Decades of post-Cold War marginalization, coupled with the War on Terror limiting foreign policy options, has appeared to reflect the waning strategic relevance of North Africa to both Washington and Brussels.

Despite the region’s distinctly Arab identity and culture, Africa’s broader status as the “forgotten continent” created a blind spot in Western perspectives and policies concerning the Middle East and North Africa, especially in the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2011 uprisings.

Unsurprisingly, decades of minimal attention interlaced with perfunctory overtures will ultimately inform short-sighted security-centric policies and limited interventions at the expense of sustained, mutually beneficial cooperation that prioritizes the region’s growth and development, delaying its positive transformation.

In recent years, however, a changing landscape is transforming ambivalence into the sort of dynamic engagement that will unlock the full potential of a region situated between Europe, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

To Western policymakers, the proliferation of transnational militant extremist groups, growing south-north migratory flows, the fragility of domestic sociopolitical environments, the intensification of great power competition, and an abundance of energy resources — in what is virtually Europe’s backyard — are elevating North Africa into a permanent fixture of the West’s engagement with the region.

Corruption, porous borders and illicit flows of arms, drugs and persons across the region’s more fragile states provide fertile ground for extremist groups, despite a flood of counterterrorism funding and multilateral interventions to curb organized crime. Meanwhile, about 400,000 sub-Saharan Africans attempt to migrate north each year, transiting through countries in North Africa where many of them become stranded, exacerbating socioeconomic tensions and fueling instability.

Particularly troubling developments in the region include Russia’s growing activities and emphatic displays of Beijing’s largesse so close to NATO’s southern flank, at a time when the transatlantic alliance has yet to account for its contributions to the instability in parts of North Africa, nor has it developed and deployed effective tools to address the root causes of some of the region’s woes.

There are growing concerns in some Western capitals that further entrenchment of China and Russia in North Africa will undermine democratization processes and the promotion of better governance. A protracted conflict in Libya, for instance, has devolved into a messy extraterritorial affair, creating a bifurcated state and a post-civil war transition that is now susceptible to interference by competing geopolitical and regional interests.

It is a little unfortunate that narrow self-interest and security priorities still drive North African policy in Washington and Brussels, given how wholly inadequate they are at delivering acceptable outcomes. Nonetheless, it is a positive sign that the focus is shifting from reactionary interventions toward more proactive engagement.

The proximity to Europe and a sprawling coastline along one of the world’s busiest maritime routes are not the only lenses or dimensions through which to assess North Africa’s clear strategic importance to the West. Despite a preponderance of woes, including conflict, political instability, COVID-19 and extremist groups, the region still boasts a combined gross domestic product of $700 billion, along with a population of just over a quarter of a billion — and rising. 

North Africa’s strategic importance is undeniable but the abrupt shift in foreign policy priorities due to the conflict in eastern Europe will continue to limit how the West interacts with the region. 

Millions of out-of-work or underemployed youth mean there is substantial untapped human capital that, if fully harnessed, could be an unrivaled engine for boundless growth, buoyed by strong links to a $15 trillion trading bloc just next door. Additionally, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt have very high solar energy potentials in a world actively seeking to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and create avenues for less-painful transitions away from hydrocarbons to the export of clean energy.

However, lapses in meaningful engagement and failed partnerships over the years have, directly or indirectly, led to some of North Africa’s fragile domestic landscapes. Many are now riddled with governance failures, growing illiberalism, rising poverty, worsening socioeconomic disparities, and extremely low confidence in governments dominated by an exclusionary elite.

The Arab Spring was a rare opportunity for Western governments to quickly recalibrate their approaches to North Africa away from narrow self-interests or ad hoc interventions toward a more substantive engagement. The tide of woes in the decade that followed has become a massive indictment of how a preference for politically inexpensive ambivalence and disinterest only nurtures catastrophic outcomes in such a strategically vital part of the world.

It is likely that today’s tremors — such as the preponderance of governance grievances, COVID-19, high unemployment and bleak futures — will unfurl fresh waves of protests and give birth to dynamic political movements to dislodge entrenched elites. In other words, North Africa stands at the precipice of a second Arab Spring, which the West will need to navigate exceedingly well to prevent the region succumbing to a crippling instability that poses grave risks. After all, unstable North African states can easily become breeding grounds for militant extremist groups currently active in the Sahel, or havens for malign actors sponsored by geopolitical rivals.

Thankfully, the degree of Western engagement with North Africa has been on the rise lately, mostly to counterbalance encroachments by geopolitical rivals and sustain crucial economic and historical links. However, until Western policy is fully demilitarized, less patronizing and transformed to better align with the demands of North African citizens, any engagement will not materially reduce the risks of an implosion, particularly the kind that fuels anti-Western sentiment.

The Biden administration’s multilateral strategy, which emphasizes burden-sharing and diplomatic leadership, is facilitating close coordination with Brussels, affording the US and Europe opportunities to develop sustainable, complementary North Africa strategies combining foreign assistance, investment flows, diplomatic outreach and trade.

North Africa’s strategic importance is undeniable but the still palpable economic effects of COVID-19 and the abrupt shift in foreign policy priorities due to the conflict in eastern Europe will continue to limit how the West interacts with the region in the short-to-medium term.

Over the long term, however, the tumultuous decade that followed 2011 clearly demonstrated the tragic and costly consequences of inaction despite numerous warnings of the grave threats posed by Western disinterest and self-serving, ad hoc overtures. Clearly, North Africa needs more engagement and smarter interventions, not less, as the region and its citizens look to safely navigate an unsettled global order.

Growing inflows of external aid and investments from the West do provide opportunities for the region to foster economic growth and stability, but any progress will always be short-lived if governments persist in sidelining good governance and much-needed reforms at the behest of an out-of-touch elite.

The West would be wise to pursue transformative engagements by, for instance, sticking to the conditionalities attached to their assistance and resisting the temptation to weaken them for the sake of defending narrow economic and security interests. Moving away from the focus on good governance will do no good to either side, even if it is politically expedient.


Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell


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