Maghreb future is tied to resolving Western Sahara conflict

Sunday 23/07/2017
Paralysis. Foreign Ministers from the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) attend the 34th Council of the organisation in Tunis, in May last year. (AFP)

London - The World Economic Forum (WEF) slammed the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) for failing to ensure the free movement of goods in a free trade area that would span the wide North African region that in­cludes Morocco, Mauritania, Alge­ria, Tunisia and Libya.
“It is crazy that goods need to transit between these neighbours via the French port of Marseilles when they could simply cross over by land,” wrote Wadia Ait Hamza, head of Social Engagement — The Americas, in a paper posted on the World Economic Forum website.
Founded in 1989, the AMU is a pact seeking to establish economic and political integration between member countries.
The last planned summit origi­nally scheduled for May 26, 2005, was postponed indefinitely because of Morocco’s refusal to take part in it due to Algeria’s vocal support for Sahrawi independence. Analysts said that longstanding political disa­greements between Morocco and Algeria regarding the Western Saha­ra conflict besides the political crisis in war-torn Libya were hampering the union’s economic progress.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and maintains it is an inte­gral part of the kingdom. Algerian-backed Polisario Front separatists began an armed conflict with Mo­rocco for an independent state that lasted until the United Nations bro­kered a ceasefire in 1991.
Rabat has proposed a form of autonomy under Moroccan sover­eignty for the territory. The proposal was rejected by the Polisario Front, which insists on the right of the Sah­rawi people to self-determination in a UN-monitored vote.
Algeria denies involvement in the Western Sahara issue although its leaders are suspected of playing a key role in it.
In February, Moroccan King Mo­hammed VI warned that the AMU would crumble if its incapacity to live up to the ambitions of the 1989 agreement continued.
“Today, we regret to see that the Arab Maghreb Union is the least in­tegrated region in the African con­tinent, if not in the whole world. Intra-regional trade has reached 10% between ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] countries and 19% between SADC [Southern African Development Community] countries, while it is still stagnating at less than 3% be­tween Maghreb countries,” King Mohammed VI said.
Trade within the AMU is the low­est of any region in the world, aver­aging $200 million per year between the five countries. This accounts for 3% of the bloc’s total trade. The European Union accounts for more than 60% of the bloc’s total trade.
Mohamed Amine Mansouri Id­rissi, the general manager of Af­rique Strategie in Morocco, said it is “heartbreaking” that two neigh­bouring countries trade through a third party.
“Why do we have to make some­one else, who doesn’t create any added value, benefit from trade be­tween Morocco and Algeria?” asked Idrissi, adding that the third party could make much higher profits than Moroccan exporters, a policy that harms Algerian consumers.
Ali Bahaijoub, director of the Cen­tre for Euro-Mediterranean and Afri­can Studies, said that the AMU crisis was mainly due to the political stale­mate between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara.
“As long as the army rules in Alge­ria, the crisis between the two coun­tries will not be resolved,” Bahaijoub said.
“There is a political vacuum in Al­geria that is jeopardising the future of the region.
“It is better for Morocco to trade with other economic zones rather than wait for Algeria to open its bor­ders, which have been closed since 1994,” he added.
Algeria closed its land border with Morocco in 1994 after Rabat insti­tuted visa regulations on Algerian tourists following a terrorist attack on the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrake­ch that killed two Spanish tourists. Morocco accused Algeria of being involved in the attack.
The political crisis in Libya is also hampering its ties with neighbour­ing countries. Huwaida Elfnayesh, a professor at Tripoli University’s School of Law, said “recent events in the Arab countries, represented by the ‘Arab spring’ revolutions, contributed to widening the gap between the union countries, espe­cially in terms of security.”
“Each country tries to secure its borders from the infiltration of ‘extremist fighters’ as well as the absence of a government in Libya. All these things have brought the union back to the scratch,” said Elf­nayesh.
“The problem of the Moroccan Sahara is still between Algeria and Morocco. Moreover, the collapse of the state in Libya and its civil war directly affects the countries of the union given that common borders with Tunisia and Algeria and the geographical location of Libya in the heart of the union, where Morocco has hosted the negotiations of the Libyan parties in the so-called ‘Skhi­rat’ under the auspices of the United Nations, but the peace process is still long, which is reflected nega­tively on any attempt to revive the Union.”
The WEF called for the opening of borders between AMU members to ensure the free movement of goods and people.
Economic analyst Atman Dkhissi said the WEF’s statement about the AMU is not something new.
“AMU members need to put aside their political problems to enhance trade between them that would boost employment in the region,” said Dkhissi, echoing Bahaijoub’s re­mark that the AMU’s future is tied to resolving the Western Sahara issue.
“Before the border closure, east­ern Morocco’s economy greatly de­pended on Algerian tourists’ spend­ing,” said Dkhissi.
Ali Hamza highlighted the Maghreb countries’ complementary economic conditions. While Tunisia and Morocco specialise in services and agriculture, Libya and Algeria have significant natural resources.
AMU Secretary-General Taieb Baccouche told Jeune Afrique maga­zine on the sidelines of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa “the fact that I have not yet had discus­sions with these two heads of state (Moroccan and Algerian leaders) since taking up my duties does not refer to any official position with regard to the AMU or with regard to myself.”
He said he was waiting for the AMU foreign ministers’ summit lat­er this year to present a new strategy before presenting it to various coun­tries’ leaders.
As for the political crisis between Morocco and Algeria, Baccouche ex­pressed his optimism about an im­provement in the future.
“I think reconciliation will come. We should not give up,” he said.
Elfnayesh was less than hopeful about the project’s future.
“Despite the great ambition of the Maghreb integration project, the reality proved its failure in all re­spects, as all the economic, political and security indicators show,” she said.
“Unfortunately, there are no quick solutions that could push the union ahead, with the many problems that surfaced on a daily basis — includ­ing the Libyan crisis — which led to the almost permanent closure of the border between most of its coun­tries after the ‘Arab spring’ and the anxiety of terrorism has dominated the governments of the region.”