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Why did Spain offer to mediate between Algeria and Morocco?

November 24, 2021 at 1:31 pm

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares Bueno gestures as he speaks next to his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi (unseen) during a joint press conference in Islamabad on 10 September 2021. [FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images]

Normally, you do not hesitate to help your neighbours to defuse tension so that it does not affect you. However, if you were the direct or indirect cause of such tension, would you really want to do that? In relation to the tension between Algeria and Morocco can Spain be an honest mediator? We must also ask if Algeria will accept, in principle, any mediation in its dispute with Morocco, or if it has set a condition for having a specific mediator.

The language of Algerian officials leaves no doubt that they reject the idea of mediation completely, but this may be diplomatic sleight of hand to cover the preference for one mediator over another. They blocked Arab and Gulf efforts to contain the crisis, and paid no attention to Mauretania’s efforts in this respect.

So who is the preferred mediator? Could it be Spain? The matter is getting more complicated with each passing day, giving the number of rejections of suggestions to reach out to Algeria’s neighbours. Climbing onto a high horse is relatively easy; getting down is harder.

READ: Spain will address Morocco-Algeria crisis at Mediterranean summit

Although Spain showed initial indifference to developments taking place across the Mediterranean, they have now revealed their wish to bring the parties closer at the weekend during a regional meeting in Barcelona. What made the Spanish knock on a door that they know only too well would need a miracle to open? Was it good intentions?

Spain and Mauritania may have offered to mediate between Algeria and Morocco, but their regional calculations are very different. While it is possible to explain official statements and suggestions from Nouakchott regarding the wish to ease the tension between Algiers and Rabat — the Mauritanians are keen not to pay the price for any additional escalation due to well-known geographical and demographic factors — it is difficult to find a convincing justification for similar declarations by Madrid.

Questions remain about what prompted Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares to tell Diario de Sevilla two weeks ago, for example, that Morocco and Algeria are “essential partner countries for Spain and the European Union” and that it was building a relationship with them in the Mediterranean. He then said, in a somewhat celebratory tone, as if he were announcing an extraordinary event, that Barcelona will be hosting the Union of the Mediterranean meeting, where they will discuss these issues.

On the surface, this reflects Madrid’s concern about the critical position of Moroccan-Algerian relations over the past several months, and Spain’s fear of bearing even some of the consequences of any further escalation in the coming days. How logical and plausible is this argument, though? Isn’t it in Spain’s interest for the hostility and estrangement between the two Maghreb neighbours to continue? If Algiers and Rabat resolve their differences, what will Spain gain? Wouldn’t it be the loser if the two main powers in North Africa come together?

Logic assumes that the main motive behind official Spanish statements is the desire to re-position Madrid in the region, and take hold of the reins and the lead in the region, even if this means giving the impression that Spain is the little regional policeman. Mediation needs more than press releases to succeed; it requires serious efforts and actions away from the limelight. For this reason, it seems that Spain’s keenness to release official statements reflects, to a large extent, a kind of indirect protest by Madrid over its exclusion from being the mediator between Algeria and Morocco due to the lack of enthusiasm of both for Spain to play such a role.

READ: Morocco used gas pipeline as a bargaining chip in Western Sahara issue

The Spanish foreign minister returned from Algeria in September with a promise that gas would continue to be supplied to Spain, without anyone knowing how this might be done, or if Madrid had considered how this would have an impact on its relationship with Rabat. At the time, the Algerians said words to the effect that Spain has nothing to do with its differences with Morocco, and that Algeria’s decision to close the gas pipeline to Spain after passing through Morocco will not affect the Spanish. Furthermore, even if Rabat agreed to talks with Algeria, it wouldn’t be very enthusiastic about having the Spanish mediating.

Does this mean that we won’t see a historic handshake at the weekend between the Moroccan and Algerian foreign ministers in Barcelona? If it does take place, it is not certain that it would be a result of Spanish mediation rather than anyone else’s efforts.

However, the mere indication of a slight thaw between the two neighbours may be regarded in Spain as a victory for Iberian diplomacy. This has suffered setbacks in the Maghreb, of that there is no doubt. Spain has lost its influence and diplomatic weight, not least due to allowing the leader of the Polisario Front into the country for medical treatment. Meanwhile, a recurring nightmare for Madrid is how Morocco and Algeria will deal with Spain in the future if they manage to resume normal relations. This haunts the Spanish more than their concerns that the current tension will continue indefinitely.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 23 November 2021

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