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After Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune came to power at the end of 2019, Algeria’s foreign policy began focussing on “safe positioning.” This shift aims to balance regional and international factors and diversify international partners to achieve a balanced foreign policy.
The tangible changes in Algeria’s foreign policy features also constitute an attempt to break the relative stalemate that Algeria experienced during the last seven years of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule. The changes also try to get past the “black decade” that affected Algeria’s position as a regional player.
The Arab Push and Pull
Algeria seeks to restore its regional role through the Arab Summit it will host in early November 2022. Algeria’s new goal does not lose sight of the roles of its neighbouring countries in the Arab world, such as Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and Israel.
The Algerian president is betting on the success of the upcoming Arab Summit. However, his diplomatic gamble remains unrealistic in light of the continuing Moroccan-Algerian conflict and the tug-of-war over Syria‘s return to the Arab League, in addition to Algeria’s role in Libya and its clash with the Egyptian and Tunisian positions.
Recently, Tebboune mocked Morocco, stating that “All countries that respect and have no issues with other Arab countries will meet in Algeria.” According to the Algerian president, what is essential is the “meeting of the Arab family in Algeria, as it is best suited to reunite and mediate to resolve disputes.”
Although Syria’s non-participation in the upcoming summit was confirmed, Tebboune considered its participation legal. On the controversy over its political participation, the Algerian president said, “From a legal point of view, Syria is a founding country of the Arab League, so its presence at the summit is normal.”
The Syrian absence is not a contentious point, especially since Syria prefers not to return to its seat during Algeria’s Arab Summit.
On the other hand, Morocco is expected to be present at the summit. Leaks indicate that Moroccan King Mohammed VI intends to attend the summit. The last Arab Summit attended by the Moroccan king was held in Algeria in 2005.
Many hope that the Moroccan king’s presence at the next summit will open the door to dialogue with Algeria, thereby finding a workable formula for both countries. This may, however, be idle hope since the ‘rapprochement’ between the two countries is only a matter of protocol. Despite mediation by the Gulf aimed at bridging the rift between the two countries, this may not necessarily mean that bilateral relations will improve.
The dynamic of unsolved disputes reinforces Algerian propaganda against Morocco’s so-called Makhzen regime, the king’s elite. Algerian state media celebrate what they describe as Morocco’s record of successive diplomatic failures since the normalisation of relations with Israel, as well as the floundering of the monarchy and the weakening of its influence.
Algeria has treated, officially and in state media, the possibility of the Moroccan king’s participation with remarkable apathy, indicating minor prospects for the normalisation of Moroccan-Algerian relations during the summit.
Media reports speculated that Morocco would reduce its representation to its Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch and its Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita. This has led some to surmise that the purpose of press leaks is to gauge reactions.
On the other hand, Algeria is seeking to host a meeting of Palestinian factions before the Arab Summit, in particular since Tebboune stressed that Algeria is “fully qualified” to achieve reconciliation between these factions. According to Tebboune, Algeria is “the only country that does not have delicate considerations in this regard.” The Algerian president stressed the confidence all Palestinian parties, including Hamas, have in Algeria.
Meanwhile, Algeria’s quest to resolve the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis was not met with enthusiasm by Egypt.
Algeria did not give Cairo a heads up about the initiative that Cairo only found out about after Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen praised what he described as Algeria’s initiative and its efforts to clear the air and enable the parties concerned to overcome differences.
Some argue that Algeria’s quest is “not only to help Egypt but also to give a strong impetus to Algerian diplomacy” on the African continent. Contrarily, Cairo does not consider Algeria’s alliance with Ethiopia hostile, as Moroccan media and websites have claimed.
Relations with Turkey
From Tebboune’s point of view, the development of relations with Turkey is expected because of the long history between the two countries and because Turkey is one of the primary investors in Algeria.
Turkish investments in Algeria have reached $4 billion. More than 1,400 Turkish companies operate in Algeria, providing more than 30,000 jobs to Algerians.
As economic relations flourish, Algeria considers Turkey a key ally in the future. Despite fears that rapprochement could exacerbate external and internal pressures on Algeria, its new political elite is counting heavily on building bridges of political and economic cooperation with Turkey.
Algerian and Iranian foreign policies may differ, but that does not rule out a rapprochement between the two countries, according to political science researcher Abdallah Belghit. Although Algeria rejects Iran’s interference in some Arab countries, the two countries have some mutual interests.
While Iran has supported Algeria’s decision to sever ties with Morocco, it is naturally capitalising on Algeria’s position rejecting normalisation with Israel. Algeria is one of the few Arab countries that is pessimistic about the peace that will follow the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
China Succeeding France
China recently took France’s place as the lead exporter to Algeria. It has also managed to wrest the status of Algeria’s primary trading partner from the United States. Sino-Algerian trade amounted to $8 billion, of which nearly $7 billion were Chinese exports. China’s trade activities are part of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Algeria, China’s only agreement of the kind in Northwest Africa, “Maghreb.”
Algeria, which allocates the highest defence budget in Africa, recently acquired several Chinese weapons, and in 2017, it launched a satellite from a Chinese base.
China has boosted its investments in Algeria. One of the mega-projects carried out by Chinese companies in Algeria is a jointly financed project to build the largest port in Africa and the Mediterranean.
Algeria does not seem concerned regarding US and Western warnings against mountains of Chinese debt, owing to the adoption of a 51/49 per cent partnership for Algeria and China, respectively. Moreover, Algeria’s foreign exchange reserves make it possible to cover the investments without substantial loans.
Algeria has never been explicitly pro-America or officially on the side of the West. According to US analysis, it has, however, proved its geostrategic value to Washington through its essential role in providing intelligence and assisting in counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Military and security cooperation with Washington had a hiccup when former US President Donald Trump recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara rather than responding to the demands of the Polisario Front, Algeria’s strategic ally.
Algeria’s national security was threatened by Trump’s decision and Morocco’s signing of the “Abraham Accords” and its recognition of Israel. These developments coincided with local unrest that swept Algeria in 2019 and forced it to lower its priority for foreign policy.
Relations between Washington and Algeria have not improved since 2020. This has coincided with a tense relationship with France and the suspension of trade relations with Spain in response to its position on the Western Sahara issue. This confluence of factors has left Algeria unprecedentedly isolated from the Western world.
Washington’s displeasure regarding Algeria’s closeness to Russia and China has led to a further deterioration of the relationships. Some argue that, at the moment, these relations have already reached rock bottom.
This is reflected in US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call for Algeria to reconsider its relations with Russia. The latter’s invasion of Ukraine may be a crucial opportunity for Algeria to regain its relevance in the eyes of the United States through gas diplomacy, which has become vital to Algeria’s foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Tebboune’s recent visit to Italy marked a paradigm shift and signified great warmth between the two sides. While Algeria’s relations with France and Spain have cooled down tremendously, trade with Italy has risen over the past year to $8.5 billion.
Algeria is currently presenting itself as an energy exporter to Southern Europe to enhance its importance to Washington. This approach also addresses Algeria’s isolation in the Mediterranean by restoring its ties with France and Spain to support its fragile economy.
Algeria may, at times, benefit from toning down the nationalist discourse that pervades its foreign policy and replace it with a pragmatic one that focuses on the benefits that can be reaped through more robust trade agreements with European energy partners.
According to this analysis, Algeria may be at a pivotal moment in its diplomatic history. Building multilateral relations is required to persuade the US to continue to consider Algeria as a strategic partner, which could balance Washington’s stance on Western Sahara by expanding Algeria’s participation in the UN-led process.
This coincides with Algeria’s announcement of its intention to join BRICS as an “economic and political power.” Tebboune stated that joining the group would distance Algeria from “the tug-of-war of the two poles.”
Ultimately, the most critical issue for foreign policy to consider in the coming period is to ensure a balance between Europe and Russia at the diplomatic, security and economic level.
According to some, Algeria may be able to achieve its goals and maximise its gains on various regional and international fronts, but this must be done without harming its interests with its traditional allies.