The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) was formed in 1989 by Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia as a vehicle to promote economic and political integration among these North African countries. Their good intentions quickly foundered on the domestic and regional conflicts that dominated the next two decades.
Mauritania faced several coup attempts, ending with the election of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in 2009; Tunisia was under the control of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from 1987 until the Arab Spring revolution of 2011; Libya was ruled by Muammar Gaddafi who was also ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in his country, and it has not recovered any normalcy since.
Morocco fought off the Polisario Front from 1975-1991, which sought to establish a separate state in the Western Sahara, ending with an uneasy cessation of hostilities in 1991; Morocco and Algeria closed their common border in 1994; Algeria was plunged into a civil war from 1991 to 2002, ending with the election in 1999 of current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who came into power promising to end the civil war; and there was a transition in Moroccan leadership from King Hassan II to his son King Mohammed VI in 1999.
In short, only two of the AMU, Morocco and Algeria, have had continuity in leadership; Morocco’s based on a hereditary and immensely popular King as well as successive Parliamentary elections certified as “free and fair”; and Algeria’s through elections that are heavily influenced by the power elite in the country to avoid embarrassing or undesirable outcomes.
The AMU could not establish deep roots in this contentious environment. Despite ongoing meetings among technocrats on economic, financial, and commercial topics, the political milieu is so supercharged with tension that political discussions are next to impossible. In fact, the last heads-of-state meetings planned in 2005 has been postponed indefinitely.
As recently as 2016, Tunisia and Morocco called for recharging the AMU, but to no avail. Progress towards reconciliation and forward movement has been all but doomed by a host of issues: internal economic and political challenges in Algeria and Tunisia; regional security issues fed by domestic unrest and the growing presence of ISIL and al-Qaeda,; competing governments in Libya; and Algerian pressure on Mauritania to take sides on the Western Sahara issue..
An article on Middle East Online raised the familiar question of what could be done to achieve the potential of a working AMU. A recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) criticized the lack of economic progress among the AMU’s member states. “It is crazy that goods need to transit between these neighbors via the French port of Marseilles when they could simply cross by land,” wrote Wadia Ait Hamza, head of Social Engagement – The Americas, in a paper posted of the WEF website.
The paper noted that the Western Sahara issue and the political seesaw in Libya were the two major factors “hampering the union’s economic progress.” With the recent agreement facilitated by France between the two major factions in Libya, that issue may be on its way to resolution through new elections next year, if they can agree on the modalities of a new government. The Western Sahara issue, however, shows no signs of incremental progress; Morocco’s proposal for autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty which has been widely recognized as the appropriate resolution, was introduced a decade ago.
King Mohammed VI, at the African Union (AU) heads of state meeting in February, lamented the demise of the AMU and warned of its inevitable failure if there was no progress. He said, “Today, we regret to see that the Arab Maghreb Union is the least in¬tegrated region in the African con¬tinent, 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% be¬tween Maghreb countries.”
It’s not as if the five countries do not have overwhelming incentives to retool their economies and press ahead with economic reforms, despite political stalemates. Declining oil and gas prices have hit Algeria hard, and it is struggling to diversify and rebuild its economic model. Morocco has been growing steadily due to a business-friendly environment and a vision that prioritizes public-private partnerships to drive its manufacturing sector and agro-industry expansion, but it still faces high unemployment numbers.
Libya is still in triage, while Tunisia has the right ingredients but has to overcome Ben Ali era corruption and inefficiencies. Mauritania is moving ahead with its plans but is hampered by dependence on commodities and lack of trained human resources.
In the face of these and other challenges, “The WEF called for the opening of borders between AMU members to ensure the free movement of goods and people.” This would represent a minimal yet very impactful step, allowing for the construction of a long-anticipated highway across the AMU, to be followed by a railroad, both of which would dramatically increase intra-union commerce leading to badly needed job expansion. In addition, it would give impetus to developing economic partnerships based on the complementarity of the countries’ agricultural, industrial, services, and energy sectors.
AMU integration is a critical priority for the region. The benefits of greater economic cooperation, open borders, increased commercial transactions, expanded business enterprises, and shared infrastructure linkages in transportation and energy can only better enable the member countries to meet their many development challenges.