The GCC countries are likely to remain neutral without supporting a side against another, even though they diplomatically support Morocco’s stance with regard to Western Sahara.
On August 24, Algeria announced that it had severed ties with Morocco, accusing it of “hostile actions”. While the neighboring countries had maintained a decades-long dispute over Western Sahara, tensions between Algeria and Morocco had appeared to escalate over the past several months.
In December 2020, the Trump administration recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara region. The move occurred during an already elevated period of strain between Rabat and the Algeria-backed “Polisario Front” in Western Sahara. While Washington’s recognition came as a reward for Morocco’s participation in the Israel normalization agreement, this is likely to have exacerbated regional tensions, since Algeria has likely viewed both moves as threats to its national interests.
In July, Morocco’s ambassador to the United Nations escalated tensions by saying that “the valiant Kabyle people deserve, more than any other, to fully enjoy their right to self-determination.” Kabylia is home to a significant segment of Algeria’s Berber population, some of whom have advocated for autonomy from Algiers. Morocco has supported this movement, in part as a response to Algeria’s support of the Polisario Front, and it has remained a source of tensions between the two countries. The region had witnessed deadly wildfires, and the Algerian government accused Morocco of being behind the fires; following the Moroccan UN ambassador’s comments, Algiers recalled its ambassador to Morocco for “consultations.”
Moreover, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid conducted a visit to Morocco on August 12 that added to the tensions. During a press conference, Lapid said that he told his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, that he had “some concern about the role of the Algerian state”; in Lapid’s words, it had “drawn closer to Iran and is currently campaigning against Israel’s admission to the African Union as an observer.” These remarks played a part in Algeria’s decision to cut its relations with Morocco. Algeria’s Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, suggested as much in remarks issued on August 24: “Morocco has turned its territory into a platform allowing foreign powers to speak with hostility about Algeria… Since 1948, no Israeli official [has] made a hostile declaration to an Arab country from another Arab country.”
It is not difficult to discern that these factors played a role in pushing Algeria to sever its ties with Morocco. Rabat, in turn, seemed unsurprised by the Algerian government’s decision. In a statement, Morocco’s foreign ministry said the move was “expected … in view of the logic of escalation observed in recent weeks,” adding that “Morocco categorically rejects the fallacious, even absurd, pretexts underlying it.”
The GCC Weighs In
Historically, Morocco has enjoyed solid relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its member states. Those ties were strengthened following the Arab Spring. Rabat has benefited both politically and economically from its relationship with the Gulf countries. In 2011, the six GCC states even invited Morocco, along with Jordan, to join the bloc. Yet that eventually did not happen.
Between 2017 and 2020, however, Morocco’s ties with both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have experienced volatility due to differences of views on various issues, including the Gulf Crisis and war in Yemen. In spite of Morocco’s strong ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it declined to join the 2017-2021 blockade on Qatar, surprising many observers. To add insult to injury, Rabat decided in 2019 to withdraw from its participation in the Saudi-led coalition engaged in the war in Yemen.
Since last year, there have been indications of improved ties between Morocco and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This suggests that the relationship between Rabat and both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are strengthening once more, with potential benefits for both sides.
Conversely, Algeria has found itself disagreeing with the GCC states more often than Morocco in recent years. These disagreements include differing views on OPEC, in which Algeria is a member but Morocco is not. During the reign of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria declined the idea of intervening in Arab countries. This was evident amid the Arab Spring, when Algiers did not support some GCC states’ approaches. For example, Algiers publicly disagreed with some GCC countries’ positions on issues, such as Syria and Libya.
Yet it is fair to say that ties between Algeria and the GCC had been improving over the past several years. During the Gulf diplomatic crisis, Algiers adopted a neutral approach. By doing so, it seems that it aimed to preserve its ties with all sides. In December 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Algeria as part of a foreign tour. The visit, which came only a few months before Bouteflika resigned in the face of mass protests, and was aimed at enhancing cooperation between the two countries.
Despite this rapprochement, Algiers is still not dependent on the GCC states like other regional countries. Yuree Noh, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rhode Island College, says, “The Algeria-GCC ties have long remained limited. Unlike the GCC’s strong presence in many other Arab nations, the Gulf countries have wielded little control over Algeria, thanks to its oil reserves and financial independence.”
For Algiers, this has remained the case, even after the resignation of Bouteflika. The emergence of a new leadership appears to have changed nothing – until now – regarding the nature of Algiers’ relationship with the Gulf countries. “The Algeria-GCC relations have not been significantly altered as a result of the resignation of Bouteflika per se. Rather, they may have been affected by a few recent events and disagreements,” Noh describes. “Most notably, Algeria’s staunch pro-Palestinian stance stands against the recent Arab-Israeli rapprochement, such as the signing of the Abraham Accords between the U.S., UAE, and Israel. Backed by the fierce pro-Palestinian Algerian public, the Algerian leadership is unlikely to change its position anytime soon.”
This could explain why Morocco enjoys the support of GCC states over the Western Sahara issue. In November 2020, the UAE opened a consulate in Laayoune, the largest city within the territory and a hub of Morocco’s administration there. Unsurprisingly, the Moroccan monarch, King Mohammed VI, hailed the move. Abu Dhabi’s step, which came a month before Morocco’s normalization deal with Israel, is likely to strengthen Morocco’s stance on the Western Sahara issue. Indeed, the GCC states’ support for Morocco regarding the Sahara is not a new approach by the bloc.
For the Gulf countries, there is more than one driving factor pushing them to support Rabat over this matter. “The GCC states – Saudi Arabia in particular – back Morocco in the Western Sahara issue for a number of reasons. First, the GCC-Morocco bond has always remained strong, solidified by their mutual need to protect the institution of monarchy. Second, countries like Saudi Arabia have remained wary of Polisario, which has received support from the enemies of the Kingdom such as Gaddafi’s Libya,” explains Noh. “This also complements the fact that Morocco has aligned itself with western nations and other friends of the KSA. Third, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also seek to protect their investments in the Western Sahara territory by strengthening Morocco’s position in the territory. All the reasons make it attractive for Morocco to back the Abraham Accords, not to mention how it secured its own interest in the US recognizing its sovereignty over the Western Sahara.”
She continues, “Algeria is naturally at odds with the GCC on many of these points. It is not a monarchy, and it is not financially dependent on the GCC. It remains hostile to Morocco and has long backed the Polisario Front. Add to that its pro-Palestinian stance… (Not just the Algerian leadership — even for the Algerian public, the GCC stands against the ideas of Hirak and its revolutionary ideals.) All these issues place Algeria at odds with GCC interests.” Noh concludes, “Algeria views GCC support for Morocco as at odds with its own interests and stability, due to all the aforementioned issues. That said, this is nothing new. Algeria is unlikely to become overtly hostile to the GCC, but at the same time, there are too many conflicting interests for it to foster closer relations with the Gulf countries anytime soon.”
The View from the Gulf
On August 27, the GCC’s Secretary-General, Nayef al-Hajraf, expressed his regret at the deterioration of ties between Rabat and Algiers. He called on both countries to hold a dialogue to overcome their disputes.
While the Maghreb region is experiencing increased tensions, particularly following the recent political crisis in Tunisia, the GCC is aware that such tensions are not in its best interests. International Crisis Group North Africa Project Director Riccardo Fabiani described the situation: “The recent spat between Rabat and Algiers is a source of embarrassment for the GCC, as many of these countries have good relations with both sides.” Fabiani further explains that, “The invitation to hold dialogue and solve their issues is an indication of where the GCC stands: the [GCC states] are reluctant to take sides and don’t see any advantage or benefit in doing so. Instead, they prefer to calm tensions and to facilitate dialogue between them. This is a disagreement between Morocco and Algeria and there is no pressure from either of them on the GCC to choose between Rabat and Algiers.”
For this reason, the GCC countries are likely to remain neutral without supporting a side against another, even though they diplomatically support Morocco’s stance with regard to Western Sahara. The GCC states’ better relationship with Rabat is unlikely to push them to take a hard stance against Algiers. Since Algeria is one of the few states in the Arab world that maintains a relatively cordial relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the GCC states are unlikely to take positions hostile to Algeria, which could push it closer to Tehran politically. Instead, they are more likely to try maintaining a good relationship with both nations.
Furthermore, as the region is witnessing an increase in instability following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the GCC states may have other priorities on their agenda; none have great enthusiasm for becoming involved in the unending rift between Morocco and Algeria. Instead, the Gulf countries’ focus appears to be on the regional developments in the Middle East. Certainly, other events in the region, such as the situation in Afghanistan and the ongoing diplomacy in Baghdad between Riyadh and Tehran, and other countries in the region, are far more likely to impact the Gulf than Morocco and Algeria’s serious but relatively localized dispute.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.