Is The Maghreb Union Finished And Dead? – Analysis


King Mohammed VI has been practically living in Africa in the last few years moving from one country to another to propose development programs and cooperation ventures in a transparent win-win approach. So, when on re-admission of Morocco in the African Union in the Addis Abeba summit on January 31, 2017, he declared with tears in his eyes, to be happy to be back home. The truth of the matter he has always been home though not officially, hoping on his Boeing 747 from one country to another bringing bounty and goodwill.

What is more, for many African Muslims, disciples of the Tidjane Sufi order, Mohammed VI is more than a temporal leader of a northern country, he is a religious symbol bearing the traditional title of amir al-mu’minin “Commander of the Faithful” of the Islamic community of Africa.

The Maghreb Union is long dead

In his acceptance speech of the re-admission of Morocco in the African fold, King Mohammed VI declared solemnly the death of the Maghreb Union. He first underscored that he has always believed in the regional integration of the Maghreb states, but this, alas, did not materialize for a score of reasons and, as a result, he went on to make public the clinical death of this failed union:i

“Morocco has always considered that its strength comes primarily from the integration of the Maghreb sub-region. It is however clear that the flame of the Arab Maghreb Union has faded, because faith in a common interest has vanished! The mobilizing momentum of the Maghreb ideal, advocated by the pioneers in the 1950s, has been betrayed. Today, we regret to see that the Maghreb Union is the least integrated region in the African continent, if not in the whole world.”

In this regard, he argued forcefully that intra-regional trade within ECOWAS is at the 10% mark and it is at 19% between the countries of the SADC community, whereas it has always stagnated at the poor 3% level in the UMA (Union du Maghreb Arabe.) He went on to say that while the West African Economic Community is realizing ambitious projects of integration and while ECOWAS is allowing the free flow of citizens, merchandise and capital, the Maghreb is at its lowest level of cooperation since its creation 28 years ago.

Mohammed Benhammou, university professor and president of the Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies based in Rabat, Morocco argues quite rightly:ii

“Regrettably, in the Maghreb the conditions for cooperation do not always exist due to antiquated thinking, particularly over the Sahara. The closed border between Morocco and Algeria has impacted most regional relationships. For example, Tunisia, Libya, and Mali are forced to develop security strategies with both countries separately at the expense of a more effective coordinated regional strategy. The exclusion of Morocco from the Algerian-led Regional Command for Joint Counterterrorism Operations (CEMOC) further highlights the problem. Such a regional strategy cannot be successful when one of the strongest counterterrorism players is excluded. CEMOC’s last six years have demonstrated this to be the case.”

So, one wonders why was has the ambitious UMA project faltered so miserably? For Michele Bigoni writing in The European Parliamentary Research Blog , hopes for integration dimmed because of inter-state tensions:iii

“The Union of the Arab Maghreb or Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) as it is often referred to, was established in 1989 when the five founding members, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania, signed the Treaty of Marrakesh. However, hopes for substantial political and economical integration in the Maghreb region quickly dimmed as inter-state political tension – especially between Morocco and Algeria over the status of Western Sahara – complicated the consolidation of the Union. Indeed, a summit between AMU heads of state has not taken place since 1994. More recently, political instability in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings has created further uncertainty about the union’s future. Despite widespread skepticism about the viability and future prospects of the AMU, the EU continues to support further Maghreb integration. A 2012 joint communication by the European Commission and the European External Action Service, which focuses principally on the development of the political dialogue, especially on the issues of security and defense, as well as on the promotion of human rights and democratization, explained that, “a stronger and more united Maghreb will help address common challenges, such as instability in the Sahel region, energy security, the need to create jobs and fight climate change.””

Indeed, the reasons are multiple and have to do mainly with the two main countries of the union, i.e. Morocco and Algeria, and some of them and are as follows:

  1. Historical: France occupied Algeria in 1830 with the intention of making out of it a French territory facing Marseille on the other side of the Mediterranean. So, the concept of Algérie francaise dominated the French colonial policy for the 132 years of the colonization period. To make the territory big, France took entire swaths of land rich in minerals: Gourara, Jbilet, Tindouf, etc. from Morocco, but, also, from other limitrophe countries such as Tunisia, Mali and Niger. When France realized that it was definitely leaving Algeria in the early 60s of the last century, it turned to Morocco and showed readiness to return the land it took unlawfully, but King Mohammed V refused the offer on the grounds that it will be a form of betrayal of a sister country immersed in independence war. Mohammed V pointed out that Morocco will discuss the matter with Algeria after its independence. As such, on independence, Hassan II brought up the subject with the Algerian government, nevertheless, the latter categorically refused Moroccan demand and immediately after, in 1963, the War of Sands broke out between the two countries, as a result of that; and
  2. Political: On independence, Algeria became a socialist country and joined, somewhat, the Soviet bloc while Morocco was a liberal economy very close to the Western world. In 1975, Spain expressed its willingness to decolonize the Western Sahara that Morocco has always claimed as an integral part of its defunct empire. While Boumeddienne’s Algeria paid lip service to the Moroccan move, yet its intelligence apparatus created the independence-seeking movement of Polisario. Morocco organized the Green March and took control of the territory from Spain in 1975. Since, however, Algeria has spent billions of dollars in its support of the Polisario Front besides diplomatic assistance, last of which is its vote against the re-admission of Morocco in the African Union.

The numerous walls of Algeria killed UMA

Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Photo: Presidencia de la Nación Argentina, Wikipedia Commons.
Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Photo: Presidencia de la Nación Argentina, Wikipedia Commons.

It goes without saying that the Polisario factor is the main stumbling block in the integration of the Maghreb from the beginning of the UMA venture in 1989 in Marrakesh. In reality UMA was a still born baby because Algeria’s ego, fortified with the oil bounty, wanted the leadership of North Africa, but Morocco, without meaning to, marred its hegemonic objectives and broke its dream.

Algeria, after half a century of oil bonanza has not achieve any worthwhile development, but has, instead, squandered billions of dollars on costly grandiose projects with almost no or little economic value. A good example f that is the massive highway east-west whose original cost was estimated at 5 billion dollars and is costing today three times as much and it is not even up to international standards, apparently.

The economy of the country is in shambles, its currency is at its lowest and its competitiveness is non-existent. The country lives off its oil and the price of this commodity is ebbing dangerously today. Prestigious International think tanks such as the Washington Institute of Near East Policy that advises and counsels the American government stated, in a recent report, written for the Trump administration that dire conditions are ahead of Algeria.

Had Algeria not surrounded itself with walls: physical, economic, and political with Morocco, UMA would have functioned properly and helped Algeria economically in its post oil era.

What now?

Like what King Mohammed VI has stated in his historic speech to the AU summit, UMA is gone to the dogs and consequently dead, but it is not the end of the world. If Algeria retracts from its proverbial animosity to Morocco, the North African countries can create a new institution for economic cooperation and social integration and, undoubtedly, this new body will put, at long last, the region on the world map.

Will the generals in Algeria forget about their hegemonic drive in North Africa and opt out, instead, for cooperation and development, for the long term wellbeing of the people of this part of the world or continue to dream on and utterly lack in any sense of noblesse oblige?

Only time will show


Further Reading on the Maghreb Union


An Example of South-South Politics: The Union of the Arab Maghreb / Sofiane Bouhdiba, in: Conference Papers — Southern Political Science Association (Annual Meeting 2011). p. 1–8

The article offers information on the creation of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). It mentions its objectives which include establishing friendly relations with member countries, free mobility of people and creating a common market. It also analyses the reasons why the AMU never reached the proposed levels of integration.

Current developments:

Lofty Goals and Hard Security Realities: Prospects for Closer Maghrebi Integration / IHS Global Insight, January 24, 2013

This IHS Global Insight analysis examines the state of play of the AMU one year after the events that swept the region in 2011 and suggests that shared security concerns could succeed as  the main driver for  progress. However, after a first period of enthusiasm, the stagnating socio-economic situation and persisting political sensitive issues, especially between Algeria and Morocco, leave the prospects for a revival of the dormant Arab Maghreb Union uncertain.

Hope for Reviving the Arab Maghreb Union / Abdelkader Abderrahmane. ISS Addis Ababa, 8 February 2012

The article argues that “a strong Union would have a great impact on the economy of the region but also on Africa as a whole” and that it would further be, “a bridge between Africa and the European Union (EU).”

Algeria/Morocco: Distrust Stifles Maghreb Trade / Oxford Analytica, August 5, 2013.

This article explains the tense relationship between Morocco and Algeria which is one of the main complications of further Maghreb integration.

The Arab Spring Revives Maghreb Integration / Lahcen Achy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 6, 2012.

This op-ed discusses the economic cost of the lack of substantial integration and the potential benefits of a fully integrated AMU for the Maghreb and surrounding countries, as well as for the EU. It also mentions some requirements for achieving further integration.

Challenges and prospects:

Les difficultés de l’intégration économique régionale des pays maghrébins / Daniel Labaronne, in: Mondes en développement. 6 September 2013. Vol. n° 163, n° 3, pp. 99113.

This article offers in-depth analysis of the economic and political weak impact of regional integration in the Maghreb over the last 20 years. It looks at the prospects for the future and concludes that the EU’s strategy towards the region, even in its revamped post-Arab Spring version, remains ambiguous.

Potentiel de commerce dans l’espace maghréb / Albert Millogo et Nassim Oulmane, in: Mondes en développement, Vol. n°158, n° 2, pp. 115126, 8 July 2012

This study estimates that trade in the Maghreb remains well below its potential level and suggests measures to boost inter-regional trade.

Maghreb: Security Threats Fail to Induce Cooperation / Oxford Analytica, May 10, 2013.

A security vacuum in the wake of the Arab Spring caused an increase in cross-boarder crime and terrorism in the Maghreb, adding to the need for increased security cooperation. However, the complex  transitional processes taking place in the countries most affected by the uprisings currently complicate further integration.

Arab Maghreb Union / Camille Sari, April 30, 2012.

An interview with Camille Sari, author of “Algérie et Maroc: Convergences quelles Economique?”, analysing past and current obstacles as well as the prospects for further consolidation of the AMU.

Tipping the Balance Towards Intra-Maghreb Unity in Light of the Arab Spring / Yahia H. Zoubir, in: The International Spectator 47, no. 3 (November 2012). p. 83–99.

In this article, the author likens the reasons that inspired the establishment of the AMU between the countries of the Maghreb in the 1980s, with those inspiring current calls for reviving the AMU and promoting regional integration.

EU and Maghreb Regional Integration:

European Commission
Supporting Closer Cooperation and Regional Integration in the Maghreb: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. JOIN(2012) 36 Final” (European Commission, December 17, 2012).

This joint European Commission and European External Action Service communication emphasises that both the EU and Maghreb countries stand to gain from increased Maghreb integration, and outlines how the EU, “drawing on its own extensive experience of integration and given its interest in the region as a neighbour and key partner for the five countries concerned”, can help support the process.

On 16 July 2013, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Füle met Secretary General of the AMU (Arab Maghreb Union) Habib Ben Yahia in Brussels. According to this press release, they spoke about strengthening cooperation in the Mediterranean and the security situation in the Sahel close to the Maghreb. At the end of his meeting with Ben Yahia, Füle spoke of the EU’s determination “to establish a more regular dialogue between the Maghreb and the European Union, using modalities that will have to be defined jointly”. He said that he looked forward to “continuing this process of finding practical actions to advance the integration in the region and the cooperation between the EU and Arab Maghreb Union”.

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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