Reality Check: The Untapped Potential of the Closed Algeria-Morocco Border

Written by | Monday, January 23rd, 2017

The relations between Algeria and Morocco have been frozen since 1994 when both sides closed their border due to the long-standing dispute over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. The lack of progress has been a result of numerous factors, such as France’s unconditional support of the Moroccan side, which is thus complicating the EU’s stance on the issue or by the inability of the United Nations to broker any sort of agreement. However, most observers agree that the frozen conflict could be and should be resolved by Morocco and Algeria themselves, for example in a similar fashion as India and China did.

India and China did not count on an initiative and good will of an outside power when solving their territorial conflict. Actually, they did not really solve the conflict – the 1962 war when China seized a disputed border territory in the Himalayas claimed also by India. Both sides merely focused on the revival of their economic ties because they failed to find a solution to the territorial dispute. A solution like this would be more than welcome in both Algeria and Morocco, which could both tremendously benefit from the opening of their border and thus trade flows.

Morocco has a thriving fertilizer industry and could benefit from importing Algerian gas while Algeria could benefit from the Moroccan crop nutrient. In reality, Rabat has bought minimum amount of gas from its neighbor despite the existence of a pipeline that has been carrying Algerian gas through Morocco to the Iberian Peninsula since 1996. In contrast, Morocco could provide Algeria not only with fertilizer but also with foodstuffs as well as manufactured goods.

Instead of working on utilizing their mutual economic potential, the pipeline that was built during a political thaw in mid-1980s under Morocco’s King Hassan II and Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid is working at less than half of its capacity and Morocco is just building a regasification site to support its thriving fertilizer industry – a sign that it is not planning to buy Algerian gas any time soon.

In a nutshell, instead of leveraging the potential of their key industries, both sides are looking for reasons to keep the border closed, including for trade. Algeria claims that a closed border provides a better control of drug trafficking and Moroccans travelling to join the Islamic State. If Algeria were to open its Moroccan border, it would surely be seen as a welcome development by the EU but while it is far from certain that it will bring greater diplomatic leverage, this step will certainly not change France’s pro-Moroccan stance. Last, but not the least, Algiers’ political elites are not entirely convinced whether current domestic political realities – namely an ailing president and the economic pressures due to the tumbling oil prices – bode well for such a bold initiative.

‘Doubts Remain About Reopening the Algeria-Morocco Border’ – an Opinion piece written by Francis Gilés – CIDOB – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.

(The study can be downloaded here)

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