In an interview last month with Jeune Afrique, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita argued that Morocco-Algeria relations “are at a dead end at every level.” To add insult to injury, in a meeting with business leaders in Algiers last week, Algeria’s foreign minister Abdelkader Messahel accused Morocco of “laundering cannabis money via its banks in the continent (Africa).” Rabat reacted to the comments by recalling its ambassador to Algeria on 21 October. Morocco’s foreign ministry also issued a statement, saying that the comments demonstrate, “an unprecedented level of irresponsibility in the history of bilateral relations.”
This state of affairs is not particularly new. The two countries maintain a regional rivalry that goes beyond the conflict over the Western Sahara territory. Currently, the competition is rising over regional influence across the African continent in the wake of Morocco’s foreign policy shift toward this region.
Morocco rejoined the African Union (AU) after a thirty-three year absence on 31 January. King Mohammed VI also completed a long tour in sub-Saharan Africa to ensure support for Morocco’s reintegration into this international organization, while also promising greater economic investment across the continent. In June, Morocco was also admitted as a member of ECOWAS, the economic bloc of Western African countries, though the specifics of this membership are still unclear.
This year, Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika became the vice-president of the African Union as the country is attempting to counter Morocco’s newfound influence across the continent. After all, Algeria’s major position on the continent is bolstered by its role as a major exporter of oil and natural gas, as well as its leadership of the AU. Algeria is also now trying to set itself apart as the center for African security and counterterrorism. The African Police Organization “Afripol” was launched in May 2017 in Algiers, and the state boasts the largest defense budget in Africa—more than twice the size of Morocco’s.
These changes demonstrate to what extent historical rivalry between the two countries is less about the Western Sahara and more about competition over regional hegemony. This relationship is, moreover, rooted in a long history of mistrust. As Yahia Zoubir argues, “Strained relations between Algeria and Morocco are not solely the result of the Western Sahara conflict; they derive from a historical evolution of which Western Sahara is only one aspect, albeit one that has occupied since 1975 a predominant place in that relationship. This is why a definitive resolution of the Western Sahara conflict will not necessarily mean a definitive end to the mistrust that exists between the two states.”
The Maghreb region’s major period of cooperation took place in 1989, with the creation of the Arab Maghreb Union that brought together the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. Yet today the Maghreb is one of the least economically integrated regional systems in the world. According to The Economist, if Morocco and Algeria had maintained the economic cooperation promised by the Arab Maghreb Union, their economies would have doubled in size and been two of the largest in the Middle East and North Africa region. Instead they only expanded thirty-seven percent and thirty-three percent respectively. The closed border area, with high potential to be a major trade hub, is extremely poor and the site of various smuggling networks.
Not only is the Arab Maghreb Union an empty shell that no longer organizes meetings, but the border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed since 1994. That year Morocco implemented visa restrictions on Algerians after two Spanish nationals were killed in Marrakech by two Moroccans, who were allegedly influenced by Algerian security forces. Algeria responded to this move by closing the border.
The tense relationship between the two countries stems from mistrust both before and during the Western Sahara conflict, and especially around the post-independence period. The two states developed in very different contexts. The National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria fought a brutal war against the French colonial empire from 1954 until 1962, after 132 years of violent occupation. The FLN became the head of a one-party, socialist state. Morocco’s experience with French and Spanish colonialism was more short-lived, from 1912-1956, and the independence struggle was less violent and protracted overall. The regime that solidified its power in the years following independence in Morocco was the nationalist monarchy, King Mohammed V, who ruled over the beginnings of a multiparty system. During the cold war, the Moroccan regime chose Western allies, in contrast to the Algerian proclivity for Soviet support, in a proxy war that Raphael Lefevre describes as the “North African version of the ‘Arab Cold War.’”
Disputes over the Moroccan-Algerian borders led to the 1963 Sand War, and armed conflict started in 1975 after the Spanish withdrew from the Western Sahara. At this point, a war broke out between Morocco and the Polisario Front ,the political group that claims to represent the indigenous Sahrawi people and protests Morocco’s control over this territory. Algeria still hosts the Polisario and refugee camps of around 90,000 Sahrawi people in the southern town of Tindouf, and its consistent support for the Polisario continues to anger Rabat and limit cooperation with their regional rival. A cease-fire was brokered in 1991, but the dispute continues to this day.
Morocco’s New Shift Toward Sub-Saharan Africa
Morocco’s shift toward the African continent is a means of shoring up greater support and international legitimacy for their claim over the Western Sahara. The African Union, an international institution that admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a member state in 1984, leading to Morocco’s departure from the organization, was a hostile environment for the Sherifian kingdom for more than thirty years.
By successfully shifting the tide in the African Union, Morocco believes it can win greater international legitimacy for its control over the disputed territory, thus solidifying its moderate, “exceptional” image abroad. It may even be able to use its new influence to eventually push SADR out of the African Union, a move that would embody a huge diplomatic victory for Morocco.
Morocco’s foreign policy emphasizes the importance of territorial integrity and upholds the country’s claim on the disputed territory of the Western Sahara. Rabat maintains de facto control over this area, but international support for Morocco’s position is limited and the conflict remains unresolved, hurting Morocco’s image abroad. Major African powers such as Algeria, South Africa, Nigeria, and others long supported the principle of self-determination of the Sahrawi–a position that questions Morocco’s control over the territory.
King Mohammed VI spent much of 2016 traveling around the continent to secure support for their bid to rejoin the African Union, offering sizable foreign investment and business deals across the continent. In 2016, he traveled to several African countries including Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Madagascar. In the January 2017 vote, thirty-nine countries supported Morocco’s readmission to the African Union and nine voted against. According to Associated Press reports, the two main candidates leading the campaign against Morocco’s readmission were likely Algeria and South Africa.
In February 2017, during a second round of visits to primarily western African nations, the royal entourage visited Mali, Ghana, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Zambia, and Mali. This trip resulted in fifty bilateral agreements with African countries and the eventual admission of Morocco into the ECOWAS bloc. According to the OCP Policy Center, Morocco is currently the second largest African investor in the continent, after South Africa, and its investments have jumped from sixty-six percent in the period from 2008-2013 to eighty-five percent today.
Sub-Saharan migration to both Morocco and Algeria represents another dimension of this issue. Morocco launched an ambitious regularization program that gave residency permits to a large majority of undocumented migrants and refugees who applied. The program took place in 2014, a limited appeals process occurred in 2015, and another regularization process has been announced this year. According to the World Bank, more than 25,000 individuals received one year residency permits from 116 different countries in the 2014 regularization process. All women and children who applied were accepted, and the overall acceptance rate was over sixty-five percent. This population came mostly from Senegal (twenty-five percent), Syria (twenty percent), and Nigeria (nine percent).
The second round of regularization was announced around the time that Morocco started making overtures to join the ECOWAS bloc. While the regularization program was a major aspect of the migration and asylum overhaul announced by the king in 2013 (and after years of pressure from civil society), this reflects a significant component of Morocco’s foreign policy shift toward Africa. It helped open the door to conversations about reintegration into the African Union, economic cooperation, and the free movement of people between Morocco and Western African countries. Yet this bright political reality that started in 2014 was overshadowed by continued police raids and poor treatment of sub-Saharan migrants across the country, as well as poor living conditions experienced by many migrants and refugees throughout the country.
Morocco also claims to be a regional leader in what has been termed “religious diplomacy.” The Mohammed VI Foundation for African Ulema is a key institute that trains African and European imams in order to promote so-called “moderate Islam.” These initiatives reflect Morocco’s desire to be a key regional player in countering radical extremism and exporting an allegedly more moderate form of Islam rooted in the country’s Sufi traditions. According to the Mohammed VI Foundation for African Islamic Scholars, King Mohammed’s status as the Commander of the Faithful is venerated throughout Africa. In short, this spiritual diplomacy is yet another facet of Morocco’s soft and hard power shift towards the African continent.
Algeria’s Relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa
Algeria announced its own regularization program in July 2017, which was somewhat similar to the initiatives implemented by Morocco in 2014, in response to racism against sub-Saharan migrants. Algeria’s former Prime Minister Abdelmajid Tebboune officially announced a program to provide residency permits that would allow for migrants to work in the country. According to Tebboune, this was in reaction to various racist movements, including an online campaign blaming Africans for the spread of HIV and the proliferation of social media hashtags such as “No to Africans in Algeria.”
Similar to the policy in Morocco, this ostensible push for political reform hides a violent reality of aggression against migrants and refugees. Radio France Internationale reported on the mass arrest of hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants in Algeria, without explanation, who were shipped on buses to southern Algeria on 6 October.
While the policy promised by the former Prime Minister is partially in reaction to heightened racism against Algeria’s community of around 100,000 sub-Saharan migrants, it also indicates Algeria’s desire to make new overtures toward Africa and its increasing number of migrants traveling north, toward countries like Morocco and Algeria, and sometimes on to Europe. These migration flows are not new, but the adoption of more open migration policies and large-scale regularization programs indicates the increased economic cooperation between North African and sub-Saharan African countries.
Many factors point to the major influence Algeria enjoys in the region: Bouteflika’s vice-presidency of the African Union, Algeria’s immense defense budget of over ten billion dollars, the creation of the Afripol group to unify African police forces in May 2017, the historic role that Algeria has played in internal and regional counter terrorism around the Sahel region, and a strong economic orientation toward investment and resource exploitation around Africa. Algeria’s decade-long civil war against radical groups also significantly established an image as a counter terrorist state.
US embassy cables from 2010 describe how Algeria has taken “the lead in regional fight against Al-Qaida.” A major component of this leadership role is cooperation and training between Algeria and Sahel countries such as Mauritania, Nigeria, and Mali. Security chiefs from these countries agreed to set up a regional operations command in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, for this specific purpose.
While both Morocco and Algeria are asserting their influence in terms of counterterrorism efforts, the two countries are taking different approaches to relations with Africa. Moroccan efforts focus on economic investment and socioeconomic development, while also exerting religious influence. Algeria is focusing more on military might and security cooperation throughout the Sahel and the rest of the continent.
The most recent feud after the incendiary statements from Algeria’s foreign minister about Morocco’s alleged drug laundering activities on the continent sheds much light on the extent to which cooperation between the two neighbors remains extremely unlikely. The exchange of insults and accusations is not new, but there is little doubt that Morocco’s recent push for influence across the continent represents a new development that will further intensify hostilities with Algeria.
Analyses of the region have often upheld the Western Sahara as the root of the rivalry between Algeria and Morocco, but this explanation fails to address the more fundamental power struggle for regional influence across Africa. Even if the Western Sahara conflict takes a back seat in the Morocco-Algeria rivalry, Maghreb regional integration and greater bilateral relations between the two countries seem a distant dream.