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Will Qatar’s mediation resolve the crisis between Algeria and Morocco?

August 21, 2023 at 9:57 am

A picture taken from the Moroccan region of Oujda shows Algerian border guards patrolling along the border with Morocco on November 4, 2021 [FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images]

Qatar is becoming the go-to mediator these days. The US entrusted it with negotiations with Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, and relied on Qatar to secure the departure of American troops from the country. It has also mediated between the US and Iran in complete secrecy until a settlement was reached; only then was anything announced.

Now there are reports of Qatari mediation taking place between Algeria and Morocco. Neither country denied the announcement about this by Qatari Foreign Minister Majid Al-Ansari. Surprisingly, there was no official or media comment from anyone close to the presidency in Algeria, which has always denied the existence of mediation in the crisis with Morocco and has refused to restore relations with Rabat. This suggests that Algeria is indeed seeking to end the conflict and reach an acceptable agreement, and that it has entrusted this matter to Qatar.

Morocco appears to be on the same path, with the Throne Day speech by King Mohammed VI describing relations with Algeria as “stable”, which gives some indication that serious reconciliation moves are happening behind the scenes. Both countries can see what is happening in the Horn of Africa in terms of strategic changes and the struggle for influence in Africa between the West, Russia and China, especially after the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, and latterly Niger. Neither Algiers nor Rabat is willing to risk their country in this conflict in which there is no real benefit for either party.

The crisis between Algeria and Morocco dates back many decades. This is not the first time that they have severed ties. They were cut by Morocco in 1976, for example. Moreover, there has been a border dispute between them ever since Algeria’s independence in 1962, when fighting broke out. In what was known as the Sand War, Algeria was supported by Egypt, whose President Gamal Abdel Nasser supported the Algerian revolution with money and weapons. He regarded himself as the godfather of all Arab revolutions and was hostile to all Arab monarchies, calling them reactionary and supporters of global imperialism.

READ: The pros and cons of Israel recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara

Tension continued between the North African neighbours until, following mediation by Saudi Arabia, they normalised relations in 1988. This did not stop the Moroccan consul in Oran describing Algeria as an “enemy country”.

During a meeting of non-aligned countries years ago, the Moroccan ambassador to the UN, Omar Hilal, called randomly for the independence of the “tribal people” in Algeria, which made Algiers summon its ambassador from Rabat for “consultations”. This is diplomat-speak used to freeze relations until a resolution is found and the ambassador can return. Occasionally, it is a prelude to ties being severed, as happened with Algeria.

I am sure that the Moroccan ambassador did not call for the independence of the “tribal people” for nothing. He was settling scores in response to Algeria’s support for the Polisario movement and its recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Republic, the Western Sahara issue over territory considered by Rabat to be Moroccan. Such tit for tat policies are something that the Arabs are renowned for.

The Western Sahara crisis is, of course, one of the longest political and humanitarian conflicts in the world. It was a Spanish colony from 1884 to 1976. Ever since the Spanish left, Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front have been in dispute over sovereignty, perhaps in part due to the territory’s many natural resources. Morocco wants to expand its border into the desert, which is rich in phosphates, and thus increase its influence in the Arab Maghreb. Algeria, meanwhile, wants to limit Moroccan influence and sees itself as the best qualified to lead the Maghreb. That’s why it encouraged the Polisario Front to announce the Sahrawi Arab Republic and pushed many countries to recognise it. Algeria was also behind Sahrawi membership of what is now the African Union. This prompted a violent reaction by Morocco, which withdrew from the then Organisation of African Unity.

Thus, the Western Sahara issue is one of the most complex and thorny for the two neighbours to resolve. US President Donald Trump recognised Morocco’s sovereignty in return for Rabat joining the so-called Abraham Accords and normalising relations with the occupation state of Israel. Morocco has a long history of close relations with Israel behind the scenes, but it had no issue about them being made public in this way.

The fact is that the door to normalisation with Israel was opened by King Hassan, the current monarch’s father. There have been more than 60 years of security cooperation between Morocco and Israel, although both deny this. When Moroccan Al-Mahdi Bin Baraka asked Israeli agents for help to get rid of Hassan, for example, it was the Mossad spy agency which told the Moroccan king and helped track the dissident down in Paris. Morocco’s French allies captured and tortured him to death; Mossad got rid of the body, that has never been found. As a reward, King Hassan allowed Moroccan Jews to emigrate en masse to Israel, and let Mossad open a station in his country. In exchange, the occupation state provided the Moroccan army with weapons and training as well as surveillance technology, and helped to organise Rabat’s intelligence agency.

READ: Al-Qaeda releases propaganda video directed at Morocco

The most dangerous thing that King Hassan did was betray his fellow Arab rulers during the 1966 Arab Summit in Casablanca, where each country set out what troops, weapons and other sensitive information would be available in advance of a possible confrontation with the Zionist enemy. Mossad agents were allowed to listen to this discussion after the Moroccan monarch recorded it and sent the tape to Israeli agents. “These recordings were a miraculous achievement and gave the army hope that we would win the war against Egypt,” said Shlomo Gazit, Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces, in a 2016 interview.

It was only natural, therefore, that after such great service to the Zionist state King Hassan became Israel’s channel of communication with the Arab world. Secret meetings took place in Morocco between the occupation officials and their counterparts from Egypt before the Camp David Accords were signed. Hassan’s reward was US military aid for Morocco.

This relationship between Israel and Morocco was used by King Mohammed VI to get the US to recognise his country’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The leader of the Jewish community in Morocco, Serge Berdugo, acted as a mediator and met with Jewish American leaders and Israeli officials to discuss the issue, which is likely to remain a sticking point in the relationship between Morocco and Algeria. Such is the state of the Arab world, wherein support from its enemies is sought against fellow Arab states. The Arabs look more and more like a people who do not want to remove adversity and foolishness from their eyes.

Qatar’s mediation will be hailed as a huge success if it is able to bring Rabat and Algiers together. If the small Gulf State can pull this one off, it could signal a major shift in relationships across the region.

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