North Africa has been gripped for more than a generation by any number of fears.
Morocco argues that it cannot allow its energy supplies to depend on its eastern neighbour, which would, in terms of Algeria’s resources and proximity, be the obvious supplier.
Algeria is fearful that its neighbours, Morocco and, to a lesser degree, Tunisia, are only interested in expanding their export markets and acting as predators of its considerable oil and gas wealth.
Such reciprocal economic fears feed on unsolved political issues and one another. They play on the internal characteristics of the regimes that have become masters at using fear of the other to slow any serious evolution towards more democratic forms of government and more equitable sharing of national wealth. Governance has improved at a rate that is much slower than that in other places, notably Asia.
Such fears have often been encouraged from abroad as the region has been caught up in the broader swirl of international affairs. For many years, until the mid-1980s, Algeria’s support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation was not looked upon kindly in Europe. As Algeria bought weapons from the Soviet Union, France was happy to arm Morocco and Libya as a means of putting pressure on Algeria.
Since 2011, the advent of democracy in Tunisia and the risk of jihadist terrorism moved Algerian and Tunisian security and military much closer. Today, more than 1,000 Tunisian companies operate in Algeria.
The lead France took in NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 has not endeared it to Algeria, whose worst fears of the negative fallout of the collapse of the Libyan regime have been borne out.
In the western Maghreb, the Morocco-Algeria standoff over the status of Western Sahara has frozen political and economic relations between the two countries. Efforts to integrate the region through the shared use of Algerian-sourced gas works well in Tunisia but not in Morocco, which plans to build regasification plants on its Atlantic seaboard rather than buy gas from Algeria.
As a result, Algeria is pushing more of its gas to the Iberian Peninsula through its Medgaz pipeline with Spain rather than through the pipeline that crosses Morocco. The latter is thus deprived of much-needed throughput royalties.
The hope of economic integration in the Maghreb improved in the 1980s when Moroccan King Hassan II and Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid understood that growing economic links were an untapped source of wealth. They trusted each other.
Trust completely broke down in recent years between the two economic giants of North Africa. Only Tunisia is working to improve economic ties with its neighbours, Libya and Tunisia.
The European Union has never put its full weight behind trying to bring Algeria and Morocco closer, essentially because French elites have long shown greater understanding of Moroccan strategic interests than Algerian one.
Moroccan companies and banks support Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s push into West Africa, a move some see as much political as it is economic. Yet those same companies and banks do not hide their conviction, behind closed doors, that the Algerian market would be worth all of West Africa put together.
Today’s ageing and ailing heads of state are unable to provide the daring leadership their predecessors did in the 1980s.
The huge benefits of economic integration in the Maghreb are analysed in fine detail in the International Monetary Fund report “Economic Integration in the Maghreb, An Untapped Source of Wealth.” Similar exercises were conducted by the World Bank 10 years ago and by the Petersen Institute’s “Maghreb Regional and Global Integration: A Dream to be Fulfilled” in 2008.
If anything, the arguments in favour of economic integration are stronger today than a decade or so ago. Yet politics trump economics. Morocco promotes the idea of importing gas from Nigeria by a gas line under the sea, which is technically but not economically feasible, while Algeria’s refusal to change its dated economic model makes it arrogant vis-a-vis Morocco.
Politics trump economics to the detriment of North Africa where only Tunisia argues genuinely in favour of greater cooperation.
The idea that the Western Sahara dispute might be put on ice and trans-regional investment promoted to build trust, which is what China and India have done even though their boarder dispute in the Himalayas remains unsolved, finds no favour in Algiers or Rabat. Politics continue to trump economics.
The balance of economic and political power has shifted in a manner few in the West envisaged. The “Arab spring” bought democracy to Tunisia but, except for Libya, the Maghreb has been spared the bloodletting of the Middle East.
The greatest challenge the region faces is high levels of unemployed young people. Greater ties of trade and investment, joining forces economically would add millions of jobs and help give people hope for the future and allow the region to have its own voice on the world stage.
However, trade and investment flows obstinately tie North African countries to their former EU countries, not to one another despite the centuries-old ties of religion, family and tribe, not to say, at least in the central Maghreb, shared French colonial past.
Future generations will not easily forgive Maghreb leaders for their lack of vision. Economic integration in the region remains another Loch Ness monster.
Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.