The energy crisis of 2022 has given Algeria a boost in wealth and political weight in the region.
As Algiers continues to play a more prominent role in Middle Eastern and African affairs, will it face US pressure and even regime change attempts for its foreign policy stances that do not align with those of the West?
In September, US Congress members evoked the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), to call for sanctions to be placed upon Algeria over weapons deals with Moscow. This plea came shortly after the same argument was made by Republican Senator Marco Rubio in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Since the days of the Cold War, the Algerian state has been outside the orbit of the West, lending its favor instead to national liberation movements and pursuing a more tailor-made foreign policy platform. This pitted it against its western neighbor, Morocco, which opted to align itself with the West.
Today, tensions are boiling again between the neighboring North African leaderships over a similar alignment of sorts, especially since Morocco decided to normalize ties with Israel owing to pressure from the administration of then-US President Donald Trump. An arms race has been developing between the two nations since 2015, as both governments find themselves further tied to their East-West allegiances.
Against the backdrop of tensions with its Western-aligned North African neighbor, Algiers has emerged in 2022 as a revived regional player. As the global energy crisis continues amid the West’s standoff with Russia in Ukraine, Algeria has come off well and with more wealth. In the first five months of this year alone, Algeria’s oil and gas earnings skyrocketed by more than 70%, amounting to a total of $21.5 billion. This has given Algiers greater freedom to work on its defense goals and infrastructure projects.
Algeria is making significant strides at building sustainable living and working on projects to provide more jobs to its citizens. One such project is the construction of a futuristic city called Boughezoul. The city will not only house 400 new residents as part of its strategy to eliminate slums and derelict housing, but also seeks to host the Algerian space agency, a new railway station, and a new international airport. Efforts such as these, combined with the revival of military displays on the nation’s independence day, seem to represent a real effort to reassure the population of the government’s intentions after years of mistrust and mass demonstrations.
Along with the ongoing attempts to make the best of the new economic advantages domestically, Algiers also seems fixated on having its own impact on regional affairs. As the nation has cut off ties with neighboring Morocco, due in part to Israel’s intelligence and military influence, as well as the alleged Moroccan backing of Kabylie separatist groups, it now seeks to align itself with Tunisia to a greater degree.
Algeria, the third largest gas supplier to Europe, has attracted significant interest this year, becoming the top supplier now for Italy, as military ties also seem to deepen. In the case of Tunisia, Algeria has granted recognition to the nation’s president, Kais Saied, who relies on Algerian gas and is receiving supplies at a discounted rate. Tunis is facing an acute economic crisis and has been accused of trading its historically cordial relations with Morocco for closer ties with Algeria.
The Tunisian president invited Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front – a movement that fights for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, against Morocco – to the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development that was hosted in Tunisia in August. Inviting the sworn enemy of Morocco to the country triggered the subsequen withdrawal of ambassadors between Tunisia and Morocco. Algeria supports the Polisario Front in its fight over Western Sahara.
For Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune, keeping Tunisia on its side is an important issue, as it fears the UAE-Saudi-Egyptian bloc will assert its own dominance over Tunis’ policies. Kais Saied, who seized power in October of 2019, is clearly within the UAE’s sphere of influence, as opposed to his opponents in the Ennahda party that align with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Due to such a strong influence from Abu Dhabi in North Africa, Algeria is made to play a careful balancing game.
Another major issue that Algiers is now involving itself in is Palestinian reconciliation. It has hosted a number of meetings between rival parties Hamas and Fatah in order to bridge the gap and develop a stronger platform from which to argue for Palestinian statehood. The issue of achieving Palestinian statehood also played out as a central theme in the Arab League summit in November, as Algeria attempted to bolster its position regionally by hosting the meeting.
Despite having to play a careful balancing act, both regionally and internationally, Algeria has emerged this year as a key player in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. It has even held strong against its former colonizing power, France, forcing President Emmanuel Macron to change his rhetoric about Algiers and has paved the way to dropping French in the education system and opting to adopt the English language instead, eroding France’s influence further.
All the moves being made by Algeria are signaling that it intends to continue along the lines of adopting policies that do not necessarily align with Western interests, sometimes coming into direct conflict with them. This is why threats from US congressmen and senators to impose sanctions on Algeria have begun to raise eyebrows.
America’s ambassador to Algeria, Elizabeth Moore Aubin, has refused to answer questions on hypothetically imposing sanctions, opting to focus on what her job entails, which may indicate that such decisions may not be on the immediate minds of high-ranking US officials. However, Republican party officials have certainly stirred the pot.
The question now becomes how far Washington will go to punish Algeria for refusing to ditch Moscow and whether the strategy going forward may be to use Morocco against Algeria.