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Qatar opens up to Libya's eastern camp after years of animosity

Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, Mohamed al-Menfi (L) meets Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R) during his official visit at Amiri Diwan in Doha, Qatar on September 15, 2021. [Libyan Presidential Council - Anadolu Agency]
Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, Mohamed al-Menfi (L) meets Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R) during his official visit at Amiri Diwan in Doha, Qatar on September 15, 2021 [Libyan Presidential Council/Anadolu Agency]

The Speaker of Libya's House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, visited Qatar on 10 September where he spoke with officials before meeting Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Saleh's visit came two days after Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh left Doha, which suggests that the Gulf State is seeking to mediate between Dbeibeh and his rival camp in which Saleh plays an important part. Dbeibeh lost a parliamentary vote of confidence in September 2021 just seven months after he was voted in. Then, in February this year, the House went further and elected Fathi Bashagha as Prime Minister but he has failed to take over, because Dbeibeh refuses to hand over power unless it is to an elected government.

The rapprochement between the House of Representatives (HoR) and Qatar comes after years of bad relations between the two, during which the former accused Doha of interfering in Libya's internal affairs. In June 2017, the HoR issued a statement announcing its decision to sever all ties with Qatar, accusing it of "adopting adverse policies" towards Libya. The HoR called on the country's Ministry of Justice to prepare a file detailing "what Qatar has done" to the Libyan people and accused Doha of supporting "terrorist groups" inside Libya. It even called on the UN and the International Criminal Court to investigate Qatar's role in Libya.

Many nations are trying to interfere in Libya's affairs- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Many nations are interfering in Libya's affairs – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

That announcement was seen at the time as being in support of the leading Arab countries that boycotted Qatar. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain started their boycott and accused Qatar of supporting Islamist groups in the region and having strong ties with Saudi Arabia's arch rival, Iran. The boycott ended three years later with Saudi Arabia welcoming the Qatari Emir at a regional summit hosted by the Kingdom in January 2021. Slowly, other countries joined in and restored their ties with Qatar; Egypt's President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi visited Doha on 13 September, a few days after Saleh.

Apparently, Saleh has now decided that in politics there are no permanent political enemies and by visiting Qatar he approved of the simple fact that Qatar is a key player in Libya. During the 2011 civil war, Qatar led the Arab League in a boycott of the North African country and passed a resolution asking the UN to impose a no-fly zone to "protect Libyan civilians" from the alleged repression unleashed by the late Muammar Gaddafi's government. That decision forced Libya out of the Arab League while providing moral and "legal" cover for Western countries to launch an eight-month air campaign to force Gaddafi from power, leading to him being killed in October 2011. Libya has been in turmoil ever since.

Like many other countries, Qatar supported the Western campaign against Libya enthusiastically, by taking part in air raids and providing Special Forces on the ground to help the Libyan rebels end Gaddafi's rule. Qatari officers were seen inside Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli in late August 2011 as the rebels took over the capital. Two months later Doha admitted sending hundreds of troops to support the rebels.

In subsequent years, Doha continued to fund and support different militias inside Libya. In 2019, along with Ankara, it opposed Khalifa Haftar's failed war on Tripoli to dislodge the UN-recognised government. In all of this, Saleh was on Haftar's side, drumming up support for the attack on Tripoli.

This time, though, he appears to have concluded that if he and his ally Haftar are to stay relevant in Libyan politics they must mend their ties with regional countries that help shape the political scene in Libya. Hence, he visited Ankara in early August and met with President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan. Going to Doha was the natural next step, because Qatar and Turkiye are allies when it comes to Libya. While Haftar is yet to visit either country, his son Belgassem accompanied Saleh to Doha, which probably means that Qatar does not mind receiving Haftar's representative, if not the man himself.

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Doha is interested in staying on as a key player in Libya, but is also keen on having fewer enemies among the country's protagonists. Welcoming Aguila Saleh after years of animosity gives Doha more room to expand its own influence and that of its ally Turkiye in Libya. Ankara signed a security deal with Libya in 2019 that gave it the right to deploy its own troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries on Libyan soil. Turkish drones played a key role in defeating Haftar's forces in June 2020, forcing their retreat from the gates of Tripoli. Turkiye's military role in Libya was the biggest obstacle to improving ties with the HoR. While the issue is not yet settled and Turkish troops and their supporting mercenaries are yet to leave Libya, Saleh figured out that he and his ally Haftar need to come to terms with the fact that Qatar and Turkiye will continue to dominate much of Libya's murky politics.

Neither Ankara nor Doha has openly rejected Saleh-Haftar ally Fathi Bashagha's government, but they have not recognised it as the legitimate government of Libya. They both still recognise Dbeibeh's administration.  HoR ally Cairo, on the other hand, appears to bless this new link between its allies in Eastern Libya and Doha as it attempts to open up to Qatar in search of badly needed economic investment.  How improved ties between the HoR and Doha will reflect on the internal politics in Libya is yet to be seen. For now, though, both Doha and Libya's Eastern camp can have some trust in each other in moving forward while standing still. Doha, like Ankara and Cairo, has repeatedly supported the call for elections in Libya as the only way out of the crisis, but in reality it does not want fair and free elections which could end its influence in the country. Nor does Saleh want elections anytime soon. He prefers the status quo despite the terrible effect it is having on Libya and its people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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