by Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
Civil societies and political actors in the Middle East and North Africa have continuously fought for democratic change and positive reforms since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Yet they have faced setbacks and even defeat since—partly owing to the United Arab Emirates’ efforts to undermine such transformations.
Such meddling can be seen in current attempts to install democracy in the region, particularly Libya and Sudan. Emirati interference has been observed in other MENA states in the past, too. After all, a regional order that did not consist of authoritarian, military rulers would not only hinder Abu Dhabi’s regional soft-power ambitions. Democratic success elsewhere in the region could inspire change within the UAE and challenge its own political status quo.
While international observers and those pushing for change celebrated the Arab Spring at the time , the UAE observed it with fear and skepticism, especially due to the domino effect it had across the region. With some Emirati academics and activists in 2011 also calling for reforms, notably Nasser Bin Ghaith and Ahmed Mansour, UAE authorities launched a crackdown, handing such challengers lengthy jail sentences and huge fines.
This counter-revolutionary agenda extends beyond the UAE’s own borders. Since Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, leader of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), declared it his mission to control the country and oppose democracy, against the rival UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, the UAE has geared up to back him.
Abu Dhabi has provided a wide range of aircraft, military vehicles, and other vital equipment for which Haftar himself and Haftar-aligned politicians have thanked the UAE. Emirati war planes have carried out airstrikes against Haftar’s opponents in Libya’s east, helping his army control that part of the country. Emirati weapons have also reportedly been deployed in Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, a campaign that set back hopes of Libyan elections and a successful peace process. The UAE has built air force bases in eastern Libya, and Emirati companies have smuggled Libyan oil via non-UN-approved routes with Haftar’s cooperation.
With Libya under an international arms embargo, all of this support directly violates international law. It also hinders Libya becoming a regional, stable democracy. Such a stable, oil-rich Libya could attract greater international investment—and compete with the UAE .
Meanwhile, after uprisings in Sudan led to the overthrow of President Omar Bashir’s 30-year-long reign and a military transitional council took control of the government, Abu Dhabi released a statement in support of continued military rule in Sudan. Emirati and Saudi delegates met with key military transitional council figures on April 13 to pledge support to the head of the council Abdul Fattah Burhan. Now that Salah Gosh, Sudan’s former intelligence minister who oversaw a crackdown on protestors under Bashir, has resigned, the UAE will look for other likely figures to support in the post-revolutionary government.
By supporting imposed military rule, the UAE seeks to replicate the post-2013 coup Egyptian model. Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has steered his country close to Abu Dhabi even as he crushes Islamists, suppresses freedom of speech, and engages in a wide-scale violation of human rights. Egypt’s parliament recently approved constitutional amendments that grant the military more power in the country and may allow el-Sisi to stay in power until 2030. The billions of dollars that the UAE gives Egypt sustains the regime and blocks any democratic transition.
One country whose democratic transition has so far survived Emirati interference is Tunisia. Tunisia has a reputation for being a regional model for its relative success with democracy, so Abu Dhabi worries of its potential to inspire other calls for democracy. It has thus tried to undermine the soft Islamist, pro-democracy Ennahda party and quietly supported the secular Nidaa Tounes party, led by a former foreign affairs minister under the previous dictator, Ben Ali. Emirati officials reportedly had offered much aid to Nidaa Tounes if it replicated the Egyptian model by seizing power from Ennahda. Even former President Moncef Marzouki has accused the UAE of trying to destabilize the country’s democracy and supporting reactionary forces. But the lack of a strong military in Tunisia, like in Egypt, has made it difficult for the UAE to disrupt the country’s democracy.
Even though the UAE government has aggressively pushed a positive image of its foreign policy as humanitarian and non-interventionist, its policies clearly show that this is not the case. Emirati PR efforts, meanwhile, are coming up against a greater awareness of the country’s hypocrisy among political figures, analysts, and activists—especially in Sudan where protestors are challenging Emirati influence and continued military rule. This increasing awareness has also helped stall UAE efforts to influence Tunisia’s transition.
But this growing awareness of Emirati hypocrisy has not yet stopped Western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, from maintaining strong ties with the UAE and providing it with arms. But these ties also give certain Western countries leverage, which they should use to pressure the UAE to stop interfering in other countries’ affairs and implement a more just foreign policy.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a roaming journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, international relations and humanitarian issues within the Middle East and North Africa. He has particularly focused on the Yemen conflict, Libya and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regional foreign policy. He has also studied History and Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom. Follow him on twitter: @jfentonharvey