato’s overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, an intervention described even by the government minister Mark Field as “calamitous”. She also accused France of supporting Khalifa Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, an accusation that the Élysée Palace strenuously denies. Other MPs blamed Russian meddling.
But it is the support provided by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Haftar, highlighted by some MPs, that may cause the UK Foreign Office (FCO) the deepest unease.
The FCO’s own research, as well as the findings of the UN sanctions committee, has identified the UAE as having done most to support Haftar, hoping he will provide the firm anti-jihadist leadership it instinctively supports.
The UK government’s own assessment of what went wrong in Libya, published last year, concluded: “Haftar’s most important asset has been the steady backing he has received from the UAE and Egypt – military, political and financial support of a scale and consistency far exceeding that enjoyed by any other actor in Libya’s conflicts.”
It is certainly true successive UN sanctions committee reports have found UAE and Egypt to be providing arms to Haftar while, to a lesser extent, Qatar and Turkey funded the UN-backed government of national accord (GNA).
A UN arms embargo was first imposed in 2011 and tightened in 2014. Footage from Haftar’s current assault shows his troops using dozens of UAE-supplied armoured personnel carriers. Al-Khadim airbase near the city of Marj, from which Haftar operates, has largely been refurbished using money from the UAE, which has also been providing air support.
Few in the GNA doubt they are facing a UAE-sponsored attack, and that this was always Haftar’s chosen solution to Libya’s divisions. Brig Gen Mohammad al-Qunidi, the chief of military intelligence to the prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, has claimed they are facing a troika of Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi arms.
Speaking to Al Khaleej online newspaper on Monday, making reference to the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Qunidi said: “The three Arab countries support Haftar’s militias in order to create a new Sisi in Libya.”
Qunidi claims Saudi Arabia gave Haftar the green light to launch his attack and supplied him with money to take over the west of Libya. Haftar visited Riyadh shortly before the offensive, though that in itself is not proof of his actions being approved in advance.
On a day when lawyers for the UK government find themselves embroiled in an appeal court case defending its sanctioning of arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen, and as British officials prepare to attend another hearing into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia, the Foreign Office may again be reflecting ruefully on the behaviour of its Gulf allies.