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Libya's Dbeibah made secret visit to Turkey

Interim prime minister designate met Erdogan in Ankara days after his election in bid to maintain ties with the Turkish leadership
Libyan Prime Minister Dbeibah met Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on 11 February, 2020. This picture has been circulating on social media since 18 February (Twitter)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Libya’s prime minister designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah paid a private visit to Ankara to meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan last month, days after his election to the post in a UN-led peace process.

A person familiar with the issue told Middle East Eye that Dbeibah arrived in Ankara on 11 February as part of routine engagements between the two countries.

The source, who didn’t explain why the visit was kept confidential, said that senior Turkish officials personally wanted to convey their good wishes to the newly elected leader and offer support in any areas possible, from military training to the rebuilding of infrastructure.

After signing a maritime delimitation deal to disrupt Greek pipeline plans in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2019, Turkey invested significant resources in the North African country, from armed drones to special forces, which helped the Tripoli-based government to fend off an attack by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.

'The perception or reality is that Dbeibah is intimately linked to Ankara on a number of levels and that many of his business interests go through Turkey'

- Mohamed Eljarh, analyst

Turkey currently has a bilateral military aid deal with Libya, which hosts Turkish special forces and de-facto military bases.

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Ibrahim Kalin, a chief foreign policy advisor to Erdogan, told Turkish newspaper Sabah on Monday that Turkey had been in touch with the new Libyan officials since their election, and some "visits" have taken place.

"President [Erdogan] exchanged opinions with [the Libyan leaders.] He made phone calls to congratulate them and there have been some visits. And [these engagements] will continue," he said. 

Dbeibah’s links to Turkey are pretty well known. The billionaire granted contracts to Turkish companies through state-owned agencies before the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.

Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan researcher and analyst who first reported the visit on Twitter last month, said that Dbeibah, with his extensive business interests, was expected to maintain but also deepen his ties with Ankara.

“What was the interesting issue here is the attempt to keep the visit secret. The reason for that is that Dbeibah and his aides were worried about the signal and perception the visit would send and confirm in Libyan public opinion,” he said.

"The perception or reality is that Dbeibah is intimately linked to Ankara on a number of levels and that many of his business interests go through Turkey."

'Real partner'

Dbeibah also granted his first interview to Turkish public news agency Anadolu last month following his election to the post. He told Anadolu that Turkey was an ally, friend and a brotherly state.

“It has huge capabilities to help the Libyans achieve their real goals. Turkey is considered a real partner to Libya. We hope to bolster this cooperation and enhance our trade exchange to the highest level," he added.

'Dbeibah also wants the continuing presence of the Turkish military in the country as a safeguard against any future risks, in case of the renewal of hostilities'

- Murat Yesiltas, SETA think tank

Murat Yesiltas, the director of security studies at Ankara-based think tank SETA, said both sides had immense interest in keeping the relations as close as it was under Tripoli's outgoing prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

“Turkey is keen on maintaining the maritime deal, which provides a multilateral angle to Ankara’s claims in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said. “Dbeibah also wants the continuing presence of the Turkish military in the country as a safeguard against any future risks, in case of the renewal of hostilities.”

Dbeibah himself said last week that his government will maintain the maritime delimitation deal with Turkey and would seek more ways to cooperate on other areas such as trade.

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Turkey hasn’t shied away from public statements indicating its willingness to take part in reconstruction efforts and oil drillings, which could become a boon for Turkey’s economy.

Eljarh, the analyst, says Dbeibah’s victory in the UN-led dialogue that selected him was a sweet surprise for Ankara.

“Erdogan wants to capitalise on Dbeibah's winning to translate Ankara's diplomatic and military investment since 2019 in Libya into business opportunities and political influence,” he said.

Last week, Dbeibah unveiled his proposed government, which is set to be considered by the Libyan parliament in the coming days and voted on. The government would be tasked with reuniting Libya, which has been split into rival, and occasionally warring, administrations. It is meant to prepare the groundwork for general elections in December.

However, damaging allegations have also emerged that delegates at the Libyan dialogue were offered up to $500,000 to vote for Dbeibah's slate, which claimed an unexpected victory against Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.

If parliament rejects Dbeibah's government, the vote will go back to the UN-backed dialogue forum, which can then approve it instead. The corruption allegations have raised questions about whether the forum will now back Dbeibah again, however.

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