The conflict in the Ukraine has become the latest crisis that has exposed Europe's dependency on Russian gas, which accounts for some 40 per cent of the EU's natural gas imports. These concerns have only been heightened following Moscow's demand that "unfriendly" countries must pay in rubles, in response to US and EU-imposed sanctions against Russia. A decree has been signed today [31 March] by President Vladimir Putin, who said any such country refusing to make payments in Russia's currency will face "corresponding repercussions."
In the build up to these developments, there had been much debate over which countries could become an alternative energy supplier for the continent. Hopes were once pinned on energy-rich Qatar; however the Gulf state's energy minister quickly dispelled this notion, that neither it nor any single country has the capacity to replace Russia's supplies.
Nevertheless, gas suppliers Norway and Azerbaijan are both looking to increase their natural gas output this year, while plans of a Turkey-Israel pipeline are also under discussion following their recently improved relations. Last week in a joint effort to reduce the EU's reliance on Russia's energy resources, President Joe Biden announced that the US along with others will work to ensure an increase of liquefied natural gas exports to Europe by at least 15 billion cubic meters this year, while "building the infrastructure for a diversified, resilient and clean energy future."
Part of this US strategy involves Algeria, which after Russia and Norway is the EU's third-largest gas provider. Wrapping up a three-nation Middle East and North Africa tour, which included attending the historic Negev Summit in Israel with several Arab foreign ministers, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been trying to win over Algeria, becoming the first US top diplomat to visit the country since 2014.
The focus of his trip, which followed Blinken's visit to arch-rival Morocco was to convince Algeria to increase its gas supplies to Europe and to scale back its ties with its long-standing ally Russia. While the former proposition is certainly possible, the latter may be less forthcoming, in line with most of the non-Western world's reluctance to follow suit and impose sanctions on Moscow. Algeria was also among 35 nations to abstain from the initial UN vote condemning Russia's "aggression against Ukraine."
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Yet Algiers is understandably keen to increase its gas exports to the continent, most of which are concentrated on the southern markets of Italy and Spain via the TransMed and MedGaz undersea pipelines, respectively, amounting to combined transfer of 42 billion cubic metres per year. This of course vastly pales in comparison to Europe's imports of Russian gas which stood at 155 billion cubic metres last year.
However, despite being in a prime position to benefit from rising gas prices, Algeria's ambitions are hampered by limits on production capacity and infrastructure issues, although the state-owned oil and gas firm, Sonatrach announced at the start of the year plans to invest $40 billion between 2022 and 2026 in oil exploration, production and refining, and gas exploration and extraction. Mixed signals regarding Algeria's readiness to increase gas supplies were reported prior to Blinken's visit, where it has been suggested the Algerian government is prioritising its diplomatic links with Russia, an important arms supplier.
Also on Blinken's agenda was talk of Morocco-Algeria relations, which were severed last year over Rabat's "hostile actions" following growing tensions over the Western Sahara which the US recognised as being under Morocco's sovereignty in exchange for the kingdom's normalisation with Israel. Algeria which is vehemently opposed to doing the same condemned the move; it strongly supports the disputed region's Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front.
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Within the context of these strained ties, a third Algerian pipeline, the Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline (GME) which transferred Algerian gas to Spain via Morocco was shut down after Algiers refused to renew a 25-year contract. Spain for its part has also irked Algeria over its recent decision to support Morocco's claim over Western Sahara and could present an obstacle in future gas deals.
While Europe's reliance on imported gas presents a political and economic opportunity for Algeria, as does opening up to more trade and security links with the US, Algeria should also be on guard amid this renewed international attention over its natural resources. It is worth remembering that in 2013 a major gas facility was attacked by an Al-Qaeda affiliated group who had entered the country along the Libyan and Malian border leaving 40 mostly foreign contractors dead and an estimated $90 million worth of damage. It has taken the country almost three years to get back to full capacity.
Although Algeria weathered much of the storm surrounding the so-called Arab Spring and has moved on from the turmoil of the civil war during the 1990s, today it is surrounded by several weak or failing states such as Libya and countries in the Sahel region whose instabilities pose security threats to the state. It is for these reasons that under the new constitution signed into law last year and going against decades of non-interventionist foreign policy, the military can act outside the country's borders representing in a significant change in its military doctrine to reflect present geopolitical threats. According to a publication last year in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies "Algeria cannot endure all the chaos on its borders forever as the complex security threats and intense foreign presence on its borders have created a sense of siege."
With regards to neighbouring Morocco, since re-establishing ties with Israel it has received its first official military delegation which involved the signing of several military cooperation agreements. Disputes between the North African countries have risen as a result of Israeli support, said Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in February. So from Algeria's zero-sum perspective, this growing Israeli military presence near the border poses a direct security threat.
The scramble for alternative gas suppliers in Europe is overall a positive development for Algeria. This surely should be welcomed, yet with almost sudden international interest in its resources and having witnessed the fate of energy rich Libya, it would be prudent on the part of the Algerian government to exercise precaution going forward.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.