Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Arab Maghreb Union: Of Missed Opportunities and Economic Integration

Arab Maghreb Union
Archive photo of foreign ministers from Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia attending a meeting on February 18, 2012 in Rabat to try to revive a union of North African countries. AFP PHOTO / ABDELHAK SENNA

Ali Noureddine

This article has been translated from Arabic.


The Arab Maghreb Union was founded 33 years ago with the intention of serving as a forum for the economic and financial integration of five nations that represented the western region of the Arab world.

The union and its institutions still appear to exist today, but the endeavor failed to achieve its founders’ goals despite the fact that the five member states possess all the elements needed for the desired integration, which could achieve self-sufficiency for these countries.

Today it seems clear that political factors and conflicts significantly contributed to obstructing this project and gradually reducing its role. Consequently, this union now remains in a state of paralysis, failing to seize opportunities that could have benefited the peoples of the member states.

Faltering Attempts to Cooperate Ahead of the Union’s Establishment

The notion of ​​establishing a union for the Arab Maghreb states surfaced before member countries gained their independence. The proposal was discussed in 1958 at a conference that brought together the Moroccan Independence Party, the Tunisian Constitutional Party and the Algerian National Liberation Front.

These three political movements were engaged at the time in their struggles for their respective countries’ independence, prompting them to hold a conference in the Moroccan city of Tangiers to coordinate their work and envision the future of their countries post-independence.

At the conclusion of the conference, it was agreed that the possible establishment of a federation, which would bring together Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria after independence, would be discussed. It was also decided that a permanent secretariat of six members would be established to follow up on this matter.

However, these countries’ ambitions in regards to the level of cooperation that could be reached among them declined once they gained their independence and established their own economic and financial policies. As a result, they abandoned the notion of ​​a federal union, and went toward more pragmatic ideas. Thus, attempts at joint cooperation remained limited to signing the Treaty of Rabat in 1963, which sought to expand the scope of trade exchanges between Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

A year later, the Consultative Committee for the Maghreb was established in order to follow up on submitted proposals to develop cooperation among the three countries. Yet all these initiatives remained ink on paper and the stipulated objectives were not implemented, due perhaps to the armed border conflict between Morocco and Algeria at the time.

Cooperation treaties were subsequently hammered out among the countries of Northwest Africa, with the “Unionist Statement of Djerba” signed between Libya and Tunisia in 1974. The Treaty of Mostaganem was then signed between Libya and Algeria, followed by the Treaty of Fraternity and Concord among Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania in 1983.

All these treaties sought to strengthen the frameworks of economic cooperation among the signatory countries for their mutual benefit. None of these treaties, however, have managed to establish a union or council with clear powers that pursue common interests such as in the case of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which came into being in 1980.

The failure of these attempts to form a permanent union or council could be attributed to the sharp differences between the economic and political systems in place in the Maghreb countries at the time, in contrast to the similarity of the political and economic systems in the Gulf States.

Algeria, for example, had until then adhered to its socialist economic policies, with clear leanings toward the regimes of the Eastern bloc (the Soviet Union and its allies), unlike the other Maghreb countries. In addition, the political systems adopted in these countries diverged, as did their international orientations and alignments, making the formation of such a union extremely difficult.

Founding of the Federation in 1989

The Arab Maghreb Union was finally established on February 17, 1989, through the Treaty of Marrakesh, which was signed by Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Mauritania. After numerous failed attempts, these five countries’ success in forming the union at this point was due to their fear of being marginalized while other regional cooperation unions were being formed.

The primary challenge facing the Maghreb countries at the time was the growth of cooperation and integration frameworks among European countries and their bloc. This raised concerns about the impact the European bloc would have on their interests in light of the high levels of trade between the Maghreb countries and their European neighbors to the north.

Consequently, the formation of the Arab Maghreb Union at that time reflected the member states’ need for a regional bloc that would protect their economic and trade interests, in contrast to other regional blocs. In addition, the resumption of diplomatic ties between Algeria and Morocco facilitated the birth of the union, which had previously been delayed due to tensions between the two countries.

At the time, the treaty establishing the union stipulated ambitious economic, political and financial goals, as well as achieving freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital between the five countries, which meant the establishment of a common market. The treaty also stipulated establishing diplomatic cooperation among the five countries on the international scene, preserving the independence of the member states in the field of defense, as well as carrying out joint economic projects.

In terms of structure, the union consists of a Presidency Council that includes the heads of the five member states, as well as an elected Shura Council from the representative bodies in each of these states. In addition, the union includes a judicial body that rules on any disputes that may arise from the interpretation and application of treaties between member states, as well as an academy of sciences, a university, and a bank to finance investment and foreign trade. Finally, the executive affairs of the union are managed by a secretariat, based in Morocco, as well as by executive committees specialized in the files overseen by the union.

Missed Opportunities

Unfortunately, the Arab Maghreb Union failed to play any of the roles envisioned, to the extent that no comprehensive summit of the Presidency Council of the Union has convened since 1994. This is a missed opportunity for the peoples of the Maghreb region, whereby the combined territories of ​​the union’s member states amounts to 6.04 million square kilometers, an area greater than that of the European Union with a population exceeding 100 million people.

The key advantage of such a union would have been to secure self-sufficiency for its peoples, if it did so in a manner that ensures integration among the member states. There exist today varied economic and natural resources within the union, such as iron in Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco; natural gas in Algeria; oil in Libya; wheat in Algeria and Morocco; gold in Morocco; as well as tourism imports and expatriate remittances in Tunisia. Clearly such a union could have secured great integration among the five countries had its achieved objectives, the most important of which was opening the common market and increasing trade exchanges among the member states.

Thus, the countries of the Arab Maghreb Union have not been able to provide for their peoples the opportunity of such an integration. This is clearly evident in the figures that indicate that the proportion of intra-regional trade among member states fails to exceed 5 per cent of the total trade transactions carried out by the countries of the union. This small figure in and of itself indicates that the Union has been unsuccessful in gaining any advantages in terms of promoting trade among the member states since the great bulk of the trade and economic treaties agreed have not been put into practice.

The International Monetary Fund figures indicate that Maghreb countries could eliminate 20 per cent of their unemployment rates once they reach the stage of economic integration. Fund figures also show that Maghreb countries can attract foreign workers seven years after reaching this stage. In other words, today the peoples of the Maghreb are paying the price for the failure to activate the union, its institutions and its treaty. Such an activation would have precipitated significant economic growth through the integration of their economies and the establishment of a common market that would open the doors of trade among regional states.

Reasons for Failure

There are varied reasons for the failure that led to the paralysis of the union’s institutions for more than three decades, as well as for the failure to carry out any of the agreed-upon roles. The first of these has to do with the political conflicts that erupted between the member states, such as the one between Algeria and Morocco following attacks on a hotel in Marrakesh, Morocco, and Morocco accusing Algerian intelligence of involvement in the attack.

This particular conflict reached the point of a closure of their mutual border, which contradicts the premise of ​​a union based on strengthening cooperation among its member states. Furthermore, sanctions imposed on Libya contributed to isolating the Gadhafi regime from the international community, and prevented Libya from engaging in any joint investment projects with neighboring countries. In addition, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria have witnessed a number of political and security developments over the past decade that reduced their interest in any attempts to develop regional cooperation frameworks.

Thus, the countries of the Maghreb today are in urgent need of the benefits a union can provide, especially in light of the economic crises that necessitate regional cooperation of this sort. However, some of these countries, such as Tunisia and Libya, have endured harsh political battles that continue to impede any attempts to activate such ambitious projects. Working on the frameworks needed to achieve economic integration requires political stability, which allows the required cooperation to formulate common financial and customs policies in accordance with the member states’ common interests. With all this in mind, it is highly unlikely that the functions of the Arab Maghreb Union will be activated in the near future.