Is the coronavirus, which has hit GCC countries quite hard, going to fuel proxy wars further with the economic objective of fortunes to be made, once the fighting stops? Or dig them in deeper? Don’t overlook Russia in the scramble for reconstruction contracts.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall. This certainly applies to countries in the GCC which are attempting to pick themselves up again. It’s a cruel irony, some might argue, that the UAE’s diversification in its economy away from oil dependency, made it more vulnerable than Saudi Arabia’s and so was hit harder by the virus. An economy dependent on tourism, hospitality and affordable air fares was always going to buckle under the weight of a new world order, post corona.
And so it’s hard to imagine how the regional policies of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE would pan out in the two hot spots, namely Yemen and Libya. Do they scale back, given that both these wars are costly and show little sign of ending? Or do they plough ahead and focus on the huge dividends of reconstruction – both in the building work itself and then in what the economy can offer, once things have got back to normal?
If we look at other countries in the region who are also suffering from low oil prices and the corona crisis, the signs are not so clear. Although Iran is also suffering from crippling sanctions from the US and others, for months analysts have been wondering how they would continue to finance Hezbollah in Lebanon which before Trump’s sanctions kicked in, was receiving about 700m dollars a year. Experts in Lebanon tell me that this figure has been reduced although in the midst of a political and economic meltdown there, we have seen a fair amount of showing off from Hezbollah which takes great joy in serenading its loyal supporters and their wads of cash.
However, the first real signs of belt-tightening were seen in early May when some commentators in the region spotted that Iran will pull out of Syria some of its military garrisons and soldiers. Keen pundits will watch closely now to see if this has an impact on the number and level of vociferous air strikes against Hezbollah movements there or not – which are beginning to be felt both by Assad and his partners, Tehran being a chief one going back to 1979. A recent airstrike against the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center in Aleppo (linked to a precision missile project) is one of many hits which are taking their toll. The thinking now in Tehran is to be more frugal in the region as US sanctions may well bite for at least another five years and having its big clients like India and Turkey shift their business to Iraq is a bitter pill to swallow. In Syria, Iran continues to supply the Assad regime but is reported to not receive cash, as such, for the shipments which arrive through a complicated game of Lebanon shell companies moving crude oil from ship to ship in the Mediterranean.
Tough new corona measures and low oil prices are affecting the regional policies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well, as India and Turkey went to Iran’s closest oil supplying ally for its needs and both these Gulf Arab countries have not capitalised on Iran’s US sanctions.
There are signs even that the UAE may well be trying to reduce its vast costs to punch above its weight, certainly in Libya where it is seen as the main sponsor of so-called “renegade” army chief, Khalifa Haftar. In May, rumours were circulating, albeit in the press of Haftar’s enemies, that the Saudis had offered “support” to the UAE and Haftar in Libya. It’s unclear what this support is, but most likely it is cash. There are other reports circulating that mercenaries in Sudan are being recreated for as little as 200 USD a month.
However the same reports underline that the UAE remains the boss and hinted of a split in the country, which would give both players almost a monopoly on reconstruction contracts. The talk of a similar split in Yemen is less shrouded as the UAE’s proxy in the south of Yemen, which jostles for power with the Saudi-backed incumbent, is calling for Yemen to go back to its pre-unified borders of a north and south. Such a move is a hard one to swallow though as it would give the UAE the upper hand there and make the Saudis almost a peripheral player.
In Libya, it’s a different story as both the UAE and Saudi Arabia can focus on a common foe: Turkey. And it’s hard to see if this idea of a divided country, where Haftar could remain a leader in the east and south of Libya, is just wishful thinking of Turkey or really an option for these two Gulf Arab countries to mull. And, of course, when pundits talk of “the south and the east” this really mean “over 90 percent of the entire country”.
If there is some truth in it, then both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are looking now to spend less time and money on backing wars, and have their eyes fixed on how these battlefields can be turned into cash cows. There is much talk of the UAE using its mendacious disinformation network of “media outlets, troll and bot nets, think tanks, and policy makers” to further a PR sting in Libya, which is simply that the Haftar camp is there to be a force against terrorism. Of course, much of this bedwetting is hypocritical nonsense spouted by press room wasters in Washington and Brussels whose countries do the same dark practice themselves, which they simply call “lobbying”. But the idea that either side in Libya is an antidote to terrorists or at least Islamic hardcore groups is awkward, if not comical. While Turkey supports an expired Muslim Brotherhood power structure in Tripoli as well as bankrolling extremists shipped in from Syria which were fighting Assad’s forces in Idlib before, Haftar’s forces are well known to have recruited some hardcore Salafist groups (called Madkhalists) themselves to fight for him with his LNA forces. Terrorism is a very abused and pliable word which can take on a number of meanings, although it is fair to say that Haftar did win a number of important battles against terror groups in Benghazi.
The fanciful notion floated by the Turks of a two-nation state is interesting. Yet it’s hard to see if the ruse can work for Haftar, the UAE or its coalition partners. Most of the country’s oil fields are in Haftar’s control and this is a key subject which proves to be a thorn in the side of any negotiations, as his forces now are reported to be exporting oil directly to new markets, with the assistance of the UAE. Would a two-state solution mean some sort of new deal on shared oil revenues? Would the UAE and the Saudis, who eye huge reconstruction contracts, be held back by an international community which would struggle with such a new set up, given that the UN still backs a Tripoli posy as a legitimate government?
Turkey and Qatar (via Al Jazeera) tend to be winners in the media war and so get to take the lead in planting untruths or twisting facts. This latest idea comes from this camp so, one would have to assume that both these countries are tired of the campaign and are looking for a way out. But critical to the idea succeeding is Russia being included in the spoils of war, as Putin badly wants a naval base in Libya and, as we have seen recently in Syria, is vexed by his own people not being given fair market access in the peace which Russia enabled, when it stepped in, in 2015 to help Assad. Recent reports of a media campaign in Russia criticising Assad on this coincide with others that Russia is planning on moving its troops from Syria to Libya, to further bolster the mercenaries already there. Whether this was premeditated or is as a lesson to Assad is unclear. But with Iran and Russia out of Syria, it’s hard to see how long the Syrian leader can remain in power. Libya is now where the money is, or where the smart money wants to go. Keep an eye on Yemen though. If the UAE and Saudi Arabia can settle their differences there, then this will be further indications that the focus now is on money, rather than ideology. But not including Putin will be a major error of judgement in Yemen or Libya. The Russian leader’s outside bet to back both camps in the latter might just pay off.