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The Arab Maghreb Union that never was

February 28, 2019 at 8:33 am

February 17 this year marks 30 years since the Arab Maghreb Union, better known by its French acronym UMA, was founded as an economic and political union bringing together the five North African countries.

The agreement establishing the UMA was singed in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh on 17 February 1989 by Chadli Bendjedid of Algeria, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya of Mauritania, King Hassan II of Morocco and Zine- El-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Thirty years on and the project has failed. If you ask any ordinary Moroccan or Libyan about the UMA is they probably know nothing about it.

Muammar Gaddafi [File photo]

It was another stillborn big Arab dream!

The idea of unifying the five North African countries goes back to 1958 when three political parties from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia met in Tangier, north Morocco, and decided to launch a project to bring together the five countries which represent one third of the Arab population. Newly independent, each country was then overwhelmed with rebuilding their own states and the project was shelved for decades. The ambitions stayed alive and the dream saw the light of day in 1989.

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The last summit that brought together the leaders of member states was held in Tunis, Tunisiam in 1994 and saw Libya take over the rotating presidency of the UMA. Since then political differences, territorial disputes and recent political upheaval have made it impossible to hold ministerial meetings, let alone a summit.

The UMA is now dead but no one mourning it. The politics that brought it about is confined to history books and the political orders in North Africa have gone through tremendous changes.

The first five years that followed its establishment UMA Day was celebrated in all five countries and almost every couple of months there were some UMA ministerial meetings or experts’ gatherings focusing on further integrating every aspect of life between its member nations. In major airports of  member states, a separate queue was assigned to UMA citizens. The countries were complementing each other rather than competing with one another.

The UMA came to an end because of a number of two issues: failure to separate the body’s economic policy from territorial disputes between member states and the dispute over the Western Sahara region.

Economically, the UMA includes nearly 100 million people with a total area of over six million square kilometres extending from Libya to Mauritania. Yet the bilateral trade between its members is less than 15 per cent of the potential total. The remaining trade occurs between member states and foreign parties including European countries. A recent IMF report revealed that , if implemented, economic integration among the countries of the Maghreb region would make it possible to achieve a huge economic output that would bring benefits to these countries.

Libyans hold a big flag of Libya during a demonstration held in the Martyrs' Square where thousands of people gathered to protest the House of Representatives founded in Tobruk, a city on Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast, in Tripoli, capital city of Libya, on September 19, 2014. [Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency]

Libyans hold a big flag of Libya during a demonstration where thousands of people gathered to protest the House of Representatives founded in Tobruk, a city on Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast, in Tripoli, capital city of Libya, on September 19, 2014. [Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency]

UMA countries are rich in oil, agricultural products, phosphate and other minerals including gold. They have the potential to become economic power houses capable of competing with their northern neighbour; the European Union (EU).

The body has the potential to create the largest single market on the southern Mediterranean shores once the economies of its countries are fully integrated and inter-trade is facilitated. It also has the highest number of well-educated young people in the Arab world, particularly in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.

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The disputed Western Sahara region is rich in phosphates and as a fishing ground. Algeria supports the Polisario Front’s claim of independence in the region while Morocco claims sovereignty over the former Spanish colony. After Spain left in the earlier 1970s the dispute poisoned relations between the neighbouring countries, halting every positive initiative.

Claiming it had rid the area of Spain, the Polisario declared independence creating the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent country despite Moroccan rejections. Today, though SADR enjoys membership of some regional organisations like the African Union (AU), it remains unrecognised by the UN.

Whatever the outcome of this long running dispute, it is time to leave it aside and allow Algeria and Morocco to develop their relations, bring the UMA back to life and benefit the millions of people living in North Africa.

The UMA’s current Secretary-General Taib Baccouch, a former Tunisian minister, still hopes to have some kind of meeting at the presidential level. So far he has failed to convince Morocco to accept the idea, while his recent visit to Libya produced little. Given its own multitude of problems Libya can hardly commit to much.

The UMA headquarters in Rabat, Morocco, are all but deserted. Today only a handful of staff join the secretary-general on site. These ruins stand witness to the ill-conceived ambitious plans for unity which were never fully realised, this at a time when millions eagerly await the day when they can travel into neighbouring states without bureaucratic checks.

Even the so called “Arab Spring” — hailed as the dawn of freedom and development — has so far failed to bring about the wise- forward- looking leadership in the North African countries that could inject life in to the UMA again.

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