US moves to shore up unhappy allies on North Africa visit

US Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to Morocco and Algeria aims to bring the rivals together, and improve relations with the United States.

Polisario Front soldiers stand at an entrance of the fifth sector base in Bir Lahlou, Western Sahara, September 9, 2016.
Western Sahara has long been a source of conflict between Algeria and Morocco [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

With the focus on strained relations between the United States and its Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, it has been easy to overlook that discontent with the Biden administration has also spread to North Africa.

Algeria has continued to remain deeply concerned about President Joe Biden’s refusal to reverse his predecessor Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. Equally, Morocco has been frustrated that Biden does not intend to go beyond Trump’s “recognition”.

The renewed clash between the neighbours over Western Sahara led to diplomatic ties being cut last August, as well an escalation of border disputes, which followed a suspected drone attack in Algeria that killed three civilians and was blamed on Morocco.

Amid the rising tensions and frustration, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken included Morocco, where he arrived on Monday, and Algeria, where he’s expected on Wednesday, in his tour of the Middle East and North Africa.

Divisions over Western Sahara

Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that has been largely controlled by Morocco since 1979, has long been a sore point Algerian-Moroccan relations, with Algeria supporting Western Sahara’s independence movement, the Polisario Front.

Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory, at the same time as Morocco agreed to normalise relations with Israel, has exacerbated tensions between Algeria and Morocco.

Although the Biden administration has not released any statement rolling back Trump’s decision, there is a sense that Washington is eager to return to a more neutral position in an attempt to broker an accord between Algiers and Rabat.

“The US stance is hesitant over the issue of Western Sahara despite Trump’s announcement of recognition of Moroccan sovereignty,” Mohamed Mayaara, an activist and the head of the Western Saharan publication Equipe Media, told Al Jazeera.

According to Mayaara, Blinken will seek to balance Morocco and Algeria’s frustrations “in a manner that does not jeopardise Rabat’s normalisation with Tel Aviv, but that creates new momentum in the issue of the Western Sahara without alienating Algeria, and by extension the Polisario movement”.

That view is not shared across the board.

“Blinken’s visit will reaffirm the diplomatic gains made by Morocco on the issue of the Western Sahara,” said Moroccan journalist Mohamed Salem Abdel-Fattah.

Spain withdrawing its support for a referendum in Western Sahara about its sovereignty has been a major coup for Morocco. Instead, the Spanish government announced on March 18 that it supported Rabat’s proposal to grant autonomous status to Western Sahara, but for it to remain under Moroccan control.

Abdel-Fattah expected Rabat to press Blinken to build on Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territories, and Spain’s new position, by “proposing once more the idea of granting autonomy to the region as a viable solution within the framework of US foreign policy and United Nations efforts”.

Russian gas alternatives

Europe’s over-reliance on Russian gas, and the limitations that has imposed on Europe in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, is also on the agenda. The US has already sought to encourage Middle East nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to increase their oil and gas exports, and Blinken’s visit to Algiers, in particular, is likely driven by similar aims.

“The reason for [Blinken’s] visit is to quickly convince Algeria to become an alternative gas supplier to Russia, and thereby reduce Europe’s dependency on Moscow for its energy needs,” Idris Attiya, professor of international relations and political science at the University of Algiers, told Al Jazeera.

Algeria is already Europe’s third-largest supplier of gas, accounting for 11 percent of Europe’s gas imports. While the state oil and gas company Sonatrach has said it is willing to increase supplies to Europe, there are questions about whether Algeria has the capacity to increase production.

Moreover, production capacity is not the only issue, as Algeria has found itself attempting to maintain a balance between Russia and the US.

“Despite Algeria insisting on multiple occasions that it is a neutral party in the war on Ukraine, and has even offered to mediate between the two parties, there is a sense in Washington that Algeria is traditionally closer to Moscow than it is the US,” said Attiya. “The other dynamic of Blinken’s visit is [therefore] to try to pull Algeria away from Russia.”

Even though Morocco is not a prominent supplier of oil and gas, the commodities are an important part of Blinken’s trip to Rabat.

Morocco has been a vital conduit for the delivery of Algerian gas via pipelines that run through Morocco and onto Spain. After the suspension of diplomatic ties between Algeria and Morocco, Algiers decided to not renew the deal to use the Maghreb-Europe gas pipelines in November, forcing Spain to only import Algerian gas using a direct pipeline, and ultimately reducing the quantity of Algerian gas flowing into Europe.

“Blinken will seek to reconcile the two neighbours, [at least to the extent] whereby Algeria decides to restore delivery through Morocco’s pipelines,” said Abdel-Fattah.

Abdel-Fattah also believed that Blinken will discuss with his Moroccan counterparts the possibility a political accord between factions in Libya, hoping to “achieve stability” in Libya’s energy sector.

Oil production in Libya has dropped significantly as individual factions have continued to jostle for power following the failure to hold elections in December.

Morocco hosted the United Nations-backed dialogue that produced the Skhirat agreement in 2015, which led to Libya’s Government of National Unity. The hope is that a similar process can be replicated in, or with the help of, Rabat, in a bid to broker a new political accord.

Source: Al Jazeera