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Mohammad Bin Salman in Algeria

December 4, 2018 at 2:33 am

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 23 October 2018 [Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images]

We do not need to be very smart to realise that the main reason behind the Saudi Crown Prince’s visits aboard, since the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, is to convince the Saudis, specifically members of the Al-Saud family, that he is still internationally accepted and therefore there is no need to find a replacement. This is after the significant political turbulence he caused on the Saudi, Gulf, and international level. Thus, the visits are to ensure the Saudi masses and officials that the Crown Prince has not become a pariah and can still be used internationally.

Bin Salman is expected to visit Algeria, as part of his Arab tour, for which he chose countries that he believed has relations with Saudi Arabia based on its “rice” as famously referred to by the Egyptian president. The Crown Prince chose Tunisia, Mauritania, and Egypt, along with his Gulf allies, such as the UAE and Bahrain. It is strange that this tour does not include Morocco, which has strong ties with Saudi Arabia. Does this mean that the Saudi-Moroccan relations have deteriorated to such an extent or does it mean that the visit is only delayed and could occur at any time and that the Moroccans are required to be more accepting and welcoming of MBS’s visit?

The fact that Algeria was added to the list of countries that MBS decided to visit in his first interaction with the outside world since the storm caused by the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi caught my attention. This is although he knows that Algeria’s kitchen is completely lacking rice! This requires us to address the Algerian-Saudi relations and its historical climaxes and deteriorations, as well as its concerns that are not always publically expressed and mostly remained in the folds of the diplomatic and secret communications between the two countries’ political leadership.

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The history of the Algerian-Saudi relations tells us that much friction has occurred between the two countries regarding some hot files. After Algeria rejected the idea of the Saudi leadership as a soft force that tried to impose itself after the collapse of the steadfastness and confrontation camp, it expressed the independence of its diplomacy before the beginning of the conflict with Iran in the early 1980s. Algeria maintained special  relations with Iran, and refused to join axes against it, whether regarding Lebanon and the Hezbollah issue, Yemen and the attacks on its innocent people, or even before all of this, during the war with Iraq, during which Algeria tried to act as a mediator between the two countries, until their foreign minister was killed by an Iraqi missile, as witnessed by the defence minister at the time, Khalid Nizar.

We can perhaps understand the Algerian political and diplomatic position towards Iran by referring back to the historical and religious background that underpins Algerian diplomacy. It relies on Algeria’s political reading of the change that occurred in Iran after the elimination of the Shah’s rule as a popular ascension, instead of dealing with it as a Shia doctrinal matter or a Persian ethnic matter that is hostile to its Arab surroundings. This allowed it to avoid being opposed to the Iranian experience, which it has and still sees as supportive of the Arab and third world positions when it comes to the international oil market or other Arab and international issues.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia (R) - Algeria - on December 2, 2018

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia (R) – Algeria – on December 2, 2018

This leads us to talk about the first file that the Saudi and Algerian sides experienced friction over, i.e. the issue of oil prices. In this regard, Algeria tried and succeeded to a certain extent in bringing closer the perspectives of the major producers on more than one occasion by playing the role of mediator between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries that Algeria has good relations with, such as Venezuela and Russia. It did so in defence of an oil market that serves the people’s interests rather than the interests of Western countries and companies. Algeria is afraid that Saudi Arabia will use the oil prices against it as a means to pressure it and exploit it with regards to other political files, especially Arab ones. This is what Saudi Arabia tried to do on more than occasion, with varying levels of success, due to Algeria’s fragility as a small producer entirely reliant on oil revenues to finance its development programmes that have hit many bumps.

The second issue strongly present between the two countries is the internal security issue in Algeria. After irrefutable evidence of Saudi Arabia tampering with the religious security affairs in the country for years by clearly supporting the violent Islamic groups at the beginning of the 1990’s crisis, when the Algerian youth “Umrah” convoys were transferred to the Afghan mountains, passing through the training centres in Pakistan, supervised by the Saudi intelligence agencies. By doing so, Saudi Arabia managed to impose a religious and political presence in Algeria by means of some religious forces and groups it funds in various manners and support with religious books and fatwas specifically issued by its official religious institutions through several mediators or “scholars” who did not hesitate to accuse a large part of the Algerian people of apostasy.

This included the army leadership, which they dubbed as disbelievers and “Frenchmen” who deserve to die during the civil war that took place in Algeria in the early 1990s. The curse of terrorism had to reach Saudi Arabia along with the consequences of the events in New York in 2011 in order for us to see a shift in the Saudi discourse which reflected an official, not “popular”, distancing from violent Islamic groups in Algeria without this meaning Saudi Arabia completely stopping its meddling in the Algerian religious arena.

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Only the horse changed, as instead of the violent Salafist and jihadi groups, Saudi Arabia rode a new horse represented by “Madkhalism” and other Salafist groups produced by the situation in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the 1990s and promoted later to the Arab world, and specifically the Arab Maghreb. These groups and trends are still present inside Algeria, within the popular circles as well as the religious university elites, distinguished by their loyalty to Saudi Arabia as a political system and popular way of life. We do not know exactly how they will be affected by the state of turbulence and crises experienced internally in Saudi Arabia after Mohammad Bin Salman was appointed as Crown Prince and the emergence of major cracks in the model promoted by Saudi Arabia historically as a soft force by using its blessed rice.

Therefore, we can say that MBS’s visit to Algeria, which is rejected by the masses and awkwardly timed officially, will mainly occur with the goal of Algeria sparing itself the wrath of the Saudi government, first and foremost. This is something the Algerian diplomacy has become accustomed to, as it has learned how to stop Saudi Arabia from playing the roles it started to play when it felt the Arab arena had been left wide open to it. This is as a result in the imbalance caused in the Arab balances of power.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 3 December 2018

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