What next for Libya?

The kidnap of Libya's prime minister, Ali Zeidan, is a warning that Western powers need to do more to support the revolution they helped bring about.

The kidnap of Libya’s prime minister Ali Zeidan by armed militia, and his release a few hours later by another rival militia, has illustrated the depth of Libya’s security challenges. Libya’s weak central government is unable to assert control over the country’s many armed groups, and political kidnappings and assassinations are becoming increasingly commonplace. It should also come as a warning that Western powers need to do more to support the revolution they helped bring about.

Zeidan’s brief detention followed closely after the US’s capture of the al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi in Tripoli. Al-Libi is believed to be behind the 1998 US embassy attacks that killed more than 220 people, so he is a high-profile target for the US. But Many militia groups felt angered that the US had infringed on Libya’s sovereignty in this way.

The US’s anti-terrorist operations are hugely damaging to the fragile national governments of countries targeted by drone attacks and strikes on militants. If the US wants a moderate like Zeidan to stay in power, it cannot afford to undermine his authority in this way. The capture of al-Libi will only strengthen support for the anti-American sentiments expressed by the same radical Islamists that the US wants to crush. Most Libyan’s don’t hate the West, but years of colonial rule means they are fiercely protective of their country’s independence and whatever the reality, the US’s actions have made Zeidan appear in thrall to Obama.

Meanwhile, Zeidan has repeatedly requested more assistance in disarming the country’s militias and training up a national police force and army. The UK, France, Italy and Turkey are all due to help train militia groups, and numerous technical advisers have been sent into the country by Western powers, but much, much more needs to be done.

Nato powers have a responsibility towards Libya. They, after all, intervened to help remove the country’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country’s current state of chaos is by no means surprising – after four decades of Gaddafi rule, post-revolutionary Libya had no civil society, independent media or experience of democracy. Unlike neighbouring Egypt, it did not have a powerful and unified national army, and almost every man old enough to carry a gun owned at least one. Libya needed much more support with its post-war reconstruction and reconciliation efforts than it ever received, but even those who welcomed Gaddafi’s removal took no time to dismiss the country as ‘another Iraq’ and a failed cause.

Admittedly, there are huge challenges when intervening to bolster Libya’s central government. In 2011 Libya turned down offers of UN peacekeeping troops, who could have helped strengthen central government’s authority in the aftermath of the war. Foreign boots on the ground would have been deeply unpopular, but in hindsight, rejecting UN assistance was probably a mistake. Today the security situation in Libya is so dire that it’s quite hard for foreign advisers to operate safely, particularly in the virtually lawless east of the country.

The problem is, the price of the West’s inaction will be high, and not only for the millions of ordinary Libyans who want to see peace and security restored to their country. Libya is currently home to the world’s largest unsecured stockpile of weapons, and the country’s lawlessness means radical Islamist groups are able to operate and organise freely. The US may have succeeded in the capture of al-Libi, but its short-sighted strategy in Libya will only strengthen al-Qaeda.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and head of the General National Congress Nouri Bousahmein give a press conference shortly after Zeidan's release. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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