Algeria-Morocco rivalry is alive and well and focused on Africa

The North African neighbours who never miss an opportunity to irk one another are vying for regional influence through diplomacy

Algeria-Morocco rivalry is alive and well and focused on Africa

Neighbours and rivals, Algeria and Morocco sit alongside one another at the top of Africa. They have long looked north to Europe to compete for partners, resources and trade, but in recent years, both have started to look south to Africa.

Investors have long eyed Africa for its significant natural resources, including half the world’s gold, an eighth of its oil, and a third of its minerals. Morocco and Algeria want to be in the mix. Yet they don’t want to be in the mix together. The pair have fought and argued over many things in the last 60 years. Algeria recently took Morocco to the Court of Arbitration for Sport after a Moroccan football team’s jersey displayed an image of the country that included Western Sahara.

As a battleground, their relations with the rest of the continent are not exempt. Cue an open diplomatic confrontation and a busy schedule of diplomatic visits. Mauritania’s foreign minister, Mohamed Salem Ould Marzouk, recently visited both Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Algiers and his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita in Rabat.

Marzouk will know that both Algeria and Morocco want to bolster their political and economic influence via the strengthening of relations across the continent, and sub-Saharan Africa has become increasingly significant.

It is an increasingly crowded field. The US, Russia, and China all vie for influence, each with a different approach. For his part, Tebboune has been fighting to reverse the lack of interest in Africa for over two decades, as shown by his predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. To this end, Algeria has allocated $1bn to boost its diplomatic efforts, creating advisory and representative roles directly linked to the presidency, with initiatives run through the new International Solidarity and Cooperation Fund Agency.

Rabat is not just watching. "Morocco is positioning itself as an alternative and a credible partner," says Mabrouk Kahi, a professor of politics at the University of Ouargla in Algeria.

History of tension

The pair have been at loggerheads ever since 1963, when they fought a brief war over a strip of land between them, shortly after Algeria gained independence from France.

Algeria and Morocco have fought and argued over many things in the last 60 years. Just recently, the former took the latter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

In the Cold War, Rabat's pro-Western monarchy stood in stark contrast to the Soviet-friendly Algiers, where successive governments spent 30 years toying with socialism, Arabisation, authoritarianism, collectivisation, and Islamism.

In the 1970s, Algeria began backing the Polisario Front, which claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara, over which Morocco also claimed sovereignty after former colonial ruler Spain withdrew from the continent. In the 1990s, shortly after Algeria had descended into a bloody civil war, the Algeria-Morocco land border was closed and has remained so ever since.

There was no thaw after Tebboune became president in 2019. Morocco is alleged to have used Israeli spyware named Pegasus to snoop on the phones of around 6,000 high-ranking Algerians, including army generals. Rabat claims innocence. It may also have been innocent when Morocco's ambassador to the United Nations called for self-determination in the mountainous Algerian coastal region of Kabylie, which has a large Berber population.

Pipeline posturing

Yet the pair have fallen out most dramatically over gas. Algeria closed a pipeline that ran through Morocco to Spain, annoyed that Rabat—itself a major customer of Algerian gas—was taking a 7% commission. Bypassing Morocco, Algeria continued pumping gas to Spain via a direct underwater pipeline, but when Morocco asked Spain if it could have some of its Algerian gas south, Algiers threatened to stop supplying Spain, too.

Pipelines are still an issue today, most notably the Nigerian Trans-Saharan gas pipeline, which would send up to 30 billion cubic metres of Nigerian gas up through the Sahel to Algeria, where it would connect to existing pipes for Europe.

"Algeria has been considering its project since the 1970s, whereas Morocco entered the fray this century," says Kahi, who also cited the Trans-Saharan Road (TSR) corridor from Lagos in Nigeria to Algiers.

"This aims to connect West Africa with North Africa, linking the Sahel countries to Mediterranean ports and integrating into the Chinese Silk Road initiative," says Kahi.

"Conversely, Morocco proposed an initiative to allow Sahel countries access the Atlantic, confirming its efforts to compete with Algeria, which currently enjoys considerable influence in Africa, despite having a narrower margin for manoeuvre."

Miriam Martincic

Read more: Not just a 'pipe' dream, Morocco-Nigeria gas line set to transform Africa

Kahi said both sides were using the animosity. "Morocco is manipulating the competition to advance its objectives and strengthen its stance on Western Sahara. Algeria is using it to promote regional stability and the development of the Sahel."

Alliance jostling

Yet Abdel Rafiq Kashout, a politics professor of politics at the University of Jijel, says it "should not be termed as competition, but rather as a Moroccan struggle against Algeria's expanding influence in Africa".

Kashout thinks the current polarisation across Africa has led to Algerian proposals receiving mixed responses. While Algeria advocates for Africa's wealth to be channelled back to its people, Kashout explains, Morocco favours a different approach that involves Western companies who would bring advanced technology and access to finance.

This aligns with Morocco's strategy of investing heavily in Africa. Rabat has also sought membership in regional bodies, such as ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States). Morocco is also a member of the Arab Maghreb Union, as is Algeria, but disagreements between the two led to the union becoming moribund.

Morocco withdrew from the African Union (AU) in 1984 over a disagreement about Western Sahara but was readmitted in 2017. Kashout suggested that Algeria's influence in the AU may have been a primary motivator for Rabat. He says the influence of traditional powers like France has waned, which has provided Algeria and Morocco with opportunities to fill the void and seek a leadership role.

Read more: Eye on Niger: Who will win in a multipolar contest for Africa influence?

Patterns repeating

In this context, Algerian influence is seen in its successful diplomatic interventions, including its help in resolving the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict and concerns over the impact of Ethiopia's 2022 Renaissance Dam on Egypt and Sudan.

The resumption of armed conflict in Western Sahara in November has stoked Moroccan-Algerian rivalry yet again, says former MP Mohamed Hadibi, with Israel's supply of drones and tanks to Morocco having helped it weaken the Polisario Front.

The influence of traditional powers like France has waned, providing Algeria and Morocco opportunities to fill the void.

There remains the potential for tension between Morocco and Algeria to boil over. Very few hope it does since they possess two of the three biggest armies in Africa.

Hadibi thinks Algeria's strategic alliances with global powers will preserve its influence and allow it to be pragmatic in expanding its footprint in Africa. This includes a strategic agreement with China under Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, with plans to build what will be Africa's largest deepwater port at El Hamdania, west of Algiers, handling 6.5 million containers annually.

This is expected to boost the Algerian economy and enhance its stature in both the Mediterranean and Africa. Morocco has responded in part by looking to the Atlantic, where merchant vessels now sail to avoid the Houthis in Yemen. 

Having fought and argued over everything else, ports and maritime trade will not be exempt either.

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