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One Year on, Algeria-Spain Blockade Shows Little Sign of Easing

A year ago today, Algeria announced the breaking of a two-decade friendship and cooperation treaty with Spain in response to Madrid’s support for the Moroccan autonomy plan for Western Sahara. The bitter dispute saw Algeria freeze all non-gas-related trade with Spain for its support for Morocco’s plan, inflicting billions of euros of economic harm on Algiers and Madrid. 

Morocco has laid claim to Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until 1976. A 1991 cease-fire agreement saw Morocco lay claim to 80% of the contested region, with the rest being held by the Polisario Front, the Algeria-backed Western Sahara pro-independence movement. Algeria has been adverse to its neighbor laying claim to the Western Sahara and has supported its independence from Morocco.

While Rabat has offered some limited autonomy, it has repeatedly stated that the mineral-rich territory must remain under its sovereignty. The Polisario Movement, on the other hand, demands an independence referendum.

Economic loss

Since Algeria imposed trade sanctions on Spain on June 8, 2022, Spanish companies have lost billions of euros in export goods. A report in March said that Spanish companies lost €930 million ($1 billion) in the first seven months alone. Spain is Algeria’s third-largest export customer for natural gas, to the tune of €2.3 billion ($2.46 billion) a year.

Exports from Spain to Algeria dropped 87% between June 2022 and March 2023, according to figures from the Spanish State Secretariat for Commerce, quoted by the newspaper El Periodico de Espana. Until March 2023, exports were €206.4 million ($221 million), compared with nearly €1.58 billion ($1 billion) in the same period the previous year, according to official Spanish figures. Spain now only accounts for around 2% of Algeria’s imports.

Madrid remains a key buyer of Algerian gas, which was unaffected by the freeze in foreign trade between the two countries that only applied to non-gas goods. Spanish imports of Algerian gas actually increased by 18.5% between June 2022 and March 2023, the data said.

“The move from Al Mouradiya Palace to suspend this treaty also impacted the Algerian companies that deal with Spanish companies that mainly export to Algeria electrical appliances, fuel, paper products, plastics and machinery,” Yasmine Hasnaoui, a Western Sahara dispute expert and professor of political science and international relations at American International University, told Al-Monitor. 

“Additionally, Algerian companies specialized in pharmaceutical products were impacted by this suspension, as they are heavily dependent on raw materials imported from Spain, notably the chemical products used in the manufacturing of medicine that are imported from the Iberian Peninsula,” she added.

Friends in new places

Algeria has been seeking a new ally in Portugal as a result of the diplomatic blockade with its neighbor. Lisbon has kept a neutral stance on Western Sahara, allowing it to reap the benefits of warm relations between both Algiers and Rabat.

Atalayar reported last month that Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune went to Portugal on a state visit to conclude agreements in the energy sector as well as economic cooperation, migration and trade. He was accompanied by a large political and economic delegation, indicating the diplomatic push by Algiers to strengthen relations with Lisbon. 

Like Spain, Portugal is heavily reliant on Algerian gas. Hasnaoui said that Algeria’s goal on the presidential visit was to win over Portugal by using its “trump card” — energy and gas — after exhausting all attempts with Spain to change its stance on Western Sahara. 

“The Algerian regime is disturbed any time by any rapprochement of any European country with Morocco,” Hasnaoui said. “Whenever Morocco achieves any diplomatic gain regarding this protracted conflict, Algeria starts its race to obliterate it through economic privileges.”

Alissa Pavia, associate director for the North Africa Program at the Atlantic Council, told Al-Monitor, “It’s likely that Algeria will seek to strengthen alliances across the board with Southern European countries. The relationship with Italy is already steadfast since former PM Mario Draghi increased oil imports from Algeria to allow Italy to become more independent from Russian oil and gas supplies.”

Tebboune is also slated to visit French President Emmanuel Macron this month. 

“With Spain and Morocco potentially intensifying their trade and strengthening their relationship, Algiers feels it needs to strengthen ties with other Southern European countries, Portugal included, to contain Morocco,” Pavia said.

A resolution in sight?

All the while, relations between Spain and Morocco appear to be growing closer. In a speech given in May at the headquarters of the Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations, Spanish Secretary of State for Trade Xiana Jimenez stressed the importance of trade between the two countries. Indeed, she emphasized the significance of the slogan chosen for the title of the business meeting: “Shared prosperity must be the objective of trade and investment; Morocco’s prosperity is Spain’s prosperity, and vice versa.” 

A delegation of 58 Spanish companies met June 6-8 with Moroccan partners in Casablanca to establish ventures and economic partnerships. And it is clear that Madrid views Rabat as its main partner for reaching other countries on the African continent. 

But Pavia believes that Spain, with its huge trade deficit it faces due to energy price hikes that have hit Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine, is in no position to further strain relations with Algiers due to how dependable it is on the North African country’s natural gas.

“In 2022, Algeria was Spain’s largest exporter of natural gas. Hence, Spain hasn’t really been able to make up for the economic losses from the current deadlock with Algeria,” Pavia added.

Hasnaoui and Pavia do not see a quick end to the Algerian-Spanish crisis. “Unless Spain reverses its stance on Western Sahara, it is unlikely the dispute will be resolved any time soon,” Pavia said. “Algeria is in a position of strength given Russia’s protracted war in Ukraine and the world’s need to diversify away from Russian oil and gas exports. So long as the war continues, Algeria has no incentive to reverse its blockade on Spain.”

Pavia said that Spain’s fear of retaliation from Morocco should Madrid reverse its Western Sahara stance is too great for it to change its decision. Spain fears Morocco may try to trigger a migration crisis on its borders if Spain stops supporting its Western Sahara autonomy plan, she said.

Intissar Fakir, a senior fellow and director of Middle East Institute’s North Africa and Sahel program, said that resolving the tensions will be about whether Spain is willing to walk back its position vis-a-vis the Western Sahara, and about whether Algeria feels the lesson to stop supporting Morocco has been effectively delivered to its European partners. 

“First, I am not sure how much more Spain can walk back its current position without causing tension with Morocco,” Fakir told Al-Monitor.  

“On the latter, I think the Algerian leadership needs to weigh keeping that pressure up against its other interests —issues on the table that would benefit from resumed cooperation. Algeria made its point to Spain and others, and now there might be an opportunity to renew the ties,” she added.

Source : AL Monitor