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Morocco and Algeria engage in an arms race in the face of rising tensions

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz travels to Morocco, the first historic trip between the two countries in this sector
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PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   Border crossing point between Algeria and Morocco

North Africa is rearming. The tensions unleashed by Algeria after announcing a unilateral diplomatic rupture with Morocco have raised tensions in the region and have led to the start of an arms race between the two countries. Although the Alawi kingdom wants to steer clear of any possible conflict, the continuous meetings between Algeria and Russia, together with the military operations carried out jointly, have caused Morocco to react.

While Algeria has taken part in various operations with Russia, especially after the imminent withdrawal of French troops in Mali, Morocco now wants to take advantage of its good relationship with the United States to work towards strengthening its defence. As part of this strategy, Morocco intends to acquire the US surface-to-air missile system, the MIM-104 Patriot, with the aim of defending strategic enclaves in the country.

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PHOTO/AP  - US Patriot missile defence system

In addition to the acquisition of this type of missile, and taking advantage of the relations that Morocco is currently building with Israel, Rabat has expressed interest in a possible purchase of the Israeli defence system, the Iron Dome. Indeed, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz has travelled to Rabat to meet his Moroccan counterpart, the first visit by an Israeli Defence Minister to the Kingdom.

According to diplomatic sources quoted by AFP, the purpose of the visit responds to the need to "establish the cornerstone of future security relations between Israel and Morocco". With this meeting, the two are expected to sign an agreement that is intended to demonstrate the current paradigm shift since, according to the sources, "until now there was some cooperation, but here we are really going to formalise it", this being "a public declaration of our commitment to establish long-term relations".

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PHOTO/ABRIR SULTAN/REUTERS - El Ministro de Defensa israelí Benny Gantz

This meeting is expected to lead to the acquisition of the Dome system, a system that was exhibited at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IFEX). This defensive structure has not only been demanded by Morocco, as a total of 27 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have also expressed their desire to acquire it.

The building of diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco dates back to the 1990s when Morocco's then King Hassan II decided to strengthen ties with Tel Aviv as an instrument for the stabilisation of the country and its security. Morocco has a large Sephardic community and they remain influential in the country, which led to the beginning of diplomatic building. However, with the outbreak of the second intifada in early 2000, Morocco put an end to rapprochement with Israel.

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PHOTO/ ARCHIVO - Direct flights between Israel and Morocco

Almost 20 years have passed before we have been able to witness a new rapprochement between the two countries following the signing of the Abraham Accords. This pact initiated a process of normalisation of relations between Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Israel, a historic rapprochement that sought to put aside cultural and religious differences to make way for cooperation.

Since this normalisation, Morocco and Israel have been cooperating in areas such as military cooperation following the procurement of various Israeli drones, as well as in commercial cooperation. This led to the approval of the first direct flights linking the two countries. Last month also saw the appointment of Israel's new ambassador to Morocco, David Govrin, thus increasing the level of representation in the kingdom.  

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PHOTO/ ARCHIVO -  Moroccan brigades

At the same time, Washington recognised Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, a significant exercise given that the Sahara issue remains a hotspot with no tangible solution.

The US position has only intensified. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated his support for Morocco only a few days ago, stating that the kingdom's position on Western Sahara is part of a "serious, realistic and credible" plan.

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PHOTO/REUTERS -  A file photo shows Algerian soldiers standing guard at the Tiguentourine gas plant in In Amenas, 1600 km southeast of Algiers.

Moreover, State Department spokesman Ned Price noted that "Morocco's autonomy plan includes an approach that can meet the aspirations of the people of the Sahara". According to international observers, the rapprochement between different countries and Morocco is a response to the diplomatic openness that the kingdom has waged "since the recognition of Western Sahara". Alongside this, Morocco has sought closer economic alliances both in Africa and Europe, as well as in the United States.

On the other hand, Morocco's rapprochement with the aforementioned countries has raised Algeria's apprehension. Algiers is reportedly redoubling its efforts to acquire the new Russian S-500 anti-missile system, which is expected to enter service this year.

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REUTERS/VITALY NEVAR  - S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the city of Gvardeysk, near Kaliningrad, Russia, March 11, 2019.

However, despite Algiers' rapprochement with Moscow, a possible objection from Russian leaders to Algeria's acquisition of the S-500 is not ruled out after Algeria gave the go-ahead for the presence of Russian Wagner mercenaries in Mali.

In this vein, Algeria has emerged as the world's third largest importer of Russian arms, purchasing at least 60 % of Russian weaponry. Moreover, it currently has six Russian-made submarines and the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, with the Russian arsenal being one of the main pillars of the Algerian armed forces.