The road of discord


The Mauritanian parliament this week approved a project to build a road between the Mauritanian town of Zuerat and the Algerian town of Tindouf, a road link fatally destined to further poison relations in the Maghreb.

Zuerat, a town in northern Mauritania, is the epicentre of iron ore mining, which the mining train transports to the Mauritanian Atlantic port of Nouadhibou. The railway convoy, built by France in 1963, is the culmination of ore mining that began in the colonial period; the train is one of the longest in the world with three locomotive engines and 150 ore wagons.

The Zuerat/Nouadhibou railway line is laid out so as not to penetrate the territory of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara and only runs through Mauritanian territory.

The construction of a road between Zuerat and Tindouf is an essentially Algerian project. The Mauritanians had no need or great interest in asphalting the tracks linking the two towns, on which goods are transported by lorry. The volume of trade between Algeria and Mauritania on this route is very small and does not justify the financial investment involved in building and maintaining an asphalted road.

However, in July 2020, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune ordered the exploitation of the Gara Djebilet iron ore mines in the Tindouf region. Of the various Algerian plans to get the iron ore to shipping ports for export - the main potential customer is China - the only profitable one is to get the ore to the Mauritanian port of Nouadhibou on the Atlantic by either linking Tindouf and Zuerat by train or by road. The other alternative, which has always been considered one of the reasons for Algerian support for an independent Western Sahara, is to bring the iron ore from Gara Djebilet directly to the Western Saharan coast, via the road linking Tindouf, Smara and Laayoune.

The discord

The road between Zuerat and Tindouf, however, will pose a serious problem that will aggravate the already tense relations between Algeria and Morocco. There is already an active part of the road, albeit on more or less well-maintained tracks, between Zuerat and Ain Ben Tili, a Mauritanian town on the very edge of the border of Western Sahara as it was laid out during the Spanish colonial era. The problem, however, will arise in the road route between Ain Ben Tili and Tindouf. The Mauritanians do not want to create a new problem with Morocco and prefer the road to be built along the south-eastern line of the delimitation of the territory of Western Sahara, while Algeria wants the road to link Ain Ben Tili to Tindouf via Bir Lahlu, a Western Saharan town that the Polisario Front considers "liberated" but which remains under the strict control of MINURSO forces deployed in the region.

As things stand now and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable foreseeable future, Morocco will in no way accept that the Zuerat-Tinduf road penetrates Sahrawi territory, which Rabat considers to be "its southern provinces". Unless a tripartite agreement is reached between Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, recognising Morocco's administrative and sovereign control of Saharan territory up to the lines of the defensive walls, and leaving the part outside the walls as far as Algerian or Mauritanian territory, as an area under Polisario control.

The poisoning of bilateral relations between Algiers and Rabat, however, suggests that the route of the road is designed to increase tension rather than decrease it. For the first time in the independent history of the Maghreb, the King of Morocco has not congratulated the Algerian president in office, in this case Abdelmadjid Tebboune, on Independence Day, which is celebrated on 5 July. Even at times of heightened tension, the Moroccan sovereign has always considered it necessary to maintain bridges of communication. The last message sent by Rabat to Algiers was on 5 July 2021, in which Mohammed VI insisted that Morocco remembers "with pride the fraternal and sincere solidarity that marked the heroic common struggle for freedom and independence". Six months later, in a unilateral gesture, Algeria broke off diplomatic relations with Morocco.