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The continuing Morocco-Algeria crisis will eventually spill over to Spain in 2021

North African neighbours' confrontation continues
Periódicos Argelia

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The increasingly strained relations between Morocco and Algeria culminated this year in a diplomatic rift that directly affected its northern neighbour, Spain, following the cutting of the Maghreb Europe Gas Pipeline (GME), which supplied Algerian gas to the Iberian Peninsula via Moroccan territory. 

Relations between the two North African giants have always been complicated, against the backdrop of the Western Sahara conflict and Algeria's support for the Sahrawi independence movement of the Polisario Front. 

In 2021, bilateral tensions went up a notch when Algiers severed diplomatic relations with Rabat last August, a decision that experts say Algeria is trying to regain the influence it lost in the Sahelian African strip during the final years of the rule of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power from 1999 to 2019. 

"There is Algerian concern about Morocco's diplomatic advance with West African countries and its return in 2017 to the African Union," believes Mohamed Masbah, director of the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis (Mipa).

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The gas weapon

In its strategy to boycott Morocco, Algeria in late October shut down the Maghreb Europe Gas Pipeline, which had been supplying natural gas to Spain and Portugal via Morocco for 25 years. 

The decision has been a blow to the Moroccan economy, which is losing some 200 million dollars a year in rights of passage and part of the gas with which it used to produce 12% of its electricity. But also for Spain, which used to cover almost half of its needs with gas from Algeria. 

Now all Algerian gas will reach the peninsula via Medgaz, the pipeline that directly links Algeria with Spain, but whose capacity (8 billion cubic metres per year) does not reach that of the other closed pipeline (more than 10 billion cubic metres). Pending its expansion, Spain has to import the rest via methane tankers, which increases the price of gas. 

According to experts, the closure of GME also affects Algeria itself, which is now dependent on a single pipeline with Spain. "The pipeline is a symbolic expression of rupture, but with it comes self-harm. Algiers is hurting itself to hurt Rabat", Masbah believes.

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Rapprochement with Israel and military rivalry

One of the reasons for the anticipated rift between Rabat and Algiers was the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel in December 2020 in exchange for US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. 

Algiers sees this rapprochement as a threat to its national security, a concern that was heightened by last month's visit to Rabat by Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who signed a memorandum of military cooperation with his Moroccan counterparts. 

"When the defence minister visits Morocco, Algeria is the target," said Salah Goudjil, president of the Algerian Senate, reacting to Gantz's trip.

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The magazine Al-Djeish (The Army), the propaganda organ of the Algerian Ministry of Defence, recently published an editorial in which it stated that what Morocco is seeking with the military cooperation agreement with Tel Aviv is its support to "push ahead with its plan to annex the Saharawi territories". 

This context of crisis goes hand in hand with an increase in military spending by both Maghreb countries: Morocco increased defence spending by 6 per cent in the 2022 budget, which represents 4 per cent of the country's GDP, compared to Algeria, which allocates 6 per cent of its GDP to defence. 

Possibility of armed confrontation? 

In this context, and almost a month after the death of three Algerian truck drivers in an alleged bombing in the Sahara that the Algerian authorities attributed to Morocco, questions are being raised about a possible military confrontation between the two countries. 

Akram Kharief, an Algerian journalist and security expert, excludes this scenario, because "Algeria will look for a means of response that is not necessarily military, but well thought out and well proportioned".

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Others believe that the tension between the two countries will last for some time, given the lack of direct contact channels and the absence of mediators: "The mediation attempts initiated by Spain and some Gulf countries have failed, because they don't have the tools to force the two countries to understand each other", argues the Moroccan expert. 

For Masbah, "the best option now is for both countries to return to the status quo ante and keep the revalidity at a minimum level".