Algeria-Morocco hostility puts regional development on hold with no end in sight

Rami Rayess
Rami Rayess
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The story of Algeria and Morocco is as famous as 19th Century world renowned novel “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. The two countries have been hostile for decades.

Rarely have they succeeded in cooling any of the hot issues that have kept their bilateral relations deeply tense. Governments of both countries have continued to exploit these differences for their own interests, often to the detriment of their respective peoples.

Both governments indirectly benefit from the ongoing conflict.

The tenser the issues at stake, the more support local governments will accumulate over time. Peaceful settlements could be reached, but both states have continued to pursue divergent agendas that have aggravated the situation to reach the brink of war several times.

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Almost without exception, the Algerian political class refused the recent Moroccan position regarding the Kabylia region, considering it a “call for sedition”. Morocco had explicitly announced its support for the Kabyle, a Berber speaking group in northwestern Algeria, and their right of self-determination. This comes as a response to Algeria’s historical support of the Polisario Front demanding independence from Morocco in the Western Sahara. Scars of the Western Sahara War (1975-1990) continue to affect the different stakeholders in this conflict.

Morocco’s recent steps in normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel in return for American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara have only exacerbated bilateral relations. Though the American position announced during Trump’s presidency could be revoked, the Biden Administration has not openly announced an intention to review it. It has sent its envoy to the region, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Joey Hood, in an attempt to ease tension between the two states, but to no avail.

Many Western Algerians consider themselves to be culturally and socially closer to Moroccans than they are to their national counterparts in the Eastern provinces of the country. Borders that span nearly 2,000 km have been fully closed since 1994. Recently, however, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has sought to extend an olive branch to Algeria, calling for the reopening of borders.

“Closing of the border does not stop communication between the two peoples; rather, it only contributes to the closure of minds,” the Moroccan monarch said in a speech delivered on the 22nd anniversary of his accession to the throne last week.

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had previously ruled out the possibility of reopening borders. In June 2021, he said: “We cannot open borders with a country that attacks us on a daily basis.” Algeria also accuses Morocco of smuggling drugs into its territories.

Differences between the two countries have paralyzed the ambitious Arab Maghreb Union project and left the other prospective members – Mauritania, Tunisia, and Libya – waiting. Such an economic union could easily have become the superpower of the African continent. It did not.

Another mega infrastructure project was frozen due to their bilateral differences. The Trans-Maghreb highway could have successfully linked 55 cities, 50 million people, and 22 airports from Nouakchott to Tripoli. If the Algerian and Moroccan governments are benefiting from the stalemate or playing politics at the edge of war; the people are definitely losing.

The two countries are racing to increase their weaponry stockpiles. As Algeria is buying from Russia, Morocco is purchasing Western suppliers. This conflict is just another arena of tension between Russia and the West, and a suitable market for the weapon industry to sell its latest products.

The tale of Algeria and Morocco will continue as is for years to come in the absence of any concrete political will for both states to resolve the issues at stake. Without real, tangible change, the two bordering countries are destined to remain anything but good neighbors.

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