Algeria and Morocco at loggerheads. And Spain fears gas shortages

Algeria and Morocco at loggerheads. And Spain fears gas shortages
Algeria and Morocco at loggerheads. And Spain fears gas shortages

There can be no worse time, with skyrocketing gas prices, for an energy crisis in the Western Mediterranean. Yet this is precisely what is happening between Algeria, Morocco and Spain. Algerian gas risks not passing through Spain anymore because the taps of the GME gas pipeline, which passes through Moroccan territory, could be closed starting from the end of October, ie at the expiry of the current supply contract. Unless the two North African states sign a new agreement at the last minute. Diplomacy is on the move: today the foreign minister of Madrid, José Manuel Albares, flew to Algiers to meet his counterpart. The priority for the Spaniards is to ensure the influx of gas from one of their main suppliers. Even at the cost of cutting Morocco out, exploring alternative solutions. Meanwhile, the climate between the two neighbors remains tense. The Algerian navy carried out an exercise in the Alboran Sea, near Oran, a few nautical miles from Moroccan waters.

In reality, the two North African states – divided by a border of about 1500 kilometers – have already been at loggerheads for several months. Diplomatic relations have been suspended since August, when Algeria accused its neighbor of sponsoring ‘hostile actions’ in its domestic affairs. According to the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rabat openly supports the separatist movements of Kabylia, a small region in northern Algeria, which for years has aspired to independence with the actions of the Mouvement pour autorodétermination en Kabylie (Mak), recently outlawed by the central government. The alleged Moroccan support for the Berber separatists is only the latest chapter in a series of cross-interference between Algiers and Rabat. Independent for over fifty years, the two states have never tolerated each other. There have been many skirmishes: frequent commercial rivalries in sub-Saharan Africa; Algeria’s support for the Sahrawis, the population struggling against the Moroccan government to build their own independent nation in the Western Sahara territories; even a small conflict, the ‘war of the sands’, which caused almost 500 deaths in 1963 due to a border crisis near Tindouf. Old border rusts never resolved, a legacy of the colonial era, when both nations were under the control of Paris.

In the last year, the already fragile relationship between the two neighbors cracked when the Kingdom led by Muhammad VI recognized the State of Israel, adhering to the Abrahamic agreements wanted by the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, for normalize relations between Tel Aviv and the rest of the Muslim world. In return, Washington has guaranteed the recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over the territories inhabited by the Sahrawis. This summer, then, the situation worsened when the Pegasus case broke out in the international press. According to the investigation conducted by the journalistic consortium Forbidden Histories, the Moroccan secret services have spied, using Israeli production software, hundreds of journalists, important personalities and politicians – including Foreign Minister Lamamra – from neighboring Algeria.

The spy story and the alleged support of Rabat for the separatists of Kabylia have overflowed the camel’s back. “The diplomatic break is the result of the growing influence that Morocco has obtained, in the last 20 years, at the regional level. To the detriment of Algeria, of course, ”Ricard González, journalist and political scientist, sent to Algeria and Morocco for various Spanish newspapers, including El Paìs, explains to HuffPost. “More and more African countries are recognizing Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara, following the example of what the United States has done”.

By contrast, Algeria has lost positions across the region. Thanks to the internal unrest that has accompanied the country for several years. The pandemic did the rest: poor sanitary conditions, the fire emergency of the summer of 2021, and the Kabyle separatism have put the government of Algiers in difficulty. “The Algerian authorities are focusing on the external enemy, in this case Morocco, to divert the attention of their own population from internal problems. The fear of new revolts, such as that of 2019, is concrete. Then, this escalation is nothing more than an attempt by Algiers to reassert its regional relevance and draw the international community’s attention back to Western Sahara, Rabat’s Achilles heel “, Lorena Stella Martini, analyst of the European Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in North African affairs. And so the renewal of the gas supply contract through the GME pipeline becomes an opportunity to hit the Moroccan economy, which depends in part on imports of Algerian gas.

However, Spain, GME’s final destination, ends up in the middle of the dispute. The contract currently in force between the three countries concerned will expire at the end of October. On 1 November, most likely, Algeria will close the taps. “But Spain will not encounter any major problems” reveals to HuffPost an analyst of an Algerian think-tank who preferred to remain anonymous. “Our gas reaches the Iberian Peninsula through two gas pipelines. If one closes, we increase the capacity of the other. And the Spaniards already agree. The only one that will suffer major damage is Morocco, which will lose an important share of Algerian gas and will have to turn to other players in the international market ”. Not a great prospect, that of Rabat. Gas prices have been at their highest for many years.

It is therefore difficult for a diplomatic solution to be reached between Rabat and Algiers. Indeed, there is even a risk of military escalation. This week the Algerian navy conducted an exercise in waters adjacent to those of Morocco. “I don’t think there is a risk of conflict. It does not suit anyone. However – says González – small border skirmishes could occur ”. A new war of the sands, like that of 1963? “A possibility not to be excluded”. To complicate everything, then, France also got involved. Castex government spokesman Gabriel Attal announced the tightening of the conditions for applying for a visa to enter France for citizens of the former Maghreb colonies (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco). “A drastic choice – explained Attal on French TV – but necessary. These countries do not accept to take back the citizens that we do not want and cannot keep in France ”. A decision strongly opposed by the governments of the former colonies. “A measure linked to the electoral campaign for the next presidential elections,” commented González. In this way, however, Paris cuts itself off from a possible role of mediation between the parties.

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