Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco and Algeria Dispute: Why insoluble?

The ongoing dispute between Morocco and Algeria over gas diplomacy has entered a new phase with the potential to escalate into a military confrontation.

Morocco and Algeria Dispute
Algerian Minister of Justice, Abdul Rashid Tabbi hands over the invitation letter of Algerian President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune for Mohammed VI of Morocco to Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita in Rabat, Morocco on September 27, 2022. Moroccan Foreign Ministry / Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP.

Khaled Mahmoud

Driven by the ongoing conflict over gas diplomacy, the insoluble dispute between Morocco and Algeria has entered a new phase. There are concerns that the confrontation, which began with diplomatic disputes, trade convoys and gas pipelines, may take on other forms.

Recently, fighting between the two sides over the export of Nigerian gas to Europe in light of the Russian-Ukrainian war has been public. The dispute arose after Morocco succeeded in signing a memorandum of understanding with Nigeria regarding the transportation of gas through several African countries. The agreement was made at the expense of Algeria, which had hoped the pipeline would pass through its territory, providing subsequent economic and political benefits. Algeria is the largest African and seventh largest global exporter of natural gas.

The Moroccan monarch, Mohammed VI, described the agreement as a “project for peace, African economic integration and co-development.” He added, “This project is for the present and future generations. We want it to be a strategic project that benefits the entire West African region, a region that is home to more than 440 million people.”

The Moroccan sovereign expressed regional political ambition: “Given the continental dimension of the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline (NMGP), we also consider it a flagship project that will link Africa to Europe.”

The project comes amidst a geopolitical situation dominated by high international demand for gas and oil and increased prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Several countries, especially in Europe, seek to reduce their dependence on Russia.

The NMGP project is 6,000 kilometres long and crosses 13 African countries along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The pipeline is planned to stretch all the way to landlocked Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. It is expected to transport over 5 trillion cubic metresIs of natural gas to Morocco.

The project, announced at the end of 2016, takes place against a backdrop of increasing regional disputes between Morocco and Algeria. The dispute peaked after Algeria severed diplomatic relations with Morocco in August 2021. Later, Algeria cut off its gas supply to Morocco, and it recently closed the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline that pumps Algerian gas through Morocco to Spain.

In July 2022, Algeria, Nigeria and Niger signed a memorandum of understanding to build a natural gas pipeline of around 4,000 kilometres across the Sahara desert. The project aims to supply Europe with Nigerian natural gas through Niger and Algeria.

Border tensions

One study concluded that the border tensions between the neighbouring states are a colonial legacy that obstructs development on all fronts for both nations.

The study urged both nations to overlook tensions and follow Europe’s example, which left the past behind, turned a new page and founded the European Union.

However, tensions at the border, although occasional, indicate that certain groups are eager to reignite a military confrontation between the two sides.

Military concerns

Some fear a direct military confrontation between Algeria and Morocco could erupt at any moment. Numerous reports indicated that Algeria’s defence budget doubled in 2023 compared to the year before. Notably, Algeria’s defence budget for this year surpasses $22 billion, placing the Ministry of National Defence’s budget at the forefront of the government’s budget.

This unprecedented increase occurs in the context of the classic tensions between both nations, caused primarily by deep disagreements on the Western Sahara issue and the military and security cooperation between Morocco and Israel.

On the other hand, Algeria is a significant military partner of Russia in Africa and one of the biggest buyers of Russian weapons in the region. The Algerian Ministry of National Defence recently refuted claims that it had conducted military drills with the Russian armed forces near the Moroccan border. Nonetheless, they participated in a four-day joint naval exercise in the Mediterranean in October 2022.

Having persisted for over six decades, the conflict between Algeria and Morocco is one of the most long-standing in the region, leading some to dub it a “long rivalry.”

Over the past decade, the two countries have collectively spent nearly $140 billion on weaponry, Algeria leading the race with $99.97 while Morocco spent $39.59 billion.

Despite maintaining that it is not involved in the conflict in Western Sahara, Algeria continues to extend substantial support to the Polisario Front, which operates from its headquarters in the Tindouf refugee camps in the west of Algeria.

Regional leadership

Some argue that both nations merely use the Western Sahara issue as a pretext for justifying their endless quarrel, while the underlying reason for their dispute is their pursuit of regional dominance.

According to analysts, Algeria saw an opportunity to settle scores with Morocco in the ongoing competition for leadership in the Maghreb region. As a result, a military conflict between the two cannot be ruled out.

The distrust has turned into a robust political and military doctrine. Nonetheless, the likelihood of military conflict should serve as a warning to both politicians and generals.

The potential conflict between Morocco and Algeria surpasses just their own nations. It would signal that the broader Arab region faces a multitude of grave issues that could erupt at any moment.

Some warn that the potential conflict might take on unorthodox forms, such as hybrid warfare employing cyber attacks, intelligence operations and limited strikes in vulnerable areas.

Fortunately, despite the long-standing closure of the land borders between Algeria and Morocco since 1994, and the ongoing issue of Western Sahara, there are indications of a subtle but persistent resistance from the public.

Bobby Ghosh, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, believes that the dilemma in the Maghreb region “requires the US to return to its policy of studied neutrality on an issue they care about deeply: the status of Western Sahara.”

Anouar Boukhars, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, says that “since the mid-seventies, Morocco and Algeria have remained trapped in a zero-sum world.” He also believes their bitter rivalry has prevented progress on many burning issues.

Ultimately it is up to Algeria and Morocco to bury the hatchet. Despite their distinct political and economic characteristics, it would be to their mutual benefit to take advantage of the great opportunities that may arise from their cooperation. Collaboration will enable both countries to establish mutual economic benefits and contribute to a prosperous future for the Maghreb region.

Both countries will likely continue to exploit their rivalry and unsettled disputes to alleviate internal crises.

The safer bet here would be to urge both parties to reduce military spending and focus more on diplomatic solutions, even if they take longer to achieve.

Some Moroccans demand that Algeria stops supporting the “separatist” Polisario Front, believing Algeria is the root of all evil. Conversely, Algerians consider Western Sahara a decolonisation issue for which the solution lies with the United Nations and Algeria is not part of that conflict.

Mohamed al-Sharkawy, professor of international dispute settlement and former UN Committee of Experts member, believes that in light of the historical rivalry over who leads a potential Maghreb alliance, the significance of the psychological and political barrier between the military and security elites in both countries cannot be underestimated. This barrier decreases the likelihood of rapprochement and reaching a consensus.

Fruitless mediations

The endeavour undertaken by Hosni Mubarak, the late Egyptian President, to forestall the escalation of a border conflict between the two nations underlines the intensity of the Western Sahara dispute between Algeria and Morocco. Despite spanning three weeks, the attempt was unable to resolve the issue.

Rumours of Mubarak’s capture circulated while the Egyptian army was providing support to its Algerian counterpart during the Sand War. Investigations proved, however, that Mubarak was not among the four Egyptian pilots taken captive by Moroccan forces during this war.

Despite Mubarak’s support, Algeria publicly rejected his offer to mediate and resolve the Western Sahara conflict on two separate occasions.

Reportedly, Algeria has recently turned down three mediation proposals for reconciliation with Morocco from Arab nations, citing Morocco as a strategic adversary.

In conclusion, the ongoing game of cat and mouse between Algeria and Morocco has led to the squandering of valuable opportunities for cooperation.

In an effort to capitalise on the European energy crisis, both parties are pursuing divergent paths, highlighting the escalation of the conflict in the absence of any regional mediation.

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