The conflict between the two major Maghrebi countries, Morocco and Algeria, seems to be endless. While numerous, more severe territorial and political conflicts in the world have come to resolution and settlement, the rift between the enemy brother-nations is incessantly expanding. Growing cynicism and the lack of dialogue widen the gap even more.
In the wake of the 32nd anniversary of the launch of the Maghreb Union – commemorated on February 17, the Maghrebi nations should be aspiring to unity that would bolster their economies, improve their living standards, and terminate their dependency on foreign countries. This legitimate ambition, however, is forlorn as the Moroccan-Algerian conflict seems to have come to a bitter stalemate.
The roots of the conflict go back to the 60s, one year after Algeria’s independence in 1963, when Morocco and Algeria clashed in what is known as the “Sand War.” In short, France had cut off huge parts of the Moroccan land and annexed them to its occupied Algerian territories. After Morocco’s independence in 1956, the late King of Morocco, Mohamed V, refused to open negotiations with France over those “sliced” territories, and preferred to wait until Algeria’s independence to resolve the issue fraternally with his Algerian brothers.
Mohamed VI, therefore, continued to support the Algerian Liberation Army which made the Moroccan city of Oujda its backup base for logistical and material supplies. However, after its long-awaited independence, Algeria slammed Morocco’s call for negotiations over borders, which resulted in the Sand War of October 1963. The tension and mistrust between the two countries continued thereafter.
The kernel of the discord that overshadows the Morocco-Algeria relations up to now is Algeria’s decision of committing to the borders inherited from colonialism.
The kernel of the discord that overshadows the Morocco-Algeria relations up to now is Algeria’s decision of committing to the borders inherited from colonialism and considering them sacrosanct. Morocco, on the other hand, does not recognize the colonial borders and holds to its historical rights to the territories whose people had repeatedly claimed allegiance to the Sultans of Morocco before colonialism, such as Tindouf, Colomb-Beshar, and Kenadsa (or what Morocco calls the Eastern Sahara). The striking paradox in the Algerian position is that Algeria gives legitimacy to the legacy of the very colonialism that ravaged the country for 132 years, and that it continues to condemn in its political and media discourses.
In the 1970s, a new thorny issue would arise to contaminate the relations between Morocco and Algeria, adding insult to injury. When Morocco was still struggling for the independence of its southern territories which were under Spanish occupation, an armed resistance movement came to existence under the name Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Ouad al-Adahab) in 1973.
The movement was set up by Sahraoui Moroccan University student-enthusiasts who were influenced by leftist liberation movements popular around the world at that time, though no separatist or independence claims were initially made. At first, the intentions of the movement were the fight against Spanish colonialism, but Algeria ended up coopting the movement and redirecting its struggle to be aimed against Morocco to distract it from its interest in recovering the Eastern Sahara territories.
Limiting Morocco’s territorial focus by engineering a separatist movement (known today as the POLISARIO Front) and then providing the group with advanced weaponry and military training to wage a proxy war against Morocco from 1975 until 1990, did not pay off for Algeria. In fact, the attrition war Algeria waged against Morocco was detrimental to both countries. Morocco lost thousands of soldiers in the war while Algeria was not directly involved. But the oil-and-gas-rich country squandered billions of dollars which could have been invested domestically to promote its economy and improve its infrastructure which remains among the worst in the world today, according to various reports.
Engineering a separatist movement, then providing the group with advanced weaponry and training to wage a proxy war against Morocco from 1975 until 1990, did not pay off for Algeria.
Military expenditure in Algeria is among the highest in the region, amounting to US$10.3 billion, about 6.01 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019. Morocco, having no oil or gas, finds itself obliged to enter the militarization race to redress the power balance in the region. In 2019, Morocco spent US$3.7 billion (about 3.09 percent of its GDP) toward this effort. The situation in the Maghreb, therefore, remains explosive and war-prone.
The issue of the Moroccan Western Sahara is still unresolved, yet Morocco has recently achieved considerable success in gaining international support for its claim over the southern provinces, thanks to its diplomatic and synergic work. The latest political breakthrough was the inauguration of about 20 general consulates in the Sahara for diplomatic missions representing countries from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Arab Gulf. This increasing international support bespeaks the view of the international community that resolving the conflict can only take place within the framework of Moroccan sovereignty.
Yet, the most notable development in recent months was the proclamation made by former US President Donald Trump, in which he recognized the sovereignty of Morocco over the entire territories of Western Sahara. This recognition was a bitter pill to swallow for Algeria and the POLISARIO Front, given the pivotal role of the United States in influencing and shaping international geo-politics.
Algeria, nevertheless, has placed high hopes on the new American administration under President Joe Biden’s leadership to reverse Trump’s proclamation, something that has not happened yet, one month after Biden’s inauguration, and is unlikely to happen according to many political analysts. Morocco is, and has always been, a reliable strategic ally for the United States in the region and the need for such an ally is more pressing today to counter the growing economic expansion of China and Russia in the Maghreb, the Sahel, and West Africa.
Morocco’s recent diplomatic success over its territorial integrity catapulted Algeria into a state of frenzy, reflected in the continuous and systematic media attacks on the Moroccan monarchy, especially after Morocco’s normalization with Israel in December. In a matter of two months, more than 1,000 journalistic articles were published, denouncing Morocco for “conniving” with Israel against Algeria and “threatening Algeria’s stability” as the Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Jerrad stated.
Morocco’s recent diplomatic success over its territorial integrity catapulted Algeria into a state of frenzy, reflected in the continuous media attacks on the Moroccan monarchy.
What the Algerian media seem to have forgotten is Morocco’s repeated calls for the complete normalization of relations and the opening of borders between the two neighbors. In his speech on November 6, 2018, King Mohamed VI launched an initiative for direct bilateral dialogue between Algeria and Morocco without any third-party intermediary.
The king clearly stated: “We should be realistic and admit that the state of relations between the two countries is abnormal and unacceptable. And God bears witness that, since I assumed the throne, I sincerely and with goodwill, demanded the opening of the borders between the two countries and the normalization of Moroccan-Algerian relations. With all transparency and responsibility, I confirm today that Morocco is ready for direct and frank dialogue with our brothers in Algeria, in order to overcome the circumstantial and substantive differences that impede the development of relations between the two countries. . . . I assure you that Morocco is open to proposals and initiatives that Algeria may present, with the aim of overcoming the stalemate in the relations between the two brotherly neighboring countries.”
This invitation, however, fell on deaf ears and, three years later, no official response has yet been given by Algeria. The same Algerian media that currently attack Morocco on the basis of its normalization with Israel, reacted to the king’s initiatives for Morocco-Algeria dialogue with disdain and mockery, saying that Morocco is begging Algeria to open the borders to save its economy.
Hence, 32 years after the birth of the Maghreb Union, launched in Marrakech on February 17, 1989, the ambitious project is still stalled. The economic cost of the continuous border closure, is extremely high for both Algeria and Morocco, and estimated to cost each countries 2 percent of their GDP. In fact, the amount of economic exchange between the countries of the Union – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania – remains significantly low, not exceeding US$1.5 million, making the Maghreb the least economically integrated region in the world.
According to Maghreb Integration Report 2020, the peoples of the Maghreb still harbor hopes for complete integration and cooperation. Yet, under the current political regime in Algeria, on which the military has a strong grip, and which has repeatedly dismissed calls from Morocco for dialogue and normalization of relations, aspirations of the revival of the Maghreb seem elusive and uncertain.
 Translation by author