David S. Bloom
February 28, 2018
An article last week in online news outlet Middle East Monitor quoted Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel’s recent accusation that Morocco was to blame for “the lack of progress in the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU).” From a distance, it may be hard to discern if this is just another salvo in Algeria’s incessant tit-for-tat with Morocco, or if there is some truth behind the assertion.
The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) formed in 1989 “as a vehicle to promote economic and political integration” between Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. Unfortunately, Its record of performance vis-a-vis this mission is an unequivocal failure. Almost thirty years later, North Africa remains “the most separated region on the continent” and possibly the world, while other African regional groupings have expanded in both depth and breadth.
The AMU’s initial goals of creating a customs union by 1995 and a common market by 2000 look more distant today than they did at its founding. The AMU has lost the most basic buy-in from its members and has trouble even conducting meetings; its last heads-of-state summit took place in 1994. King Mohammed VI of Morocco put it in simple and honest terms when he stated in a speech at an African Union summit that the “flame of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) has faded because faith in a common interest has vanished.”
Numerous studies have outlined what the lack of economic integration in North Africa does to hold back the region’s respective and collective economies. Broadly speaking, meaningful economic integration could increase GDP in each of the five states by at least 2.5% and create somewhere in the neighborhood of 220,000 jobs annually. The Economist stated last year that an integrated Maghreb would be “among the Middle East’s largest economies,” and transform its poor border regions into “booming crossroads.” This vision has proven compelling for most Maghreb governments, which are fighting tooth and nail to reform, attract investment, and build modern competitive economies that can create jobs in the face of looming security threats and a bulge of unemployed youth.
Economic development is an existential issue for countries like Morocco and Tunisia, and likewise, they have every incentive to either make the AMU work or find other opportunities. Not so much for Algeria, which relies solely on hydrocarbons for outsized portions of its exports, economy, and government revenue. It is largely content to remain on this singularly-focused economic track. Occasionally, Algeria’s government will make the case that it is ready to reform and finally be ‘open for business,’ but this tends to coincide with low energy prices and correspondingly fades as prices rise. With only fleeting moments of interest in real economic development, it’s no wonder that a country like Algeria is “the least enthusiastic about Free Trade Agreements and economic integration,” and willing to let division flourish at the expense of progress.
This is largely why the “common interest” of the Maghreb became corrupted. The Algerian Foreign Minister’s comments were in response to Morocco’s seemingly impending accession into another regional union, The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Yet Morocco is not the only country looking for alternatives; Tunisia is also hoping to join ECOWAS or the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMSEA), of which Libya is already a member. For its part, Morocco has also looked to build stronger bilateral ties throughout Africa, with the King personally visiting dozens of countries to grow political and economic ties and working collaboratively on issues from food security to migration.
Simply moving on from the AMU leaves important issues unresolved, however. The lack of regional cohesion has left the region largely disorganized with a smattering of varyingly effective ah-hoc efforts to tackle other pressing issues, such as security, trafficking, and migration. Any economic development will remain fragile as long as these issues are not addressed in a meaningful and comprehensive way.
This means that the Maghreb must find a way to work together. Small yet politically difficult steps, such as opening borders and building inter-state transportation links, would go a long way to demonstrating the value of integration to the Maghreb. Until then, the AMU’s members will continue to look elsewhere for economic integration.