Morocco and Algeria Still Can’t Define Mutual Wins
For more than a decade, I have been following North Africa. What started out as a focus in graduate school on regionalization and integration became an analytical challenge to assess how states build relations in which they see mutual advantage through greater economic integration. The numbers are unassailable. Regional integration would give the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) countries a boost of up to 5% in their annual GDPs by upping intra-AMU trade, coordinating trade promotion and customs regimes, more leverage in negotiating commercial and investment agreements, and ease of access for labor and capital.
I’m writing about this again because observing International Refugee Day makes me think about the Sahrawis in Morocco and Algeria. Their contested status is why Algeria and Morocco, the two biggest economies in the AMU, go their own way, convinced that the Western Sahara dispute makes it unlikely that normal and robust relations can be established. At least give King Mohammed VI credit for submitting an official proposal move that would grant autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty to the area in question. Algeria and its puppet regime in Tindouf have rejected the proposal as a non-starter but have not offered a constructive response of their own. If Algeria believes more suffering by the Sahrawi people displaced by conflict and living in camps in southwestern Algeria will build a cadre of revolutionary leaders, they are living a sad fantasy. The only demands one hears today is for the overthrow of the corrupt Polisario leadership well-known for running a police state not serving the Sahrawi people in the camps.
After 45 years, what is likely to change? As my colleague Robert Holley has noted, internationally, the UN is suffering from Sahara fatigue and continues to abstain from concrete steps except to renew the MINURSO mandate. The position of Personal Envoy for Western Sahara has been vacant since last May and there is little appetite to fill the position or find someone even interested.
Both countries are struggling with the impact of the pandemic, providing healthcare for their people, and working to restore their economies, and continuing to buy military hardware that divests funds from domestic investment and improved social services. As was recently noted, “Just like Algeria has been doing, Morocco is spending the money it does not have to procure more military equipment it will never use and without major security logic.” While the most immediate complaint was the mirror purchase of fighter jets by both when neither country would benefit from an actual military confrontation. The post raises some useful questions to consider.
A panel sponsored by Morocco World News looked in-depth at the conflict and although there was some divergence, a basic agreement was that “Algeria needs a political overhaul before the country’s leaders will warm up to Morocco,” and that doesn’t seem to be close at hand. In fact, in his first speech, Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune made a point of highlighting Algeria’s opposition to Morocco’s stance on the Western Sahara despite an invitation only days before from King Mohammed to meet to resolve the conflict.
Neither country can afford the stalemate for another decade. Although Morocco’s economy is well-diversified and its trade relations significant, new markets that would benefit local manufacturers and the agricultural sector would be a boon for the country. It currently runs deficits every year which saddles the country’s ability to make needed investments in rural and urban infrastructure and health and social services throughout the country. The severity of the pandemic is still affecting its exports severely. “Exporting companies based in Morocco are facing enormous challenges to juggle the coronavirus impact due to a rise in the cost of risk emanating from orders cancellation, trade barriers, and low demand,” according to Hassani Maghraoui at the industry and trade ministry.
As an energy producer, Algeria is in a precarious situation as revenues decline, expectations rise, and job creation is primarily on paper. Its Hirak movement for change is continuing and shows no signs of evaporating as none of the demands of the demonstrators are being met except for cosmetic changes. The continued domination by the military and security services, along with corruption and an unfriendly investment regime does not signal easy transitions ahead.
So, we continue to wonder, why not take an easy win? Open the borders, reduce barriers, facilitate the movement of goods, people, and capital, and put aside issues that endanger prospects for recovery for another day. That’s the way forward, but it takes a bit of thinking ahead. Morocco is ready; Algeria should get on board.