x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Libyans are getting wary over support from Qatar

Country split on whether friend to revolution has further ambitions in post-Qaddafi era.

MISURATA, LIBYA // Two flags honour the dead at the Martyrs and Missing Persons Centre in this war-battered city: One the red, black and green bars of Libya; one the serrated white and plum of Qatar.

"Qatar is our great ally, the crown on our heads," said Mohammed Bou Shaala, a co-founder of the centre greeting visitors early this month. "Everyone knows that."

But increasingly, Libyans are unsure. And they are asking why Qatar has shown such interest in their country.

The tiny, oil-and-gas-rich emirate, one of the richest countries in the world, played a major financial and military role helping the revolution that overturned decades of autocratic rule by Muammar Qaddafi.

Now, some Libyans worry that support has become meddling.

For Mr Bou Shaala, on the other hand, today's sceptics "would not say such things if they had seen what Qatar did."

At the martyrs' centre, hat-tips to Qatar's efforts are everywhere - from the Qatari flags outside to the one joined with Libya's banner on Mr Bou Shaala's lapel pin.

Doha was key to mustering Arab backing for the United Nations resolution in March that approved Nato air strikes against Qaddafi's regime.

Qatari warplanes joined the strikes. Qatar helped house Libyan refugees. It armed and trained anti-Qaddafi fighters.

In October it disclosed publicly that hundreds of its own troops were active in Libya.

Doha ran training and communications for the revolutionaries, Qatar's chief of military staff, Major General Hamad bin Ali Al Atiya, told Agence France-Presse.

"We acted as the link between the rebels and Nato forces," he said.

Those efforts fall within a larger quest by Qatar to punch above its weight globally.

Hosting a US airbase while maintaining relations with Hizbollah and Hamas, Qatar has carved a niche as an interlocutor between Islamists and Western governments.

In 2008, Doha helped diffuse an 18-month political crisis in Lebanon between pro-Western factions and those led by Hizbollah.

In the impoverished villages of southern Lebanon, Qatar's distinctive flag flies over rebuilt mosques and war memorials.

While support for Libyan rebels won praise and potential ground-floor access to Libya's economy, Doha's ultimate aim may be higher.

"As Qatar's elite see it, being at the forefront of popular Arab opinion and defending fellow Arabs against an onslaught from a widely hated dictator is a priceless commodity, both at home and abroad," wrote Qatar expert David Roberts in an article published in September on the website of Foreign Affairs magazine.

"In the coming post-Qaddafi era in Libya, Qatar wants to act as a translator and guide for those seeking access," wrote Mr Roberts, who is deputy director of the Doha branch of the Royal United Services Institute, a British foreign affairs think tank.

Some Libyan leaders have said recently that Qatar's ambitions go further still.

Former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril accused Qatar in an Al Arabiya interview last month of backing unnamed factions and "trying to play a role that is bigger than its true potential".

Two weeks ago, Libya's UN envoy, Mohammed Abdel Rahman Shalgam, said Qatar sought influence via Islamist protégés.

"They give money and weapons and they try to meddle in issues that do not concern them and we reject that," Mr Shalgam told Reuters.

Libya's most prominent cleric, Ali Al Salabi, and Tripoli military council chief Abdelhakim Belhadj are believed by many Libyans and some analysts to enjoy Qatari financial support.

Mr Al Salabi was once exiled in Qatar, which reputedly has helped fund a militia run by his brother, Ismail Al Salabi, Mr Roberts wrote.

Mr Belhadj once led the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and is seen as close to Mr Al Salabi.

Qatar denies interfering in Libyan affairs.

Nevertheless, the question preoccupies Libyan society. Three weeks ago it was featured on Kalima Al Haq - "The word of truth" - a radio call-in show by Tripoli's Radio Shababiya.

"Of course there's foreign meddling, from Qatar for example," said a female caller identified as Marwa. "It makes me fear our opening more than I should."

Many other callers expressed similar worries. The next day, Kalima Al Haq's host, Amal Elarbesh, reflected on them at Radio Shababiya's studio.

"As students we were always taught that Libya was strategically placed and had oil, so that foreigners wanted it," she said. "Today, Libyans still have this idea."

Some leaders, however, think fears of political meddling by foreign countries are overblown.

"Qatar may support Islamists, and France might support liberals, but in the end we'll have elections and Libyans will decide for themselves," said Hisham Karekshi, deputy chairman of Tripoli's governing council.

While Qatar has had relations with Libya's National Transitional Council, it had not directly approached the Tripoli council, Mr Karekshi said.

"But if Qatari diplomats turn up offering to build, to renovate, to provide services, why not? This would benefit the country," he said.

At the Martyrs and Missing Persons Centre in Misurata, Mr Bou Shaala stresses the help Qatar has already provided to his city.

"They brought us fuel, guns, ambulances that took our wounded from the streets to the hospitals," he said.

Alongside the disused weapons and hundreds of pictures of the killed and missing are photos of aid being unloaded from Qatari planes.

"As a city, we consider them our friends," he said. "As for politics, I don't know."

jthorne@thenational.ae