Politics

Algeria and Morocco fall out over gas, separatists and Western Sahara


A threat to cut off gas supplies, allegations of support for a separatist group and renewed strains over disputed territory: relations between Algeria and Morocco, arch rivals who once fought a border war, have worsened in recent weeks.

One consequence of the deterioration in relations is that Algeria’s oil minister has said his country will not renew an agreement, set to expire at the end of October, that governs a pipeline carrying Algerian natural gas through Morocco to Spain. Algiers has also banned Moroccan flights from its airspace.

Algerian security services announced last week they had arrested 17 people and foiled a plot to carry out armed attacks by the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia, MAK, a Paris-based group which calls for self-determination for the Berber-speaking region of Kabylia in northern Algeria. The group has denied any involvement in violence and said it only used peaceful means.

The announcement said the alleged MAK operatives, designated a terrorist organisation in Algeria, were aided by the “Zionist entity [Israel] and a North African country” — understood to be a reference to Morocco, which normalised relations with the Jewish state last year.

Always tetchy, ties between the north African neighbours have broken down completely because of renewed strains over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, and analysts warn of the danger of escalation.

“The biggest risk is miscalculation,” said Riccardo Fabiani, north Africa director at the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organisation. “While neither Algeria nor Morocco has any interest in triggering a war, the risk is that tensions could escalate beyond control if either side goes too far. This miscalculation could be in Western Sahara, fuelling a military escalation . . . or it could result in direct border clashes between the two countries, for example.”

Morocco, which has controlled most of the arid and sparsely populated territory of Western Sahara since Spain pulled out in 1975, claims sovereignty over it. But Algeria hosts and supports the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi group fighting for independence for the territory.

Plans for a UN referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara have been stalled for decades. A 30-year ceasefire broke down in November last year and the Polisario Front has resumed low-intensity hit-and-run attacks and long-distance shelling against Moroccan positions in the territory.

Morocco’s claim on Western Sahara has been bolstered by US recognition of its sovereignty over the territory in December 2020 under the administration of Donald Trump, in a quid pro quo for Rabat’s normalisation of ties with Israel.

An outcome of the US recognition, say analysts, is that Morocco has conducted a more assertive foreign policy aiming at eliciting a similar shift from countries still adhering to the UN position on the disputed territory. It has frozen ties with the German embassy in Rabat and recalled its own ambassador to Berlin because Germany criticised the US move.

US support and normalisation with Israel has changed the dynamic of relations between Morocco and Algeria, according to Fabiani. “With the normalisation deal, Morocco now has access to Israeli technology such as drones,” he added. “There is a fear in Algiers that this will change the balance of power.” 

Algeria cut off ties in August after Morocco’s ambassador to the UN said that “the valiant Kabyle people deserve, more than any other, to fully enjoy their right to self-determination”.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the Algerian president, made clear last week that no decision has yet been taken on the gas pipeline, though he suggested his country would make up any shortfall in its commitment to supply gas to Spain through shipping LNG.

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Morocco has used gas from the pipeline to power some of its electricity generation and also enjoyed a royalty for passage through its territory. Losing access to the natural gas would be “a massive inconvenience, but Morocco has been preparing for it”, said Anthony Skinner, Middle East and north Africa director at Verisk Maplecroft, a UK risk consultancy. It would, however, compel the kingdom to resort to LNG, which is more expensive, or coal, he said.

Tebboune also upped the belligerent tone in his interview. He said that whoever attacked Algeria “would regret the day they were born, because we would not stop [fighting]”. He added: “Morocco has an old and repeated record of hostile acts against Algeria.”

Dalia Ghanem, resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, pointed out that Algeria had also been outraged by revelations in July that Morocco had used Pegasus malware developed by NSO Group, an Israeli company, to hack into the phones of hundreds of its officials. Rabat has denied the accusations. “Both regimes are trying to keep their populations busy with trivial questions instead of focusing on what’s going on internally because both have to deal with internal dissent,” she said.

Mohammed Masbah, head of the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, said relations between the two countries were “like a never- ending cold war”, and that “the Algerians felt threatened and cornered”. He warned of the potential for inadvertent violence. “In the current situation, the best outcome would be to return to the status quo before the current escalation and to manage the crisis through diplomacy.”



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