The ramifications of the Russian war on Ukraine are being felt across the world. The effects are likely to be particularly acute for countries in North Africa. The region is a major exporter of energy and raw material, and has had complex, sometimes contentions, relations with Europe, the US and Russia.
The US reportedly asked North African and Middle Eastern countries to increase their gas production to supply Europe.
Among the Maghreb countries that could step to the fore are Algeria and Libya, with Algeria harbouring the highest potential. Algeria is one of the world’s largest gas producers, and is among Europe’s top five LNG exporters. It could technically increase its gas supply to Europe through several operating pipelines running through Italy and Spain.
However, Algeria’s opaque domestic political decision-making, highly contentious relationship with neighbouring Morocco, and decades-long strategic alignment with Russia, stand in the way.
Algeria has a close relationship with Russia and the US largely based on strategic military synergies. In Libya, Russia put its weight behind the main spoiler – General Khalifa Haftar. For its part, the US has mainly focused on working with the UN and with Libyans interested in organising contested election processes.
Countries like Algeria are unlikely to step up to replace Russian gas supply without an implicit nod from Russia. European policy makers had hoped Algeria and Libya would alleviate European dependence on Russia. However, North African countries are acting based on their own calculus. This involves seeking concessions from Europe and the US on their priorities and managing their relationship with Russia.
This diminishes hopes of European policy makers expecting that Algeria and Libya would alleviate economic hardship.
Algeria is walking tightrope
Algeria, a major gas exporter to the EU, is walking a tight rope. It is undoubtedly the country with the most expansive relations with Russia in the region. This is requiring it to try and reconcile two conflicting principles. Living by its longstanding position on the sanctity of international borders while signalling its continuous unwavering support to its strategic military and diplomatic ally, Russia.
Algeria is Russia’s third largest weapon importer. In the lead-up to the Ukraine invasion, Algeria stopped short of signalling any antagonism towards its historic ally.
However, as the EU seeks new, sustainable alternatives to the sanction-stricken Russian energy exporters, Algeria is strategically positioned to fill the gap. It could, technically, meet Europe’s gas demands.
Algeria currently exports approximately 22 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually via the TransMed pipeline to Italy. It could, increase this by nearly half the current rate. The Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline (MEG), linking Algeria’s largest gas field to Spain through Morocco was shut down in October 2021 when Algeria severed its relations with Morocco.
But Algeria seems to be reluctant to fulfil requests to increase its gas exports to Europe. Algeria won’t want to alienate Russia. Nevertheless it will want to take advantage of skyrocketing energy prices. It might also try and secure concessions from the EU and US on a number of issues the country deems strategic, such as Western Sahara.
The dispute over the Western Sahara territory has strained relations between Morocco and Algeria since the 1970s. Morocco took control of most of the territory in 1976. Algeria has provided military, diplomatic, and financial support to the Polisario Front ever since. The front is an armed insurgent group working for the independence of the territory. Decades and several UN mediation attempts later, the conflict continues to be intractable.
In 2020 the US administration recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory as part of the tripartite normalisation agreement known as the Abraham Accords. Algeria was facing deep political strife and took a while to respond to the US recognition and Morocco’s perceived assertive posture.
It was only in 2021, when president Abdelmajid Tebboune consolidated his power base, that Algeria turned up the heat on Morocco. Among its retaliatory measures was the discontinuation of its longstanding agreement with Morocco on the transfer of gas to Spain through the MEG pipeline.
Algeria has expressed strong frustrations at the perceived Morocco-friendly positions of the European Commission and the US on Western Sahara. Algeria could well try to link gas capacity increases to a watering down of EU/US support for Morocco on Western Sahara. And it may have just found an ally for that: Spain.
The Iberian Kingdom is highly dependent on Algerian natural gas exports and views a potential blow out in North Africa as a direct threat to its national and economic security. With Algeria’s sustained political and economic boycott of Morocco, coupled with its unprecedented military chest beating, the region is closer to war than it has ever been since the 1960s.
Morocco, designated by the US as a major non-NATO Ally, has traditionally aligned itself with the US and the EU on key military and diplomatic matters. At the same time it has sought to maintain “positive neutrality” with Russia.
For its part, Algeria has been increasingly looking for clear signals from Russia about where it stands on the Western Sahara issue. It was in that context that Russia, in an extraordinary move, abstained in October 2021 from the UN Security Council vote on Western Sahara. This was preceded by President Putin’s Special Representative for the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, receiving a high-level Polisario delegation in Moscow.
Russia’s actions were symbolically significant. But it didn’t go as far as fully embracing the desired Algerian position by vetoing the resolution, or, more radically, recognising Western Sahara as independent.
It was against this background that Algeria’s abstained in the March 3 UN General Assembly resolution on Russia. For its part, Morocco stated a no-show despite its tacit rejection of the Russian assault.
Libya’s oil minister has already announced that “Libya does not have sufficient reserves to make a difference.”
Since last month, Libya has plunged into another political crisis characterised by two competing governments. This jeopardises political progress the country had achieved in early 2021 when the Government of National Unity was established as the first national government unifying all parts of Libya since 2013.
The renewed power struggle has adverse effects on Libya’s production of natural resources: Libya’s oil production has fallen below 1 million barrels a day and the state-controlled National Oil Corporation halted shipments from the ports of Zawiya and Mellitah after armed actors once again shut down Sharara, the country’s biggest field.
In the current power struggle, Libyan politicians are reliant on local support but also international backers. High-ranking officials have been outspoken in their condemnation of the Russian attack. Nevertheless, Libya’s alliances are volatile. It still has Russian mercenaries in the country. In addition, Russia has proven far more flexible on the unpopular aim among many Libyan elites to conduct elections soon. This is something that the UN, US and European countries are pushing for.
Shake up on the horizon
Maghreb countries, despite their capacities, are unlikely to step up to replace Russian gas supply without an implicit nod from Russia. This could give way to complex new regional alignments and posturing.
However, the current Ukraine crisis and attempts by the US and the EU to “separate” Russia from its key regional allies (in this case, Algeria), coupled with what Algeria can offer the EU in terms of energy, could potentially shake the equilibrium in the Great Powers relations with the Morocco and Algeria dyad.
PhD Candidate at King’s College, King’s College London
PhD Candidate at King’s College London, King’s College London