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Riyadh Has a Role to Play in Bringing Creative Solutions to the Libyan Table

by Sam M. Hadi

The perception of stability in Libya is misleading as a wide assortment of actors remain deeply involved and the country remains a powder-keg. One of the main protagonists is Turkey and Ankara’s increased military presence in Libya has become a source of significant concern for many in the international community. With some reports alleging that Turkey has deployed thousands of Syrian militia fighters — many of them apparently jihadis — together with hundreds of regular Turkish soldiers, calls to redeploy foreign forces out of Libya have been steadily increasing. With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisting that Turkey’s troop deployment was at the invitation of Libya’s now-paralysed Government of National Accord (GNA) — which needed serious support to counterbalance the threat (then) posed by General Khalifa Haftar, himself supported by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and France — the construction of semi-permanent military structures and plans to build naval bases shows that despite the apparent routing of Haftar’s forces, Ankara has no intention to end its Libya operations or alter its ambitions anytime soon.

Seeking to offset Turkish influence, Saudi Arabia — as a strategic rival to Turkey — decided to step-up its involvement in Libya in April 2020 by backing the Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA), a decision which proved to be flawed. Le Monde reported that Saudi Arabia even financially supported the Russian Wagner Group and their mercenaries, in addition to directly supporting the LNA’s military campaign. Following an unsuccessful 2019 Tripoli offensive, Haftar’s brand has taken on a different shape and is now primarily focused on the potential for a political victory in the upcoming December elections. Having lost most of his local support base, and with sparse financing left from foreign sponsors, Haftar's overall prospects appear to be slim.

If Libya remains a priority for Riyadh it will require a more pragmatic approach, particularly if it attempts to restrict Turkey’s growing influence in the country. The first steps of such a strategic recalibration are already visible, with Saudi Arabia calling the newly formed Government of National Unity (GNU) an ‘important historic step that will achieve security and stability.’ Unsurprisingly, a similar message of support for the UN-brokered political process was pronounced by Doha with Qatar's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, stating that, ‘We support the UN-sponsored political process in the hope that it preserves the territorial integrity of Libya and prevents foreign interference in its affairs.’ Saudi Arabia and Qatar now seem to be on the same page with regards to Libya.

With a host of other foreign policy interests — not least the war in Yemen — Saudi Arabia was never a primary actor in Libya. However, as Turkey keeps expanding its foothold, seen as an integral part of Ankara’s broader efforts to pursue its East Mediterranean strategic interests (gas, logistical, etc), Riyadh has deepened its involvement since an assortment of Saudi and allied (re: Egypt) interests are anchored to Libyan politics. Indeed, Saudi Arabia shares a number of common regional interests with Egypt among which is based on the future shape of Libya.

Libya’s interim government (from March 2021), under the leadership of Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibeh, has already faced an assortment of challenges. Nevertheless, its importance lies in the fact that it is setting the stage for a solution based on something that has been missing on the Libyan political scene for quite some time — unity. How exactly this dynamic will play out domestically until the anticipated elections this winter remains an open question. However, stakeholders of a stable Libya, with full territorial integrity and economic prospects, need to support a constitutional process that strengthens national unity and encourages inclusion.

The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) has been hard at work facilitating a UN-guided, Libyan-led and Libyan-owned political process. Particularly, efforts have been undertaken by the head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Ján Kubiš, to focus on the pivotal role foreign entities can and should play in bolstering Libya’s constitutional future. This future comprises a number of potential pathways, many of which could also destabilise the delicate process currently underway.

Actors, such as Saudi Arabia, having acknowledged their past foreign policy errors and now looking to follow a different approach in Libya, may consider what distinct, added-value, they bring to the table. One compelling angle could be the empowerment of the advocates for the restitution of the 1951 constitution. Although this remains a less prominent position (for now), those interested in revisiting the 1951 model represent individuals from across the political and geographic spectrum, who believe in the relevance of previous successful models of governance for the future of their country. This applied historical approach is indeed a useful perspective at this particular juncture.

Examining the complexity of Libyan politics, many concluded that the country requires more than political leadership—it needs a national-unity leader to reconstitute the cornucopia of ethnic groups which comprise the Libyan people. The institution of such a leader who would, ‘guarantee the national unity, safeguard domestic tranquility, provide the means for common defence, secure the establishment of justice, guarantee the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity and promote economic and social progress and the general welfare,’ was enshrined in the 1951 founding document through a constitutional monarch, King Idris El-Senussi.

It was the King who acted as a central authority uniquely positioned to serve as a moderating force over contentious issues including oil revenue and patronage. While vastly different from the hereditary monarchy that governs Saudi Arabia, such a figurehead would have a similarly central role in moderating the inherent divisions that stem from tribal societies.

Nevertheless, as the only actor with an interest in the Libyan conundrum who has a history of stable monarchical rule in a country with a history to tribalism, stability in Libya brought about through the restoration of the monarchy would serve as a counterbalance to those who see monarchy, including those in the West such as the UK monarchy, as an outdated and ineffective form of rule. While the GCC and Moroccan models have themselves proven effective, exhibiting the potential for constitutional monarchy to unite a society as heavily divided as Libya would underscore the applicability of this model.

Looking beyond the issue of monarchy, support for the 1951 model would see Riyadh advocating for the initial step needed to restore order and unity amidst a deeply fraught context. This effective decoupling of conflict resolution from the constitutional dialogue is in fact paramount to the latter’s ultimate success. Considering the interim nature of the 2011 Constitution, and that the draft proposed in 2017 by the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) was rejected by the House of Representatives. It is unlikely that the production of a new document would be seen, by all stakeholders, as representing their interests.

Adopting this unique approach to the conflict could position Saudi Arabia (and its allies) as presenting a solution more reflective of the will of the Libyan people. This stands in stark contrast to externally imposed international solutions, such as the unsuccessful Berlin Process, which has been the focal point of efforts to date and would certainly place Riyadh a step ahead of its regional competitors, whose involvement has been described as deepening Libya’s internal conflict and contributing to continued instability. 

The pertinence of Saudi support for 1951 further stems from its unofficial role as a representative of the  axis of moderate-minded countries in the region. As the main actor in the region dedicated to fighting extremism, as reflected in its central role in establishing and housing the Headquarters of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), Saudi Arabia is well-positioned to push forward creative and moderate solutions. And, Saudi support would not only bring moderate actors into the 1951 constitutional camp, it would change the balance of power in favour of status quo states in the region, assisting 1951 to be seen as a less radical option. Finally, the Saudi role in garnering Western support for a historical based constitutional solution for Libya should be seen in the context of it being among the countries closest to representing US, EU and UK regional interests—economic and security related.

Supporting a 1951 model would, inevitably, place Saudi Arabia at odds with a number of other actors also involved in Libya. Some traditional allies — like the UAE and France — have staunchly supported Haftar’s LNA and regard it as a bulwark against political Islam and while Saudi Arabia has also adopted a more moderate Islamic tone and remains opposed to political Islam, completely eradicating it is not a priority for Riyadh. At the same time, Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, are invested in preserving Islamist power in Libya, viewing it as a preferable, stabilising force to military government, republicanism or monarchy. This bloc would be similarly uneasy with a Saudi-led initiative for a constitutional solution based on the 1951 model. 

Placing the 1951 option in a regional perspective indeed gives more context as to the reasons why it may not have been utilised yet, as a realistic solution. Nevertheless, looking back to what proved to be an adequate solution in the past — until it was quashed by Muammar Gaddafi who undermined Libya’s social and legal contract and plunged the country into decades of chaos and isolation — may, in fact, constitute an optimal way forward. Taking into consideration such outside-the-box solutions may be judicious for those relatively new players entering the Libyan constitutional debate and seeking to contribute to a positive outcome while protecting their own interests. Given its history and unique perspective, this may be a job for Riyadh.

31 August 2021


*Sam M. Hadi is a graduate of Trisakti University in Jakarta where he studied management. He is now working as a freelance columnist and foreign policy analyst for North Africa based out of Jakarta. 

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