Latest Algeria-Morocco Dispute Is a Bust-Up the Maghreb Could Desperately Do Without

Oussama Romdhani

AFP photo: Fadel Senna

When more than 100 intellectuals recently issued a “call for reason” to Algeria and Morocco over their latest bitter diplomatic split, they reflected a growing angst in the Maghreb after Algeria severed relations with Morocco in August. The majority of experts do not see a risk of a military showdown, but they fret nonetheless over the repercussions of the destructive pattern that has determined the course of relations between Rabat and Algiers. Not only is the rift detrimental to the interests of the two main adversaries, but there is great concern over the fallout for the whole of North Africa, where nations face instability, the threat of extremism and a struggle to reform economies. Further afield, tensions between the Maghreb’s two most populous countries will hinder relations with West Africa and hamper efforts to halt the stream of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

The break in relations reflected the tendency for contentious issues to build up quickly between Algeria and Morocco, and then remain impervious to quick settlement. Troubles over their border started as early as 1963, soon after Algerian independence from France. At the time, the Sand War cost hundreds of lives. Ever since, the spiral of acrimonious disputes has continued mostly unabated. The first diplomatic rupture in 1976 took more than 12 years to repair. No one knows how long the new break in relations will last nor when the border between the two countries, closed by Algeria in 1994, will reopen.

The thorniest issue underlying the tensions is the 46-year-old dispute over the Western Sahara. The conflict has pitted Morocco, which considers the vast former Spanish colony part of its sovereign territory, against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, which clamors for an independent state on the same territory. The conflict heated up last year when Polisario said it was no longer beholden to the 1991 UN-negotiated ceasefire agreement.

The dispute took a new turn with the recognition by US president Donald Trump of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Predictably, the move did not go down well with Algeria, especially since that decision was coupled with a normalization deal between Morocco and Israel. The pill was even more difficult to swallow for Algiers when the Biden administration, contrary to speculation, opted not to reverse the Trump administration’s decision.

The Algerians, who considered the budding Moroccan-Israeli ties a threat, found ammunition in statements made by Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid. During a visit to Morocco in August, he expressed concern over Algiers “getting closer” to Iran. The summer’s forest fires in Algeria eventually provided the spark that led to the meltdown in relations. Algerian authorities accused a separatist movement in the northern Kabylie region of involvement, with the help of Morocco, in the fires that swept across the country’s mountains. Algeria provided no evidence to back up its claim.

But there is more to the acrimony than recent incidents. Both neighbors have long embarked on unbridled competition for influence in North Africa and have been unwilling to concede dominance. Furthermore, they have been divided for years by differing perspectives, disparate alliances and a willingness to push the buttons that infuriate one another.

Since independence, both have chosen to forge alliances with opposite camps. Although Algeria today maintains good relations with Europe and the US based on common interests in energy and security cooperation, the oil-rich country has kept strategic ties to Russia. In the Middle East, Algeria sees eye-to-eye with Turkey and Qatar over regional issues, such as the Libya crisis. Meanwhile, Morocco, with ties anchored in the West, has nudged closer to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Much more than Morocco, Algeria has been hobbled in recent years by political instability. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who died this month on September 17, ruled the country for two decades until he was forced from power in 2019. The last few years of his rule weakened Algeria domestically and its position in the region.

At the same time, Morocco achieved a number of diplomatic breakthroughs since it returned to the African Union in 2017 and successfully pursued its interests in the continent. The kingdom became the top African investor in West Africa and the second in the whole of Africa. Unsurprisingly, Algeria’s president Abdelmadjid Tebboune wants his country to make a “comeback.”

As a result of Morocco-Algeria tensions, the dream of Maghrebi integration has suffered a direct hit. Since the Arab Maghreb Union treaty signed in 1989, the promise of regional unity has never been more remote. The Maghreb remains the least economically integrated region in the world, with just 3 percent of trade conducted between the union’s countries. The group has not held a single ministerial meeting since 2017. The escalation between Rabat and Algiers adds to the general impression of instability in the region where Tunisia and Libya are in the throes of domestic crises.

Some in Europe worry that Algerian-Moroccan escalation could have a disruptive effect on Mediterranean cooperation over such crucial issues as terrorism, energy and illegal migration. The row has already spilled over to Europe as Algeria hinted it could end in the coming months its gas exports to Spain via a pipeline that runs overland through Morocco. It intends to compensate, at least partially, through Medgaz, another pipeline that links Algeria directly to Spain. As the security situation in the Sahel and Sahara deteriorates with the rise of the extremist threat and disengagement of France, Europe is concerned about regional stability. Furthermore, many African countries, especially in West Africa, find themselves in an uncomfortable position as it becomes more difficult for them to maintain some form of neutrality.

There are questions whether Europe is able – or willing – to help calm the Moroccan-Algerian tensions. Mediation attempts from within the region have become implausible after Algeria’s chief diplomat asserted that the severance of ties with Morocco is irreversible. The two countries’ economies could fare much better without the burden of military expenditures stemming from the Western Sahara conflict and overall distrust.

The Maghreb is unlikely to take off until its two largest countries agree on some form of mutual accommodation and move away from the strategic zero-sum game where one country’s achievement is the other’s loss.

Oussama Romdhani is editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.