Pan-Arab and regional institutions seriously challenged

Friday 26/02/2016

The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), the regional grouping that brings together the North African countries of Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, celebrated its 27th anniversary in February. But the turmoil that is gripping the whole Arab world has not spared the Maghreb.

Founded in Marrakech on February 17th, 1989, the AMU has had a hard time getting its act together. Aside from official statements, there have been few reminders that a Maghrebi integration process is supposedly under way.

A rare exception of tangible achievements was the establishment in December of the Maghreb Bank for Investment and Foreign Trade. Maghreb leaders approved the idea of the bank in 1991 but only agreed to fund it in 2015, revealing a slow process that is more indicative of the hurdles facing the bank than its ability to meet the challenges the region faces.

The Maghreb is certainly a region of great potential: It has a market of more than 85 million people and boasts 3% of global oil reserves, 4% of the world’s natural gas and 50% of the planet’s phosphates.

Not unlike the rest of the Arab world, it is a region in disarray. Its five countries conduct most of their trade with the European Union, not with each other. The share of inter-Maghrebi trade is no more than 3%. Many consider the Maghreb to be the least inte­grated region in the world.

Another dubious distinction of the Maghreb is its unmatched 30% rate of graduate youth unemployment. These two distinctions are not unrelated.

According to many economists, costs incurred by Maghreb countries because of their non-integration have been heavy: at least 2-3 percentage points of gross national product (GNP) growth are lost every year.

A better-integrated Maghreb “would help the region stand against unfavourable external economic conditions and would ultimately lead to more growth and jobs,” pleaded International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde.

For the last five years, the problems of the Maghreb have multi­plied due to security challenges as Libya, a previous source of investment and employment, has descended into chaos. For political reasons, Moroccan-Algerian borders have been closed since 1994 and the Sahara issue remains unresolved. It seems as if working towards regional integration has ceased to be a priority.

The same disunity that is hindering the work of the AMU seems to be inhibiting other pan-Arab institutions, including its principal flagship organisation, the Arab League.

The next Arab League summit, which was supposed to take place April 7th, has been cancelled.

“Amid the lack of important decisions and concrete initiatives to submit to the heads of states, this summit will be just another occasion to approve ordinary resolutions and to pronounce speeches that give a false impression of unity,” a statement from the Moroccan summit hosts said.

“Arab leaders cannot confine themselves, once more, to simply analysing the bitter situation of divergences and divisions without giving decisive responses,” it added.

In the middle of wars and other existential threats, it is not surprising that pan-Arab and regional Arab institutions are at a standstill. Dreams of integration and unity will have to wait for the day the drums of war go silent.