Pipeline politics in North Africa: when historical animosity leads to costly decisions

Radia Mernissi is an International Relations student, her Moroccan background make her particularly interested in North African politics and neo-imperialism. She is also passionate about International Law and its application to conflict and security.

On the 24th of August 2021, Algeria officially declared it would cut diplomatic ties with its neighbouring country Morocco, stating that “the incessant hostile acts carried out by Morocco against Algeria have necessitated the review of relations between the two countries”. This decision seems expected considering the years of hostility and aggressive foreign policy between the states; however, its consequences show how historical mistrust is capable of guiding irrational policies.

Hence, this article seeks to uncover why these states pursued self-destructing relations and aggressive policies, even without apparent advantages, through the specific lens of the Euro-Maghreb pipeline.

A crisis driven by a history of mistrust and animosity

Morocco and Algeria are neighbouring countries located in north-western Africa. They share similar national culture with a Berber Arab influence and Islam as a state religion. A key distinction between the two countries arose in relation to the development of their state-building narratives after French colonialism; hence it affected their political culture differently. On the one hand, Morocco experienced a protectorate, obtained its independence relatively easily, and built its foreign policy on close relations with Western countries. Through its monarchy, Morocco politicised its history, giving its territorial integrity primary importance. On the other hand, Algeria suffered from a particularly intense and bloody independence war that led to a much more hostile policy with the West and an alliance with the Soviet bloc. Its nation-building narrative exhibits socialist and anti-colonial ideas that are entrenched in its policies. These two political cultures regularly clashed through their interactions, for example, when Algeria condemned Morocco for its links with the West and when Morocco accused Algeria of being jealous of its history. In this light, it created a dynamic of constant mistrust and policies oriented to contentiousness.

The starting point of their bad relations occurred after independence, in the aftermath of the Sand war in 1973, a post-colonial conflict for the dispute of the Tindouf and Bechar region. This conflict built the initial enemy perception for political elites. More events fuelled the hostiles, mostnotably the closing of land borders in 1994. Particularly, one of the most contentious issues is regarding Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony under Moroccan sovereignty. Algeria actively participates in supporting rebel groups in the region and invokes its anti-colonial values, referring to Morocco as the “occupying power” many times, therefore challenging one of Morocco’s most important principles, its territorial integrity. These years’ aggressive foreign policy demonstrates that hostility towards the other country became entrenched in both countries’ foreign policies and practices.

These events resulted in such pejorative perceptions that both countries are estimated to spend a budget comparable to war efforts to protect their borders and sustain an arm race. More recently, the US official recognition of the Moroccan sovereignty of the region and Morocco’s accusation of spyware are considered to be the main events that worsened the relations and led to the official suspension of diplomatic relations between the two.

The suspension of the Euro-Maghreb pipeline: a decision that proves costly for all

The policies employed by one country regarding the other appear costly for all mostly. For instance, just a look at the disproportional spending they employ on warfare suggests that they engage in self-destructing policies considering both countries suffer from poverty and unemployment.

Furthermore, looking at the recent event of the refusal to renew the Euro-Maghreb pipeline is an appropriate lens to show how such irrational policies have consequences extending to more countries. The contract started in 1996, and exported Algerian gas to Spain and Portugal, as it went across Morocco. The latter received 7% that is used for domestic consumption. The pipeline is crucial for both countries, as Algeria needs it to recover from its recent economic crisis, and Morocco could suffer energy shortages without it. However, with knowledge of these facts, Algeria decided to suspend the pipeline. This decision does not only impact the neighbouring countries but also Europe as Spain and Portugal need to look for new suppliers in the face of soaring prices. Spain exported 45 % of its gas from this pipeline and now exports only 25% from an alternative one that does not go across Morocco. Hence, in trying to punish and disadvantage Morocco, Algeria miscalculated its policy leading to a shift in Spain’s foreign policy that find itself no longer dependent on the Algerian gas. The state shifted its view on Western Sahara from neutrality to open support for the Moroccan autonomy plan. It appears that Algeria’s attempt to penalise Morocco was not based on rational calculations but rather, was guided by historical ideas and continuous practice by the political elites to adopt aggressive policies.

Image Credits: https://insidearabia.com/borders-algeria-morocco/

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