Once marginal in shaping the geopolitics of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, Gulf power projection and competition have become a central driver of the politics of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The political turmoil that engulfed these states created both threats and opportunities for Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the rich and ambitious states of the Arabian Peninsula. Their involvement, which combined economic aid, political support and at times military assistance, was structured around their notion of what is the desired or acceptable role of Islamist movements in Arab politics. On the one hand, Qatar supports Islamist movements and most notably the Muslim Brotherhood as instruments of influence and popular appeal, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia perceive them as a security and ideological threat to their regional influence and domestic stability.
This rivalry is playing out across Middle Eastern arenas, and the Mediterranean is a key theatre. Gulf countries increasingly consider the Mediterranean as an important strategic space. The sea is the prolongation of maritime corridors linking Europe to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and as such crucial for global trade and energy routes. The UAE’s maritime interests in the Mediterranean over the past decade, with Dubai Ports World operating ports in Cyprus, France, Algeria and acquiring a Spanish port operator, reflect this thinking. Gaining influence and levers in a region so close to European economic and security interests is also a way for Gulf countries to secure useful political capital and relevance. UAE involvement in Libya for example has allowed Abu Dhabi to deepen its strategic relations with France.
The Arab Spring movements in the Southern Mediterranean inflamed the contest for influence between GCC countries. In Libya, the UAE and Qatar supported the anti-Qaddafi war in 2011, but through competing Libyan networks and movements. Following the fall of Qaddafi, the civil war opened space for competing external influence, with Qatar supporting the UN-recognised government of Tripoli and associated militias while the UAE backed General Khalifa Haftar, a strong opponent to political Islam.
The same rivalry played out in Egypt during and after the 2011 revolution. Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated presidency of Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in a 2013 coup encouraged by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Since then Qatar lost considerable influence in Egypt despite its media outreach and harbouring of Muslim Brotherhood exiles. Its trade with Egypt plummeted while Egypt’s trade with the UAE grew almost 5-fold between 2010 and 2018. At the same time, Egypt’s political and economic dependency towards the UAE and Saudi Arabia is not absolute: Egypt has backed the Saudi and Emirati boycott of Qatar, but the need to preserve important economic links with Qatar – Qatar had investments in Egypt amounting $1.105 billion in 2017 and 250,000 Egyptians work in Qatar – and the need to cooperate with Doha on Gaza nevertheless compel Egypt to maintain pragmatic relations with Doha.
In Tunisia, the victory in 2011 of the Ennahda-led coalition allowed Qatar to extend its influence in the country at the expense of the UAE. But after the more secular Nidaa Tounes came to power in 2015, the UAE resumed political relations with the country, hoping to dilute Qatari influence and obtain Tunisian recognition of Libya’s pro-Haftar Eastern government. This however did not materialise, and Tunisia seeks a careful balance between the two Gulf powers.
The competition between Qatar and the UAE has broad and lasting repercussions. The GCC dispute (which began in earnest in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed harsh sanctions on Qatar) enters its fourth year without any real sign of detente, ensuring that those rivalries will shape dynamics in the wider region for the foreseeable future.
The ostracization of Qatar by its neighbours heavily curtailed Doha’s ability to project influence in the region. In response, Doha deepened its partnership with Turkey, a key competitor of the UAE and Saudi Arabia which shares Doha’s Islamist inclinations. Following the GCC spat, Ankara increased its rhetorical and political support for Doha and deployed troops on the peninsula. In return, Qatar extended financial assistance to Ankara, most notably to shore up the Turkish currency. Today, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider Turkey, with its military and economic power and regional ambitions, as their main rival not only in the Mediterranean, but across the region, including in Syria and in the Red Sea.
Libya is currently the major hotspot of those rivalries. The UAE, with the support of Egypt, has provided General Khalifa Haftar with military backing and financial assistance. Conversely, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Qatar, have backed the United Nations-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli. To counter Haftar’s offensive in Tripoli in 2019, Turkey ramped up its involvement in Libya, deploying troops and advanced weapons systems starting January 2020. This helped the forces aligned with the GNA launch a counteroffensive that is currently repelling Haftar’s forces.
The contest over Libya is an extension of the rivalries in the Eastern Mediterranean. In November 2019, Turkey signed an agreement with the Libyan government demarcating new maritime borders that cut through Greek territorial waters. Those unilateral steps, which violate international law, aim in part to counter the EastMed gas pipeline project. Led by Greece, Israel and Cyprus, and strongly supported by the UAE and Egypt. This major energy infrastructure project could have threatened Turkish and Qatari energy interests by side-lining them over gas trade to Europe.
On its side, the UAE also stepped up its activism in the region, increasing mercenary deployments in support to Haftar but also tightening its links with Cyprus and Greece, which oppose Turkey’s ambitions in the Mediterranean.
For the UAE, the rapid advancement for Turkey’s influence in the Mediterranean and the maintaining of the Islamists in Tripoli is not acceptable. When in June 2020, Egypt threatened to launch a military intervention in Libya in the event Turkey-backed Libyan forces advancement on Sirte, this announcement was met with statements of support from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. In case of an Egyptian intervention, such an escalation would likely further entrench the region into dangerous polarisation.
The anti-Turkey/Qatar front supported by the UAE in the Mediterranean remains however fragile. Abu Dhabi’s cooperation with Moscow in Libya, including through the alleged financing of Russia’s Wagner Group, is far from flawless. Russia’s continued engagement with Turkey on Libya has created frictions with the UAE. Moreover, the UAE’s military cooperation with Russia is increasingly alarming the US, which already tends to have a more pro-Turkey position in Libya. A new US administration could potentially treat more severely the Emirati violations of the arms embargo. Finally, specialists are increasingly questioning the feasibility of the EastMed pipeline project supported by the UAE. An abandonment of the project would further impede the UAE’s anti-Turkey/Qatar strategy in the Mediterranean.