Following his recent operational successes in southern Libya, Khalifa Haftar is gaining momentum. And the UAE, his key ally, appears to be taking on a more robust role in driving developments in Libya, as we predicted. Abu Dhabi played host to a number of important recent meetings between major Libyan players, including National Oil Corporation (NOC) Chairman Mustafa Sanalla, Government of National Accord (GNA) head Fayez Serraj and Haftar. According to Horizon contacts, US diplomats were also present for some of the meetings. The NOC said that Sanalla was in the UAE to discuss security measures necessary to find a solution to the continuing Sharara shutdown – one that would guarantee staff safety and pave the way for the lifting of force majeure at the oilfield. However, at the time of writing, Sharara remains shut.
Much speculation surrounded the meeting between Serraj and Haftar, both before and afterward. Haftar engaged in his usual posturing, giving the impression that he would not attend the meeting, just as he did in Palermo in November. Contacts close to the GNA briefed Libyan media outlets claiming that Serraj was insistent on the need for military forces to submit to civilian authority, an idea that Haftar has resisted so far.
Given his recent gains in southern Libya, Haftar seems less likely than ever to compromise, and some Western diplomats are now speculating about his chances of moving on Tripoli. Others grudgingly praise him for breaking the political deadlock by creating new facts on the ground with his southern operation. They hope that this will not lead to an escalation in Tripoli or western Libya writ large, and have put faith in Emirati and Egyptian assurances that they do not want Haftar advancing on the capital, either.
Some clarity over the meeting appeared on 28 February via a tweet in Arabic from the UN mission to Libya. It confirmed that the two men had met on the previous day and said that they had agreed “on the need to end the transitional stages in Libya through holding general elections.” According to the tweet, they had also agreed “on ways to maintain stability in the country and unify its institutions.” The UN added that the meeting – the first confirmed one between Serraj and Haftar since Palermo – had happened “at the invitation” of UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame.
Tellingly, though, no further details or photographs of the meetings were released, and neither Serraj’s office nor Haftar’s issued a statement. The silence from both sides was a negative sign, increasing skepticism back in Libya about whether anything substantial had been agreed upon at all. There have been a number of such meetings between Serraj and Haftar – twice now in the UAE and twice in Paris – where similar “agreements” were claimed to have been made, only for nothing to materialize later on. Last year, a much-vaunted French claim of an agreement between the two men to hold elections on 10 December led to nothing but embarrassment for Paris.
It is also noteworthy that the UN made no mention of its own plan to hold a national conference aimed at forging a pan-Libyan consensus early this year. Hopes that the conference would take place in February have been dashed, and one UN staffer who was closely involved in planning it resigned recently. Prospects of a national conference happening anytime soon appear slim, particularly as Haftar’s camp was lukewarm about the idea from the outset. Now emboldened by his recent military progress, neither Haftar nor his wider support base is likely to embrace the plan.
Emirati media, meanwhile, was keen to talk up the UAE’s role in Libya. The National, a state-funded newspaper, declared in a headline that “the UAE has emerged as a major player in the oil producing-country,” a sentiment that was echoed by other commentators there. In our view, the UAE meetings indicate Salame’s desperation to salvage anything from what is now a threadbare action plan. Bringing in the Emiratis in a bid to get Haftar to support the idea of elections may help solve one part of the equation in the short term. However, expanding the UAE’s role in Libya as a result may create even more problems in the long term.