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The Maghreb and the Gulf controversy

June 21, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui (C), Algerian Minister for Maghreb and Africa Affairs Abdel Kadir Mesahil (L) in Tunis, on 19 February, 2017 [Amine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency]

Developments in the Gulf have cast a shadow over the political landscape in the entire Arab world. As is the case with all significant political events, positions and judgments have differed according to loyalties and calculations. While Al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt has naturally sided with the Saudi Arabia-UAE alliance, as has the government of the Comoros Islands, the positions of most North African states have been a source of disappointment for Saudi-Emirati diplomacy.

One exception is Libya, given the absence of an actual state there. The Saudi-UAE alliance has praised the position taken by Khalifa Haftar’s militias in support of the moves against Qatar. This position can easily be explained by these militias’ complete subservience to the UAE, which provides them with political and military backing while manipulating them to sabotage the Libyan political scene and ruin any prospects of a national reconciliation initiative.


Mauritania has also sided with the Saudis and Emiratis, a position that was predictable given the marginal status of the ruling regime and its desire to provide a service to the Gulf countries from which it receives political and financial support. This fact notwithstanding, the Mauritanian people have rejected the regime’s position.

Meanwhile, the positions of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco appear to be very similar, despite their very different political make-up. The statements made by their foreign ministries have adopted a position of “positive neutrality”, revealing the extent to which their decision-making is independent from events in the Gulf and their insistence on not getting drawn into the contest of alliances and political excesses that defy any rational justification.

Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs Khemaies Jhinaoui [File photo]

Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs Khemaies Jhinaoui [File photo]

Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui said that his country hopes to transcend differences in the Gulf and that the “brothers” there will reach a solution that satisfies all parties before adding, “We do not want any further divisions.” Although the UAE is trying to exert pressure in order to change the Tunisian position, Tunisia’s decision-makers have maintained their stance given the lack of any real justification for the blockade on Qatar, a political act that deserves no support or backing. In addition, the public mood in Tunisia is not favourable to Saudi Arabian and UAE official policies, viewing their positions on the siege on Gaza, as well as their hosting of former dictatorial regime figures, as shameful, in particular the granting of asylum to ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who is wanted by the Tunisian authorities for crimes that include murder and corruption. This means that any position taken by the coalition government, as well as the parties participating in it, will have consequences at the local level and will be decisive in any future elections.

The statement issued by the Algerian foreign ministry stressed the need to adhere to the principle of good neighbourliness and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and to respect their national sovereignty under all circumstances. It pointed out that “most states have called on the countries concerned to pursue dialogue as a means to resolve their differences, which can, naturally, affect relations between states.” This position is in line with Algeria’s general policy on conflicts within the Arab region; it has never taken sides, starting with its neutral position on the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s up until its current rejection of any international intervention in the Libyan crisis. It is widely known that Algeria refuses to get involved in political polemics among Arab countries based on its belief that it can play the role of mediator or at least maintain a balanced relationship with all parties.

The position that the Saudi-UAE alliance may not have expected is Rabat’s, given the close ties between the Gulf states and the Kingdom of Morocco, which has always been a strong supporter of Saudi positions, from the Second Gulf War through to its participation in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. The Moroccan position reflects a shrewd weighing up of interests. On the one hand, it refuses to join the campaign waged by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while at the same time it emphasises the solidity of the relationship with all brotherly countries. The Moroccan position is particular, as it does not wish to spoil its relations with the Gulf States. However, this did not prevent Rabat from announcing that it was maintaining its “positive neutrality”. It even dispatched food aid to Qatar in a symbolic gesture that reveals its scepticism regarding the alliance’s grounds for besieging and isolating the country.

Qatar has developed its relations with countries in the Maghreb a lot and enjoys broad popular sympathy given its policy of supporting the Palestinian resistance and maintaining a distance in its relations with other Arab countries. This is a far cry from the logic of hegemony and dependency that Saudi Arabia or the UAE seeks to impose in dealing with other states.

Read: Algerian MPs form Qatar solidarity committee

There is a big difference between disagreements resulting from divergences in political calculations on one hand, and calls to boycott and besiege an Arab state on the other, merely in order to fulfil a sick desire on the part of those who see themselves as guardians of the region and act as the exclusive agents of the US, enforcing its policies in the region. Politics remains a practice based on mutual interests while preserving one’s independence. Policies should not be imposed, especially if they are not based on national interest but merely reflect the personal ambitions of individuals, making their conduct more reminiscent of senseless childish squabbles.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.