June 29, 2022
Algeria has been isolated for years. Now it’s making a shaky return to the world stage.
Long viewed as North Africa’s most isolated and inscrutable country, Algeria is suddenly the belle of the ball. This year, Algeria has hosted official visits from Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and the foreign ministers of France, Italy, Portugal, Russia, and the United States (the first visit by a US secretary of state since 2014). Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman will travel to Algiers next month. Meanwhile, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has visited Egypt, Italy, Kuwait, Qatar, and Turkey and is expected in Moscow later this year.
By Algeria’s recent standards, such exchanges constitute a torrent of diplomacy. A mid-century champion of anti-colonial struggles and pillar of the Non-Aligned Movement, Algeria turned sharply inward in the 1990s amid a bloody civil war. Afterward, it never fully reemerged onto the world stage before Tebboune’s predecessor, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, fell ill in 2013 and largely disappeared from public view. Elected in December 2019 amid a historic protest movement—followed closely by the COVID-19 pandemic—Tebboune spent much of his first years in office focused on domestic concerns.
But, today, amid a scramble for alternative energy sources in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Algeria’s status as an underdeveloped oil and gas producer right on Europe’s doorstep has triggered a flood of international interest. The country’s leaders, of course, would ascribe this newfound popularity not to circumstance, but savvy strategic positioning. Besides its vast size and prominent location at the center of North Africa, Algeria has long cultivated diverse relations with the West, Russia, China, and other middle-income and developing nations—all while assiduously avoiding falling fully into any single orbit (this balancing act drove Algerian diplomats’ refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion at the United Nations on March 2, despite Algeria’s historical commitment to state sovereignty).
Amid Europe’s current energy crunch, Algerian state producer Sonatrach has rushed to expand production, renegotiate prices, and sign new export deals, resulting in record production levels and a major financial windfall. Leaders have subsequently bolstered social insurance programs and subsidies on staple goods, canceled planned tax increases and subsidy cuts, and begun refilling Algeria’s dwindling reserve funds.
After many months of dire macroeconomic forecasts and hardship for the country’s poor, who struggled to afford basic staple goods, this reversal of fortune is striking. So, too, is the country’s renewed visibility on the world stage.
Alongside the flurry of diplomatic exchanges, Algeria is currently hosting the Mediterranean Games. In July, it will mark the sixtieth anniversary of its hard-fought independence and, in November, it will host the next Arab League summit. Authorities have earmarked a $40 million budget for the independence celebrations, where they hope to consecrate the “new Algeria” the Tebboune proclaimed upon his election over two years ago.
But Tebboune’s administration has lacked legitimacy from the start, and has hardly risen to the occasion as Algeria has gained attention of late. Instead, in seeking to stride confidently onto the world stage, Tebboune’s administration looks to be stumbling.
More than three thousand athletes from two dozen countries are competing in the Mediterranean Games that opened on June 25 in Oran, western Algeria. Participants from nearby Morocco and Spain arrived in Oran to warm welcomes, even though the two countries have recently witnessed a precipitous decline in their diplomatic relations with Algeria.
Amid a host of domestic crises last summer, including severe wildfires that killed dozens, Algeria lashed out at its neighbor Morocco, accusing it of colluding with Israel to undermine Algeria’s security. Algeria cut diplomatic ties and closed its airspace to Moroccan flights. Tensions have only grown since, with the two neighbors inching closer to armed conflict over violence in the disputed territory of Western Sahara (Morocco claims the territory as its own, while Algeria has long hosted Sahrawi refugees and supported their liberation movement).
Spain, which controlled Western Sahara until 1975, had maintained a neutral stance on those claims until March, when Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez unexpectedly endorsed the Moroccan perspective, shocking and infuriating Algiers. Even deporting a pair of high-profile Algerian dissidents from Spain failed to calm Algerian leaders’ ire and, after weeks of fruitless negotiations, on June 8, Algeria suspended its two-decade-old primary cooperation treaty with Spain.
That escalation might have succeeded in forcing concessions from Spain—which imported over 40 percent of its gas needs from Algeria last year—were it not for a subsequent misstep from Algiers. Later the same day, Algeria’s banks received official instructions to freeze trade payments with Spain, effectively imposing a trade embargo—though Algerian officials clarified that gas flows would be unaffected. Spain promptly appealed to European Union (EU) authorities, who decried the move and vowed to defend any EU member threatened by unfair trade practices or trade pact violations.
Days later, Algeria’s Finance Minister, Abderrahmane Raouya, emerged from a meeting at the EU delegation in Algiers to learn that he had been fired from his post, presumably for presiding over the overreach that had escalated the diplomatic standoff with Spain into a full-blown trade crisis.
Although the current cabinet has only been in place since February, Raouya was already the second member dismissed. The first, Transport Minister Aissa Bekkai, was sacked in March after that sector’s dysfunction sparked irate mobs outside Air Algérie and Algérie Ferries agencies abroad. Senior transport officials, including the heads of Algérie Ferries and the Algiers airport, have since been fired.
President Tebboune has long sought to build public trust by appearing tough on his own staff. As if to tell Algerians “I’m just as fed up as you are” with the country’s shoddy public services, he has publicly berated his ministers, sacked officials to serve as examples to others, and launched a new public-sector investigations unit.
While greater public accountability would be welcome news in Algeria, many Algerians see through the act and Tebboune’s measures have, instead, exacerbated a climate of fear within the public sector. While deepening the broader tension that many Algerians say grips the country today, that situation may also further erode the quality of public service. Many bureaucrats are now paralyzed, afraid to sign off on decisions, while others overcompensate, driven by increasing desperation to please Tebboune. For example, in the latest diplomatic row with Spain, a communiqué from Algerian diplomats in Brussels sowed confusion as to whether Algeria had really suspended the friendship treaty after all. Days later, Algerian tourism officials aggravated tensions by mistakenly implying that Algeria had decided to bar tourism with Spain.
Tebboune, meanwhile, is hardly immune to episodes of overzealous bumbling. While touring a trade fair in Algiers this month, he asked a Lockheed Martin representative if the company could provide Algeria with fire-fighting planes “right away.” Online, Algerians criticized his desperation while also lamenting its implications: nearly a year after devastating wildfires ravaged the country, Algeria’s leaders still hadn’t procured adequate equipment to prevent a recurrence. Last year, planes rented from a Spanish firm helped quell the fires. Amid the current tensions with Spain, that option now looks to be off the table. Algeria has rented a Russian plane and placed orders to buy more.
Ready for primetime?
Halfway through his five-year mandate, Tebboune can point to some recent successes, including new oil and gas agreements and discoveries, a major phosphate mining deal with China, and renewed plans for a Trans-Sahara Gas Pipeline, among others.
But Algeria’s energy industry, the backbone of the country’s economy, is straining to expand output after years of underinvestment. Investing in fixes will help down the road but do little today for most Algerians, who number forty-five million and struggle with shortages of staple foods, substantial price inflation, water cuts, and other day-to-day worries. Driven by desperation, Algerians continue to flee illegally to Europe in great numbers, and the tranches of society willing to risk the dangerous boat crossings are widening.
Algeria’s partners abroad have their own concerns about the state’s competence. They looked on, bemused, when Algeria blocked internet access again this year to prevent cheating on high school exams, and with far more consternation as human rights abuses have worsened and increasingly ensnared dual nationals.
Algeria’s years of hiding in plain sight are over. But, as it has assumed new prominence in world affairs, it has struggled to engage effectively and shape events according to its vision, even when its energy wealth affords it substantial leverage. Its failure to prevent Spain’s reversal—or that of several other European nations who followed suit this spring—on the Western Sahara question is but one example. And officials’ poor message discipline and overzealous stumbles sometimes leave outsiders confused as to what Algeria’s policies and objectives really are, even on cherished issues. On both the substance and presentation of its foreign relations, if it is to seize this moment, Algeria has much catching up to do.
Andrew G. Farrand is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. He is the author of The Algerian Dream: Youth and the Quest for Dignity.
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