Arab Maghreb Union: A big idea that has gone nowhere

Sunday 23/07/2017

The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) inspired high hopes at its inception in 1989. The landmark agreement, signed by Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, promised to foster political and economic unity between the Maghreb countries with a combined population of approximately 100 million people.

Leaders, businessmen and regular citizens hoped to benefit from being at the crossroads of the Arab League, which speaks for the interests of 300 million, and of the African Union grouping of more than 1 billion.

It was an optimistic vision, offering growth and empower­ment for a region emerging from centuries of colonialism.

Leaders and elites said the AMU would help the Maghreb use its position between the Atlantic and Mediterranean to function as a trade hub. It could help utilise what were thought to be vast potential reserves of oil, gas, uranium and water to jump-start an economic boom.

The experience of the Maghreb might be another example of a big idea struggling to live up to its potential, however.

“This region is one of the lowest-performing trading blocs in the world,” Wadia Ait Hamza, head of Social Engagement, The Americas at the World Economic Forum said in a report.

Hamza pointed out that UN Economic Commission for Africa data indicated that trade between the Maghreb countries represents just 4.8% of their trade volume.

This is a far cry from what Maghreb leaders envisioned. At the outset, they spoke of the union’s strategic value in weather­ing the challenges of globalisa­tion, combating threats, such as radical Islamic violence or climate change and driving economic growth. The World Bank said, successful Maghrebi integration would have allowed each AMU member to achieve at least a 5% rise in its GDP.

Twenty-eight years after its founding, however, the AMU has made little progress towards those ends. Instead, each Maghreb country is struggling with a lack of job opportunities for its young, a problem directly related to slow economic growth.

The origins of the AMU can be traced to 1958, when the Maghreb was emerging from colonialism. In that year, national leaders met in Tangier to discuss collectively rebuilding the region.

Thirty-one years later, leaders from the region’s five independ­ent countries met in Marrakech to carve out a stronger framework for the initial expression of a union. The signed accord outlined principles of a text peppered with heartening words such as “frater­nity,” “progress,” “peace” and “free movement” of goods and people.

In the years following the agreement, however, the Maghreb faced many obstacles that prompted members to shift visions.

Due to internal political dynamics, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi put more focus on strengthening ties with sub-Saharan Africa, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika advocated more links with the rest of the Arab world and the leaders of Morocco and Tunisia turned their attention to the European Union.

Still, the AMU served as a symbolic point of connection for the Maghreb countries.

Intellectuals from the region, however, said the AMU would only succeed when the masses in each country demanded more rights and a say in governmental policies. They were proven partly right. In 2011, the “Arab spring” swept through the Maghreb and set off a torrent of political transformation.

Libya plunged into chaos in the absence of Qaddafi or a central government; Tunisia was left grasping for a new political order after the overthrow of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Algeria struggled to shelter itself from the fallout.

Mauritania has been on high alert over a perceived threat of regime change backed by some of its neighbours. It joined a France-backed G5 military bloc of West African nations that focuses on the fight against Islamist extrem­ism — another telltale mark of the symbolic and physical failings of the AMU.

The region’s borders have turned into a wasteland of wires and trenches guarding against terrorism and smuggling.

The “Arab spring” encouraged the political aspirations of Islamist movements, despite their having for decades been a source of upheaval in the region. The concept of a Maghreb union never impressed the Islamists, who were more drawn to pan-Islamic visions than regional ones. A more serious hindrance has been their focus on ideology over economics, with the relative exception of Morocco.

The result has been each country withdrawing within its borders at a level unprecedented since Morocco and Algeria closed their land borders 23 years ago. Many of the North African counties are looking for greener pastures outside the Maghreb.

Morocco and Tunisia turned to Africa across the Sahara to boost trade and investment. Tunisia in November will become a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), which has a combined population of 625 million and GDPs totalling $1 trillion.

Algeria is speeding up comple­tion of the African Unity highway to connect Algiers with Lagos in Nigeria by the end of 2017 to foster trade with land-locked countries in the sub-Saharan Sahel.