Algeria’s Changing Status: A Complicated State for Gulf Influence


Eights years ago, the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa, bringing chaos and forced regime change to several Arab states. Ironically having avoided much of the chaos that destabilized its neighbors, over the last several weeks Algerian protestors have ousted long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.  In a short time, pressure from the street blocked the President from pursuing a new term, thusly forcing him to resign. Consequently, the supposed vacuum left by Bouteflika’s departure may open the door for a role to be played by the Arab Gulf states, that in 2011 became major players following the ousters of strongmen in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in addition to involvement in Syria and Yemen armed conflicts. Eight years later, however, the case of Algeria and the Gulf’s management of the post-Bouteflika era will likely prove more difficult, with the strength of the Algerian military limiting the emergence of a vacuum in the nation’s political sphere.

Bouteflika and the Gulf Region:

Among Algerians, Bouteflika is widely remembered for having introduced the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, which officially put an end to the civil war that had taken the lives of nearly 200,000 Algerians. The war began in 1992 when the Algerian military seized power from the Islamist parties that had won the country’s elections. At the time the move was supported by most of the Arab world, including some Gulf states. Bouteflika’s ascension to power in 1999 witnessed the concurrent retreat of the Algerian army from politics. The once-powerful Algerian military remained in the political wilderness until roughly seven years, when Bouteflika suffered a stroke that left him with difficulties in mobility and speech. Following the President’s medical problems, it became a widely held assumption that Bouteflika’s new incapacities had necessitated that Army generals return to lead Algeria’s policy and decision-making apparatuses.

Nonetheless, through Bouteflika’s rise to power in 1999 until his resignation in 2019, Algeria’s relations with the Gulf states have arguably remained limited due to clear foreign policy differences from the Gulf states’ national interests.  Given these differences, it is difficult to describe bilateral Algerian-Gulf relations in the same vein as the economic and political alliances that govern the Gulf’s strategic connections with other North African nations such as Egypt, Sudan, and Morocco. For instance, Algeria resisted the Saudi and Qatari led efforts to end Syria’s membership in the Arab League, and Algiers never severed diplomatic relations with Damascus is now pushing to resume Syria’s membership in the organization. Additionally, Algiers came out strongly against the Saudi-led Arab Coalition intervention in the Yemen war, rejecting the need for a military intervention to resolve the crisis.[1] [2] [3] [4]

While differences between Algeria and the Gulf as a bloc have always been stark, the Gulf’s perception that Algeria was not actively pursuing a rival agenda prevented these divergences from escalating to outright confrontation.  Under Bouteflika, Algerian foreign policy has mainly been typified by the rejection of intervention into any Arab state. In 2011, this policy contradicted the strategies of some Gulf States that were actively focused on garnering influence among Arab Spring-affected states. Even amidst the Gulf region’s most severe diplomatic crises, Algeria has pursued an impartial foreign policy, maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar despite the trio’s history of rivalry. Even amidst the unprecedented severity of the Gulf crisis, Algeria has only called for the dispute to be resolved through dialogue.[5] This approach’s emergence goes back as far as the 1980’s when Algeria attempted to mediate between Baghdad and Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. The effort ultimately led to the death of Algerian Foreign Minister Mohammed Seddik Benyahia whose plane was shot down over Turkish-Iraqi borders in May 1982.[6]

Due to Algeria’s 1.3 million bpd oil production capacity and membership within the Gulf-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), economic necessity has prevented differences in foreign policy from hindering coordination among these nations in the energy sector.  Algeria too is among the top five producers and exporters of LNG (In 2016 Algeria exported 2.0 Tcf of natural gas, nearly 4.5% of the total global LNG export) making the nation a natural liaison of Qatar.[7] More than any others, these particular factors could play a major role in international strategies meant to ensure stability in Algeria, mainly spearheaded by Europe, a major importer of Algerian oil and LNG. Compounding the importance of a stable Algeria has been the ongoing drop in oil exports from Venezuela and Iran due to the respective power-outages sanctions and that are threatening global oil supplies. Additionally, Arab Gulf states will likely see ensuring the stability of Algeria’s oil and LNG exports as a national interest, especially given the interruption of oil exports that occurred following the disintegration of Libya. While recognizing Algeria’s importance, it is hard to speculate how the Arab Gulf may have any effective influence over the future of Algeria, as the region has very few political or economic cards in play.

Algeria’s Post-Bouteflika and the Gulf States:

Since the commencement of protests in Algiers, widespread awareness that the President’s health problems had long empowered Algerian generals to carry out Presidential duties tempered fears of a vacuum’s emergence if and when Bouteflika was removed. This overlapping period between the rule of Bouteflika and the de facto rule of Algeria’s military class makes it a possibility that Algeria’s foreign policy will stay on course as opposed to witnessing a radical departure. This outcome will probably be viewed as bearable, but not ideal for some Gulf states. Should this course play out, it will probably spare Algeria from becoming a site for Gulf states to challenge one another’s influence by proxy as has occurred for Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and Iran in Syria.

The situation in Algeria may be a more difficult scenario for the Gulf states than any other state previously influenced by Arab Spring instability. In the case of Algeria, the army for decades has dominated decisions related to geopolitics and alliances. Also, for decades, Algerian Generals have refrained from crafting any alliance with the U.S. evocative of its neighbors (Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia) which have reliably flouted themselves as U.S allies. The difference could be accounted for by Algeria’s bitter historic experiences with French colonization and western hegemony. Each of these factors has pushed the Algerian army to mainly rely on Russia and its weaponry, which comprises the vast majority of Algeria’s arsenal. Consequent to these factors, Washington and its allies in the GCC retain very low influence over the Algerian military. It is expected that the Algerian army will further distance itself from the U.S. and look toward its ally Moscow which Algeria views as a more trustworthy actor in the Middle East. This relationship was evidenced by the March 19 visit and meeting by the Algerian Foreign Minister to Moscow with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov who expressed concerns at attempts to destabilize Algeria.[8] Despite their differences over Syria, Libya and the war in Yemen, the Russian position is expected to be supported by the UAE and Saudi Arabia as both countries have supported military governments in the Arab-African nations of Sudan, Egypt and General Haftar in Libya. This policy usually frames the two Gulf states as backers of anti-revolutionary forces.

Overall, the Algerian case could be much more immune from sliding into chaos than other Arab countries like Libya and Syria. After all, the nation is still healing from a decade long civil war, plus its size and energy wealth would probably push international and regional powers to stabilize the country. However, this stabilization would not be synonymous with acquiescence to the protestors’ demands, meaning any influence over Algeria would not necessarily mean a diminishment in public resentment. For the Gulf region, the limited influence expected for the Arab Gulf states over the ongoing events is a consequence of its historically limited relations with Algeria, and the Russian and European sway over the conditions and sustainability of Africa’s largest nations.

 

References:

[1] “Algeria Follows With “Very Great Concern” Latest Developments in Yemen”. All Africa. March 26, 2015

[2] “الجامعة العربية تعلق عضوية سوريا وتدعو الجيش السوري لوقف القتل”. Reuters. November 12, 2011

[3] Dr. Ali Bakeer & Giorgio Cafiero “Bashar al-Assad and the Greater Arab World”. February 8, 2019

[4] Kamal Alam “Bashir in Damascus: The Arab League’s message to Assad – welcome back”. Middle East Eye. December 18, 2018

[5] “Egypt’s Stakes in Qatar’s Predicament”. Lakshmi Priya. Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses.

[6] “Saddam ‘assassinated Algerian minister’”. Gulf News. September 17, 2018

[7] https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=DZA

[8] Mariana Belenkaya “Russia expects to maintain footprint in Algeria despite unrest”. Al-Monitor. March 22, 2019


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