By Dr. Arslan Chikhaoui, Chairman of Nordsudventures.com
15 December 2021
The states of the Gulf and North Africa are part of one strategic space defined, broadly, by shared linguistic, cultural, religious, social, and historical characteristics. Both subregions are members of the League of Arab States, and they perceive themselves to be part of one political constellation. However, the four states of North Africa and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are on the opposite ends of the spectrum in several ways, including geographic, economic, and political factors. They lead to a defined, but different, strategic posture.
The GCC perception of North Africa
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE expressed, recently, regret over the diplomatic rift between Morocco and Algeria, stating support for regional dialogue and cooperation. On 27 August 2021, the GCC’s Secretary General, Nayef al-Hajraf, expressed his regret at the deterioration of ties between Rabat and Algiers. He called on both countries to hold a dialogue to overcome their disputes.
In Algeria, a country that is historically and by doctrine hostile to any foreign interference and where GCC influence is among the lowest in North Africa, Gulf states will not be able to play much of a role in influencing these dynamics. However, GCC actors will be paying close attention to the dispute to make sure it does not move to more direct conflict which could further jeopardize regional stability and the strategic Europe-Mediterranean-Africa market linkages that are valuable to global powers like Europe, the U.S., and China as well as regional actors like the GCC states and Turkey.
While the North Africa region is experiencing increased tensions, particularly following the latest political crisis in Tunisia, the GCC is aware that such tensions are not in its best interests. According to many observers, the spat between Rabat and Algiers is a source of embarrassment for the GCC, as many of these countries have good relations with both sides. The invitation to hold dialogue and solve their issues is an indication of where the GCC stands, and they are reluctant to take sides and don’t see any advantage or benefit in doing so. Instead, they prefer to calm tensions and to facilitate dialogue between the two countries. The GCC states are likely to remain neutral without supporting one side against another, even though they diplomatically support Morocco’s stance with regard to the Western Sahara issue. The GCC states’ better relationship with Rabat is unlikely to push them to take a hard stance against Algiers. Since Algeria is one of the few states in the Arab world that maintains a relatively cordial relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the GCC states are unlikely to take positions hostile to Algeria, which could push it closer to Tehran politically. Instead, they are more likely to try maintaining a good relationship with both sides.
Furthermore, as the Central Asia region is witnessing an increase in instability following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the GCC states may have other priorities on their agenda; none have great enthusiasm for becoming involved in the rift between Morocco and Algeria. Instead, the GCC countries’ focus appears to be on the regional developments in the Middle East. Certainly, other events in the region, such as the situation in Afghanistan and the ongoing diplomacy in Baghdad between Riyadh and Tehran, and other countries in the region, are far more likely to impact the Gulf than Morocco and Algeria’s serious but relatively localized dispute.
The regional competition in North Africa
North African countries are a key gateway for Europe-Africa trade and connectivity as well as a theatre of great power and regional competition. Despite the proxy war played in Libya by great powers, regional competition manifests, albeit to a much lesser extent, in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Coupled with political battles for influence, many countries are attempting to take advantage of the southern Mediterranean as an entry point to European and African markets. With China, Russia, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf states playing increasingly significant roles in the development of corridors in the southern Mediterranean, the European Union confronts a pressing strategic challenge to form a coherent and effective neighbourhood policy.
Greater numbers of global and regional actors are targeting this area and seeking to challenge traditional European presence there. Morocco and Algeria are of great importance to Chinese partners, representing strategic locations in the Belt and Road Initiative thanks to their critical port infrastructure and connection to both European and African markets. Algeria has a historical and strategic partnership with both Russia and China considered as allies. GCC states like the UAE and Qatar are looking to take advantage of critical infrastructure and cultivate greater economic influence in the Mediterranean through investments and ports. Turkey is also cultivating better economic and security ties in North Africa, particularly with Algeria and Tunisia, to undoubtably complement Turkey’s greater security footprint in Libya.
North Africa holds special significance as well for its history of social unrest, often perceived as threatening to GCC actors that prioritize stability across the Middle East and North Africa. GCC states used a variety of smart power tools to try and exert influence across North Africa in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, particularly in Libya and Tunisia and to a lesser extent, Morocco. Algeria was the least impacted by these proxy battles given its rejection of foreign interference and its own oil and gas wealth. GCC investment is significant in Morocco and Tunisia but much less so in Algeria. However, this is on the way to change as Algeria pursues greater investment out of the hydrocarbon sector.
While countries in North Africa and the Gulf are increasing their security cooperation, they lack a long-term strategic understanding due to a complex diplomatic relation between countries of the same constellation. Even as Gulf actors have started to seek tactical interactions on a few North African security issues such as the Libya crisis, their approach remains governed by the paradigm of competition between the UAE and Qatar for security influence in North Africa.
North Africa and the GCC were once driven by widely differing economic, trade, and political concerns that put them in competition with each other on occasion. The North Africa economy, while characterized by close northern trade relations with the European Union (EU), is becoming more complex and diverse as Morocco in particular is strengthening economic ties to sub-Saharan Africa and may increasingly emulate the GCC states’ global economic endeavours in the long run.
Likewise, North Africa’s security interests no longer lie solely in the Sahel. Illegal migration has made Sahel instability resonate in Europe, driving Europe and USAFRICOM to seek greater cooperation with North African countries to stem the flow of migrants and paving the way for greater cooperation on other security issues. These common interests and concerns have failed to translate into deep strategic ties between North Africa and GCC states. A complex congruence of historical, cultural, and societal factors makes greater integration between them difficult. For Morocco and Algeria, in particular, ties with GCC states are also less strategically desirable than with African states. The Gulf states have indeed had a security footprint in North Africa as the GCC called on NATO to intervene in Libya’s insurgency in 2011, a first step toward their greater security involvement in the sub-region without U.S. coordination. However, Libya is now caught in the Gulf’s own regional competition.
Algeria opposed the 2011 NATO intervention pushed by the GCC states in Libya, where it would prefer to use its own knowledge of key local actors to mediate an inclusive political settlement. Its stated neutrality in the Qatar crisis belies resentment at Abu Dhabi’s stakes in Libya as well as its mutual diplomatic and economic interests with Doha. For example, Qatar has made more than 2 billion USD investment in a steel plant in eastern Algeria and has cooperated with Algiers to secure a reduced production agreement from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Likewise, Algeria’s reluctance to oppose President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its refusal to designate Hezbollah or Hamas as terrorist organizations, and its abstention from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have shown to Qatar that it can build on its partnership with Algeria to prompt the leading gas exporter to use its independent foreign policy and strategic leverage to stand up to Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s agenda in the Gulf. This prompted Rabat to increase its ties to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to counter Algiers.
Even Morocco, which is perceived as the North African state with the closest relations with the GCC states, has taken a neutral stance on both Libya and Qatar, for once appearing to converge with Algeria, its neighbour and arch-competitor. And while Algeria’s desire for a mediated solution in Libya is a national priority given security concerns, Saudi Arabia strengthened its ties with Morocco.
Algeria is undoubtedly a significant regional player. It is rich in oil and gas and rare earths and minerals and a key member of OPEC. It has a long history of supporting regional mediation efforts, as in Mali and most recently in Libya, and taking leadership roles in regional organizations like the African Union (AU). The country fiercely rejects foreign influence in its own domestic politics as well as in other countries’ affairs. This has often put Algeria at odds with GCC actors. For example, Algeria has resisted GCC support for military operations in the Sahel region, notably the French-led G-5 Sahel Joint Task Force. Algeria rejected the Saudi-Qatari push to remove Syria from the Arab League and has maintained relations with Damascus throughout the conflict in Syria. Algeria also pushed back strongly against the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Algeria is one of the few countries that officially recognizes the Houthis. And Algeria has historically supported Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes. Algeria-Iran ties are growing and officials on both sides have expressed a desire for a deeper bilateral relationship.
Algeria has been especially critical of GCC intervention in Libya, including the support of some Gulf states for the 2011 NATO campaign and subsequent overthrow of Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, and thereafter, the financial and often direct military support for various factions in the Libyan conflict. Algeria was especially hostile to early Qatari support for anti-Qaddafi rebels and some Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) affiliated political actors later on, as well as the UAE’s support for the eastern-based General Khalifa Hafter, who led an invasion of Tripoli to overthrow the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord in April 2019. The high level of foreign and GCC intervention in the affairs of their neighbour has provoked fears among the Algerian governing elite of greater regional instability. Early Algerian warnings about the dangerous political vacuum that would develop in Libya if Colonel Qaddafi were forcibly removed proved prescient.
Algeria-GCC economic ties are minimal compared to those of Morocco and Tunisia, but as Algeria looks to embark on economic diversification efforts and the development of nonhydrocarbon markets, it is seeking to attract greater Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Algeria’s top investors are China, Turkey, Spain, Italy, and to some extent, France. Nonetheless, GCC states still jockey for influence in Algeria due to its huge resource wealth, strategic location in the southern Mediterranean, and access to African and European markets. The new President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, just after he was elected on 12 December 2019, hosted foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE followed by the Qatari Emir’s visit to Algiers in February 2020, which was swiftly followed by invitations for the Algerian President to visit Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Last but not least, in early 2022, Algeria is seeking to host the Arab League Summit.
Beyond this, the UAE’s DP World operates ports in Algeria, while Qatar has two major investments in the country: the Qatari telecommunications provider Ooredoo operates there, and Qatar funds a 4.2 million ton per year steel complex in the eastern Jijel province. In 2016, Saudi Arabia promised 10 billion USD worth of new investment in Algeria. During Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Algeria in 2018, the two countries agreed to a set of investment projects to begin in 2019, including a pharmaceutical industry project valued at 10 million USD, a paper plant worth 20 million USD, and a juice production project, but these projects seem to have stalled as Algeria became overwhelmed in a civil protest movement in February 2019. The political and economic paralysis as well as the Covid-19 pandemic has limited the ability for major investment projects to be realized. Groups like the Algeria-Saudi Investment Company financed around 22 million USD toward building malls, hotels, supermarkets, and manufacturing centers between 2008 and 2017.
The GCC views on the Algeria-Morocco tensions
The GCC countries are likely to remain neutral without supporting one side against another, even though they diplomatically support Morocco’s stance with regard to the Western Sahara issue.
Historically, Morocco has enjoyed solid relations with the GCC states. Those ties were strengthened following the Arab Spring. Rabat has benefited both politically and economically from its relationship with the GCC countries. In 2011, the six GCC states even invited Morocco, along with Jordan, to join the club. Between 2017 and 2020, however, Morocco’s ties with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have experienced volatility due to differences of views on various issues, including the Gulf crisis. In spite of Morocco’s strong ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it declined to join the 2017-2021 blockade on Qatar. Moreover, Rabat decided in 2019 to withdraw from its participation in the Saudi-led coalition engaged in the war in Yemen. Recently, there have been indications of improved ties between Morocco and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This suggests that the relationships are strengthening once more.
Conversely, Algeria has found itself disagreeing with the GCC states more often than Morocco in recent years. These disagreements include differing views on OPEC, in which Algeria is a member but Morocco is not. Moreover, Algeria declined the idea of intervening in Arab countries. This was evident during the Arab Spring, when Algiers did not support some GCC states’ approaches and positions on issues such as Syria and Libya.
Ties between Algeria and the GCC have been improving over the past several years. During the Gulf diplomatic crisis, Algiers adopted a neutral approach that aimed to preserve its ties with all sides. In December 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Algeria as part of a foreign tour which came only a few months before President Bouteflika resigned in the face of civil unrest and was aimed at enhancing cooperation between the two countries. Despite this rapprochement, Algiers is still not dependent on the GCC states to the extent of other regional countries. The Gulf countries have little control over Algeria, thanks to its oil reserves and financial independence.
For Algiers, this has remained the case, even after the resignation of President Bouteflika. The emergence of a new ruling elite appears to have changed nothing regarding the nature of Algiers’ relationship with the Gulf countries. Most notably, Algeria’s staunch pro-Palestinian stance stands against the recent Arab-Israeli rapprochement, such as the signing of the Abraham Accords between the U.S., UAE, and Israel. Backed by the pro-Palestinian Algerian public, the Algerian rulership is unlikely to change its position anytime soon. This may explain partly why Morocco enjoys the support of GCC states over the Western Sahara issue.
Indeed, the GCC states’ support for Morocco regarding the Western Sahara is not a new approach. For the Gulf countries, there is more than one driving factor pushing them to support Rabat over this matter. The GCC states, Saudi Arabia in particular, back Morocco in the Western Sahara issue for a number of reasons. First, the GCC-Morocco bond has always remained strong, solidified by their mutual need to protect the institution of monarchy. Second, countries like Saudi Arabia have remained wary of the Polisario, which has received support from what is considered the enemies of the Kingdom such as the Gaddafi regime. This also complements the fact that Morocco has aligned itself with western nations and other friends of Saudi Arabia. Third, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also seek to protect their investments in the Western Sahara territory by strengthening Morocco’s position in the territory. All these reasons make it attractive for Morocco to back the Abraham Accords, not to mention how it secured its own interest in the U.S. recognizing its sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
Algeria is naturally at odds with the GCC on many of these points. It is not a monarchy, and it is not financially dependent on the GCC. It remains hostile to Morocco and has long backed the Polisario Front. Add to that the pro-Palestinian stance not only of the Algerian leadership but the Algerian public as well. These issues place Algeria at odds with GCC interests.
Algeria views GCC support for Morocco as at odds with its own interests and stability, due to all the aforementioned issues. Algeria is unlikely to become overtly hostile to the GCC, but at the same time, there are too many conflicting interests for it to foster closer relations with the Gulf countries anytime soon.
Morocco-Algeria tensions primarily stem from a weak and distrustful bilateral relationship and regional competition, but they can be intensified by wider conflict and competition dynamics in the region. The two countries espouse contrasting foreign policies regarding regional questions. For example, Morocco’s decision to follow the UAE and Bahrain and agree to normalize relations with Israel in 2020 was wholeheartedly denounced by Algeria, a long-time advocate for the Palestinian cause. Algeria is fiercely anti-interventionist, a legacy from its traumatic experience with French colonialism and the war for independence, while Morocco prides itself on higher levels of foreign investment, tourism, and openness to the West. Algeria has huge oil and gas wealth, and immense mineral reserves, while Morocco has needed to pursue intensive economic diversification initiatives to maintain even moderate growth levels.
GCC actors will be paying close attention to the diplomatic rift between the two countries to make sure it does not shift to more direct conflict that could further jeopardize regional stability and strategic Europe-Mediterranean-Africa market linkages. The Morocco-Algeria rift hurts Europe-Africa connectivity and regional economic cooperation in the Mediterranean. It could also lead to greater levels of regional turbulence.
In sum, GCC interests in North Africa are shaped primarily by a desire for political influence, stability, security, investment, and greater connectivity with European and African markets. More broadly, North African countries are a key economic gateway to strategic markets as well as a theater of great power and regional competition for political and economic influence.
The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.