What to do with the Arab Maghreb Union? – Jean R. AbiNader

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
June 7, 2017

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

In a previous blog, I focused on King Mohammed VI’s lament regarding the failure of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), speaking to the African Heads of State meeting in January, when Morocco joined the African Union after an absence of 33 years. He raised it as a reason for Morocco’s emphasis on building relations with sub-Saharan Africa. Now, a recent piece from the World Economic Forum (WEF), “Five Ways to Make the Maghreb Work,” again raises the importance of cooperation and collaboration among the five countries that make up the AMU – Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.

So, what are the solutions proposed in that article that might provide a starting point for reconciliation among the two major protagonists in the AMU, Algeria and Morocco? While not minimizing the roles of the others, it is hard to imagine that Libya, a fractious and fragile shadow of a state, or Mauritania and Tunisia, facing internal challenges as well as outside pressures of instability, are going to provide the necessary leadership to revive the AMU. Let’s take a look at the recommendations made by the WEF author and add insights from a recent article by scholar Anouar Boukhars looking at what can be done to overcome obstacles to security cooperation in the region.

The author of the World Economic Forum piece, Wadia Ait Hamza, notes in her introduction that “…trade between the Maghreb countries represents just 4.8% of their trade volume, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa – and it represents less than 2% of the sub-region’s combined gross domestic product (GDP), according to the World Bank. This region is one of the lowest-performing trading blocs in the world.”

To enable the group to reach more of its potential, she lists five steps: the implementation of the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital; security cooperation; maximizing the complementarity of their economies; greater coordinated activities in sub-Saharan Africa; and greater integration of social, education, and foreign policies.

Testing these five steps against the likelihood of some degree of implementation is a useful measure of how far the AMU remains from its goal of regional integration. Take the issue of open borders, the first step. Not only has Algeria had to erect extensive security controls along its borders with Tunisia and Libya, it is also challenged in the south, where it abuts the Sahel. In reality, the easy movement of profitable trade only lies westward to Morocco, and this border has been closed for more than 23 years. Despite repeated international concern, the border remains closed, inviting smuggling of basic goods, drugs, and arms, and eroding the safety of both countries. This is not to say that someday the ban may be negotiated away, leaving the countries to figure out how to make prosperity work for mutual benefit.

Security cooperation, the second step, is essential to promote future economic development, as well as a safe and stable environment. Foreign investment is risk-averse, and without a sense of stability beyond military force, companies will be loath to broaden their presence in the region. As Boukhars points out, Morocco has been quite successful in attracting foreign investors and would benefit from an open and secure border with Algeria where goods and services can build prosperity for both countries. Security would be greatly enhanced by cooperation between the two, as they possess the most professional military and security assets in the region. Unfortunately, Algeria continues to exclude Morocco from participating in Sahel-focused efforts, which degrades those efforts and leads Morocco to support competitive groupings that it can influence. As importantly, Morocco employs a broad range of soft-power tools to enhance security cooperation – including cultural, educational, religious, business, and media resources — to make its impact throughout the region and increasingly the continent.

Building an integrated economic powerhouse is the third step. This would entail bringing together the best features of both countries — and in this regard Tunisia as well — to exploit complementary features in their economies, build broad human capital capabilities to attract investors, and create more regional outlets for tourism, manufacturing, information technology, and other fields that can build jobs and attract investors. Yet, as Boukhars notes, beyond its strong military and security regimes, Algeria “struggles to drive, rather than react to, regional events. Observers usually attribute Algeria’s frustrated regional ambitions on its murky politics, wobbly oil-dependent economy and contentious relations with Morocco and France.” Broadening its political worldview with a contemporary economic strategy is critical if Algeria is to progress.

Boukhars is not alone in pointing out the importance of the next step, greater engagement with sub-Saharan Africa. He describes in some detail the array of soft power, and hard power when needed, that King Mohammed VI employs in Africa, achieving broad success. Algeria, on the other hand, has defined its role largely in security or hydrocarbon policies. Boukhars writes, “Algeria cannot realize its leadership goals by trying to monopolize the security agenda in the Sahel. Still, the country’s own political paralysis and stagnant hydrocarbon economy constitute another major constraint on its regional ambitions.”

The fifth step, greater regional integration, depends on building among the AMU players a common understanding of, and strategies for, actions that will most benefit their peoples and their countries. Unfortunately, with suspicion and innuendo being the common means of looking at their bilateral relations, each seeking to gain points at the other’s expense, there is little probability that the two countries will seek a modus vivendi that may satisfy the leadership and help enable the stability, security, and prosperity that both communities seek. One need only look at the plight of the Syrian refugees in the no-man’s land between Algeria and Morocco or the blame game regarding the continuation of the Rif demonstrations to recognize the challenges.

Boukhars sums it up this way. “Algeria cannot become a successful regional power if it continues to underperform domestically and clash, rather than collaborate, with its neighbors.” He draws a clear distinction with Morocco. “Morocco is illustrative of a rising power that has cannily deployed its soft power tools and domestic stability to its advantage. Now, the challenge for Rabat is to improve relations with its peers, as peace and stability in the region will require countries…[to] collaborate more efficiently.”

So, despite the best intentions of the WEF author, displaying the pragmatism and constructive engagement needed to move the AMU ahead will require extraordinary efforts from all five members, and especially Morocco and Algeria, if future challenges are to be overcome.

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