Algerian Resurgence: How the Conflict in Ukraine has Given Algeria the Upper Hand in a Decades-Old Dispute

Photo Credit: Western Sahara

By Michael Keene
Staff Writer

In March 2022, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a startling shift in his nation’s foreign policy. For decades, Spain had remained neutral over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a small corner of North Africa, over which a low intensity war between the Moroccan government and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front has simmered since the late 1970s. Yet in Mr. Sánchez’s unexpected announcement, Spain officially declared its support for Morocco’s 2007 Western Sahara Autonomy Plan, under which Morocco would attain full sovereignty over the area while conceding token powers to a regional authority. While unexpected, Spain was not alone in this reversal. Two years earlier, the Trump administration had likewise ended decades of strategic neutrality via a tweet announcing American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the disputed area. Meanwhile in Europe, Spain’s announcement joined similarly supportive statements from Germany, France, and the Netherlands. For Algeria, the primary backer of the Saharwai cause and Morocco’s chief rival in the Maghreb, international opinion seemed to be inexorably coalescing against them and their regional aims. Yet at around the same time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would offer the Algerian government an opportunity to claw back international support and curtail Morocco’s ever-growing influence. As European governments come face-to-face with the reality of a future without Russian gas, focus has shifted towards resource-rich Algeria in order to avoid potentially devastating shortages.

History of The Conflict in Western Sahara

Sandwiched between Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania, the 97,344 square mile territory of Western Sahara was an integral part of Spain’s colonial empire until its unilateral withdrawal in 1975, after which it was invaded by Morocco and Mauritania. Aside from fighting one another, both armies were resisted by the native Saharawi people, who, led by a guerrilla army known as the Polisario Front, declared the existence of an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). While Mauritania was forced to withdraw in 1979, the Moroccan military has successfully been able to occupy over two thirds of Western Sahara; building a 1,600 mile long defensive wall along their newly conquered territory and driving over 100,000 Sahrawi people into neighboring Algeria, the primary benefactor of the Sahrawi cause. Citing previous territorial disputes, Algeria has consistently supplied the Polisario Front with weapons, training, and diplomatic support as well as allowing the movement to operate within Algerian territory primarily around the southern city of Tindouf. 

The issue has since become the single most important geopolitical issue for both nations, with Moroccan King Mohammed VI calling it “the prism through which Morocco views its international environment”. Morocco considers the Polisario Front to be an illegitimate entity created by the Algerian government which seeks to deny Morocco access to Western Sahara’s abundant fisheries and phosphate deposits. Algeria, on the other hand, perceives Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara as an illegal colonial action by a hostile government with broader territorial ambitions inside Algeria itself.

A Turn Towards Algeria

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted intense anxiety throughout Europe as sanctions and pipeline cuts threatened to cripple a continent addicted to Russian gas. This anxiety prompted a flurry of overtures to alternative suppliers of energy, presenting hydrocarbon-rich Algeria with the diplomatic capital necessary to re-assert their regional authority and combat growing pro-Moroccan sentiment among the international community over Western Sahara. Despite previously being considered one of the most diplomatically weak states in Africa, Algeria quickly capitalized on their newfound position, hosting a series of foreign diplomats and taking aggressive action against perceived opponents.

In June of 2022, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, visited Algeria with the express purpose of increasing energy cooperation and securing increased gas exports. Two months later, French President Emmanuel Macron made an unusual visit to Algiers in which he sought to determine, among other things, “Algeria’s energy sector stability and potential additional export capacity”.  Present among the delegation was a representative from Engie, a major French energy firm with influence all over the continent. Another topic on the agenda was a discussion of possible resolutions to the dispute in Western Sahara, representing an effort on the part of the French government to re-involve Algeria in the ongoing dispute. The visit further damaged already poor relations between Paris and Rabat, which had suffered from a visa dispute as well as a French-backed EU resolution against Morocco for its involvement in an ongoing corruption scandal; an act which prompted the Moroccan Parliament to “review” its relations with the EU.

Italy’s new far-right government under Giorgia Meloni was more effusive in its efforts to build strong ties with Algeria. During a January 2023 visit with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Meloni and other delegates stressed the longstanding historic ties between their two nations as well as Italy’s desire to become a “European hub for Algerian gas”. Algerian exports to Italy are expected to increase by 9 billion cubic meters by 2024–  replacing Russia as Italy’s top gas provider.

Even the United States, which has little need for Algeria’s reserves, has failed to take diplomatic or economic action against Algeria for its close association with Russia (including an effort to join BRICS), largely because of Algeria’s position as a top European gas provider. During a recent visit to the nation by American Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he shied away from the issue of Western Sahara, acknowledging only that the United States supported efforts by the United Nations to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. 

These diplomatic efforts can be seen as prudent given Algeria’s newfound willingness to act aggressively over the issue of Western Sahara. Following Spain’s aforementioned declaration of support for Morocco’s autonomy plan, Algeria ended a 20-year-old friendship treaty and imposed a series of embargos which impacted the sale of all goods except gas, demanding higher payments from Spain in order for the latter to continue. The move has cost Spain over one billion in export revenue and signaled to the rest of Europe the price of cooperation with Morocco.

Algeria’s ability to influence the outcome of the conflict in Western Sahara is still uncertain. While many nations have indicated a greater willingness to cooperate with the Algerian government, none have yet to reverse their support for Morocco’s Autonomy Plan. Algeria’s ability to increase gas exports, the very thing which has allowed it to make such diplomatic gains, faces significant challenges including potentially dwindling capacity and a generally poor business environment. Yet the overall picture for Algeria remains rosy. Its presence as a gas-exporter on Europe’s doorstep has given it the opportunity to flex its diplomatic and economic muscles; attracting European support and weakening the position of its greatest rival. 

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