A disunited Maghreb: The colonial roots of regional rivalries

6 min read
13 September, 2022

In Rabat, an old building labelled the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) stands as a witness to the promise of a united region now in disarray.

If you were to ask a passerby about it, they may not even know that such a union had ever existed.

The idea of regional economic unity had existed since independence from colonial rule, but the establishment of the UMA in the late 1980s represented a unique moment in the history of the Maghreb, a region tarnished with conflicts.

On 17 February 1989, King Hassan II of Morocco, Chadli Bendjedid of Algeria, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya of Mauritania, and Zine- El-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia signed the Maghreb union agreement.

For the next few years, several ministerial meetings were held to discuss further economic and political collaboration in the region, with a combined population of 100 million. In major airports of the five states, a separate queue was assigned to UMA citizens. 

However, the dream soon faded as regional disputes became more potent than the Maghreb's aspiration of unity.

"The establishment of the Arab Maghreb Union in the late 1980s represented a unique moment in the history of the Maghreb"

The Maghreb: An explosive cocktail

Today, the Maghreb region is an explosive cocktail of conflicts, political chaos, and the possibility of war, and one central dispute fuelling the chaos is Western Sahara.

Morocco is in an ongoing conflict with Algeria over its support for the Polisario Front, a separatist movement fighting against Rabat in Western Sahara. 

Currently, meanwhile, tensions are mounting between Rabat and Tunisia after Tunis recently hosted the head of the Polisario Front.

Mauritania and Morocco have historically had very tense ties due to territorial disputes over the Sahara region.   Libya, today grappling with instability, once supported the Polisario Front under the rule of Gaddafi. 

Tunisia and Algeria have finally reconciled after two years of diplomatic stalemate, reopening their land borders. The price Tunisia has apparently paid is siding with Algeria's pro-Polisario position.

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Western Sahara is a territory situated on the northwest coast of Africa. The region is home to phosphate reserves and rich fishing grounds off its coast. It is also believed to have as yet untapped offshore oil deposits. 

Since Spain decolonised the territory in 1975, Algeria, Mauritania, and Morocco have eyed the naturally blessed territory.

Morocco de facto controls 80 percent of the vast region but the Polisario Front wants a fully independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

While many analysts highlight the disputed territory as a driver of the Maghreb's political chaos, Said Saddiki, a Moroccan professor of political science at the University of Mohammed Ben Abdellah, argues that Western Sahara is merely a byproduct of a larger historical issue: colonisation.

“The dream of a United Maghreb was intoxicated by suspicion and mistrust. Feelings that were a result of the colonial era,” Saddiki told The New Arab.

Former colonial powers, namely France and Spain, left the region in chaos and post-independence leaders of the Maghreb failed to unite the region, instead fueling the conflict with betrayals and "not very brotherly moves", he added.

Leaders of the members of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) at the 1989 Maghreb Summit in Marrakech. [Photo by Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images]

The post-colonial era in the Maghreb was inaugurated by its first significant territorial dispute: the 'sand war'.

Following the region's independence, Morocco attempted to seize a piece of desert territory that French colonial administrators had awarded to Algeria in 1963.

The Moroccan move led to a brief outbreak of fighting between the two countries. After a few weeks, the parties agreed to a ceasefire through negotiations led by Ethiopia and Mali.

Since then Algiers and Rabat have been on a continuous diplomatic standoff, with border closures and envoys being recalled whenever tensions mount.

In 2021, Algeria halted ties with Morocco over “hostile acts” after Rabat signed a normalisation agreement with Israel a year earlier, reportedly promising Tel Aviv a military base in the Kingdom.

"The dream of a United Maghreb was intoxicated by suspicion and mistrust. Feelings that were a result of the colonial era"

“The Maghreb Union was actually a rare moment in the history of Algerian-Moroccan ties. The two countries were always in disaccord since the outbreak of the sand war,” Saddiki told The New Arab.

But Algeria’s unconditional support for the Polisario Front was the blow that wounded Morocco the most.

Once Morocco seized the bulk of Western Sahara in the 1970s, Algeria began to provide military support to the Polisario Front and allowed its leaders, as well as many Saharawi refugees, to establish themselves on Algerian territory.

Can the Maghreb be reunited?

In September, Morocco announced an expected visit from Abderrachid Tabi, the Algerian minister of Justice, to Rabat, a first since the two states cut off ties last year. 

Tabi will hand Moroccan officials an invitation to attend the Arab summit held next November in Algiers.

However, professor Said Saddiki argues that Tabi's visit to Rabat is a false hope, as the two states are unlikely to change their diplomatic strategies over the next few years.

"The visit of the Algerian minister to Morocco is a matter of an obligation as a host of the Arab summit, no more. It is unlikely that after this visit anything will change between the two countries," he told TNA.

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As nationalist feelings mount in the two Maghrebin states, achieving domestic success has become a priority over any regional project.

Algeria, a gas-rich country, negotiates its friendships today through energy deals, a highly valued fortune amid the global energy crisis.

Morocco, meanwhile, a country situated in a strategic geographical position, befriends only those who support its control over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

“The main victim of this rivalry is the population of the region. Many families are separated due to this [Moroccan-Algerian] conflict,” explained Moroccan expert Saddiki.

On a daily basis, Moroccan citizens head to the borders and wave to their Algerian neighbours on the other side. They speak with similar accents and dance to the same music, and, in several cases, belong to the same families.

"Leaders need to look for compatible ways of dialogue and to navigate wisely the historically charged disputes that divide the region in order to unite the Maghreb"

Historically, the Maghreb Union was expected to ease trade and travel in the Maghreb state, provide more job opportunities, and establish a strong and unified negotiating power.

“If the Maghreb Union was still in power today it would likely end Libya’s standstill political conflict. And the region’s countries would definitely spend less on arms,” Saddiki told The New Arab.

Algeria's defence budget for 2020 was $9.71 billion. Morocco spent $4.83 billion on defence in 2020, a 29.82% increase from 2019 as conflict mounted with Algeria and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front.

In his interview with The New Arab, Dr Saddiki argued that the unfinished dream of a unified Maghreb could only be reached through realistic and rational management of the status quo.

“Maghreb leaders need to look for compatible ways of dialogue and to navigate wisely the historically charged disputes that divide the region in order to unite the Maghreb,” Saddiki said.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma