A Newly Assertive Algeria Seizes an Opportunity
The Ukraine war, strategic rivalry and a new ambitious foreign policy could allow Algeria to be a major player in the Mediterranean. Is it ready?
For decades, Algeria has eschewed participation in international affairs. As a member of the non-aligned movement, the country has been described as “anti-Western,” “anti-capitalist,” and “insular.” Privately, American diplomats describe the government as one of the region’s most challenging to penetrate and understand. But over the last two years, there have been signs that Algeria is changing and starting to flex its economic and political muscles, which has accelerated in the wake of the war in Ukraine, with Algeria capitalizing on opportunities created by changes to global energy markets. Algeria has also increasingly asserted itself in the African Union and Arab League, stepped up its lobbying efforts in foreign capitals and is deepening ties with Beijing. But is Algeria ready for the responsibility that accompanies the role it is positioning to play?
Under longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the United States and Algeria enjoyed a frosty relationship. Repeated attempts to expand and deepen bilateral cooperation failed as the relationship remained largely confined to counterterrorism cooperation, especially in response to threats from al- Qaida in the Maghreb. Since independence, Algeria has expressed deep skepticism and trepidation about the intentions of Western powers, especially France (its former colonizer) and the United States. As a result, Algeria sought few allies and seemed content to be a planet in the Russian orbit, largely unengaged from international issues.
Algeria, which has one of the largest standing militaries on the continent, buys 81% of its arms from Russia and is the world’s third largest importer of Russian weapons. From 2009-2018, arms sales between Russia and Algeria increased almost 129%. The two countries routinely engage in joint military exercises and Russian vessels make Algerian port calls frequently.
Politically, Algeria’s historical non-interventionist, absolutist support for state sovereignty, and anti-Westernism allowed for alignment with Moscow. Algeria has repeatedly abstained from votes at the United Nations condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the limits of Russia’s military power, reshuffled global energy markets and, in the process, provided Algeria with an opportunity to redefine its foreign policy.
Ukraine War Provides an Opportunity
As Europe scrambles to offset decreased Russian energy, Algeria has really stepped into the void. Prior to the war in Ukraine, 40% of Italian energy imports came from Russia — that number dropped to 10% in October while imports from Algeria rose significantly. By some estimates, Algerian natural gas exports to Italy were up an estimated 20% in 2022. But it’s not just Italy that is looking across the Mediterranean, Algeria now provides 11% of all natural gas consumed in Europe and is Africa’s biggest natural gas exporter.
The timing of the war in Ukraine has also coincided with changes to Algeria’s domestic political environment. In 2019, Algerians took the streets to protest against Bouteflika’s announced intention to run for a fifth term in office. The protest movement, also called the Hirak, brought thousands to the streets and led to Bouteflika’s resignation, among other things. However, the Hirak never evolved from a protest movement into a political entity with a clear platform or consistent set of demands and was all but wiped out by the COVID-related lockdowns and closures. The end of the Hirak allowed the new government under President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to refocus its energies beyond street protests and bring more balance to Algeria’s alliances — reinvigorating ties with the United States and China.
In November 2020, the Algerian constitution was amended to allow the deployment of the armed forces outside the country. The move was seen by some as a way to allow Algeria to intervene in Libya, if necessary, but constitutional revisions also allow participation in peacekeeping operations under the Arab League, the United Nations and — perhaps most importantly — the African Union (AU).
Increased Algerian participation in AU peacekeeping missions is important because it signals Algeria is eager to balance against the perceived growing influence of Morocco within the organization. Morocco left the AU’s precursor in 1984 in protest over the organization’s recognition of Sahrawi independence in the Western Sahara. In 2017, Morocco rejoined the AU and has used the body as a vehicle for advancing its own interests and continental standing, often in ways that make Algiers feel threatened.
Morocco has successfully pushed several member states to recognize its territorial claims over Western Sahara and supported the ascension of several individuals into leadership positions within the AU that are identified as pro-Moroccan. Western Sahara has long been a source of contention between Morocco and Algeria with Morocco claiming the territory and Algeria supporting the Sahrawi independence movement. A significant number of Sahrawi refugees reside in southern Algeria and the disputed territory provides an opportunity to settle scores and antagonize one another. By participating in AU peacekeeping operations, Algeria will elevate its own standing within the organization.
Algeria has also been vocal in its opposition to Moroccan rapprochement with Israel under the Abraham Accords. From Algiers’ perspective, increased security cooperation between Morocco and Israel would provide Rabat with a qualitative military advantage vis-à-vis Algeria (something Morocco likely already enjoys). Second, Morocco’s normalization with Israel could open the door for other AU members to follow suit, further isolating Algeria within the organization.
In addition to stepping up its activities in the AU, in November Algeria sought membership in the BRICS group of emerging economies and hosted the Arab League summit. By all accounts, that summit was a complete success from Algeria’s perspective. Tebboune chaired the summit and, in the weeks preceding, was able to negotiate a “unity meeting” between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. While not all heads of state attended the summit, those that did struck a harmonious tone in their communique, which was strongly pro-Palestinian and subtly critical of the Abraham Accords.
Algeria followed up this success by signing an executive plan with China for the joint development of the Belt and Road initiative. Notably, the announcement of the Algeria-China agreement preceded by a week the U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit (ALS) in Washington, which Tebboune did not attend. This is not the first time he snubbed Washington.
In March 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman traveled to Algiers, separately, and met with Tebboune. Both meetings ended without significant announcements or commitments perhaps signaling that Tebboune did not acquiesce to whatever Blinken and Sherman requested. The content of these discussions was not made public by either government but Tebboune was able to, once again, assert Algeria’s self-reliance; perhaps emboldened by the recent pledge of support he received from Beijing. Despite the lack of “deliverables,” this high-level U.S. engagement demonstrates a new openness in Algeria’s foreign policy, which begs the question of what that might mean for the bilateral relationship between Washington and Algiers.
What Does Algeria’s New Foreign Policy Mean for the Region and the United States?
The COVID pandemic and global decline in energy costs hit Algeria hard, coinciding with domestic political unrest that threatened to uproot the existing governing structure. However, COVID restrictions provided the government with the pretext it needed to restrict the Hirak and drain much of its already dwindling fervor. Subsequently, the war in Ukraine caused global energy prices to spike providing the government with the liquidity it needed to purchase social passivity. In 2022, the IMF estimates that Algeria recorded its first budget surplus in nine years, swelling international reserves to $53.5 billion (up $6.8 billion from 2021). A budget surplus is expected again in 2023.
This financial flexibility has allowed Algeria to send money to allies, especially Tunisian President Kais Saïed. Algeria provided Tunisia with a $300 million loan in 2021 and additional $300 million ($200 million loan plus $100 grant) in 2022. As Tunisia’s own IMF loan rescue package stalls, it would not be surprising if Algeria once again stepped in to support Saïed, staving off economic collapse.
Algeria’s new robust presence in the region and influence in European energy markets will come with new expectations. Whereas previously, Algeria was considered a marginal player in resolving regional conflicts, it will now be expected to play a constructive and central role in Libya and Western Sahara. Algeria’s long-standing insistence that it is not involved in the Western Sahara conflict is no longer defensible (it was always a weak position) and as an aspiring regional leader, Algeria will be expected to resolve the conflict and foster a détente with Morocco. Egypt, traditionally the regional hegemon, may see Algeria’s growing influence as a threat leading to a regional rivalry — Algeria will need to be prepared to compete.
In August 2021, Algeria hosted foreign ministers from across the region (as well as representatives from the AU and Arab League) to breathe new life into the “Libya Stability Initiative.” In April 2022, Tebboune announced his intention to host a second Libya conference. Algeria’s effort to compete with France, Italy, Germany, Egypt and the UAE for the position of lead mediator in Libya will test Algeria’s diplomatic acumen. It’s been more than 40 years since Algeria lead a mediation effort between major global powers, when it helped negotiate the return of American hostages from Iran back in 1981. Surely, most of the Algerian diplomats that lead that effort are retired by now. Does the Algerian Foreign Ministry have the diplomatic skill to navigate between so many high-power players?
In Western Sahara, Morocco has strung together a series of diplomatic wins most notably the Trump administration’s 2020 recognition of Moroccan sovereignty claims over the territory. However, international support — at least in Europe — for the Moroccan position may be waning, in part, because of Europe’s increasing energy dependence on Algeria. The question will be if Algeria can leverage its growing influence in Europe, especially in France and Spain, to pressure the Moroccans into concessions on Western Sahara? In order to be successful, Algeria will have to be more transparent about its interests in Western Sahara and provide some concrete proposals that advance negotiations rather than its current obstructionist strategy.
A regional rivalry with Egypt could be the most challenging byproduct of Algeria’s emboldened foreign policy. There has long been a discrepancy between Egypt’s self-perception and its perception among those in the region. The result is that Egypt continues to overstretch, not fully appreciating its own limitations and its ability (or lack thereof) to force concessions from others. Egypt’s saber-rattling on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project is a prime example. This martial posture could lead to escalating tensions if Algeria is not nuanced enough in its regional interventions, especially in Libya.
Egypt has not been the most influential international actor in Libya but its sharing of a long western border and enthusiasm for being involved has allowed Cairo to play an outsized role, especially recently. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has hosted several attempts to reach a compromise between the rival factions. Earlier this month, Egypt hosted Speaker of the House of Representative Aguila Saleh and Chairman of the High Council of State Khaled al-Mishri where participants agreed to develop a new “roadmap” for political reconciliation. Egypt has long supported warlord Khalifa Haftar in his efforts to dominate Libyan politics and Cairo clearly wants to play kingmaker in whatever government comes next. Algerian efforts to broker a compromise in Libya could be seen as an attempt to undermine Cairo’s strategy. Algiers will need to be tactful in its Libyan mediation enterprise.
For the United States, Algeria’s new foreign policy is an opportunity to expand bilateral cooperation and build the relationship that Washington has long sought. Last fall, several delegations of mid-level Algerian officials with ties into the military and intelligence ministries traveled to Washington and quietly communicated a desire to expand cooperation between the United States and Algeria. The trick for Washington will be to seize the opening offered by Algiers without alienating Rabat. Currently, ties between the United States and Morocco are at their zenith and Washington will want to maintain that position. True to form, when Blinken and Sherman traveled to Algiers last year, they also made stops in Rabat.
The Biden administration has been eager to establish and expand alternatives to Russian energy for dependent European nations; Algeria is now a critical component of that effort. This gives Algeria a lot of leverage with Washington. The question for the Algerians will be what will they do with that leverage? Will they ask Washington to walk back from the 2020 proclamation on Western Sahara? Ask for access to advanced weapon systems? Or ask for an endorsement of Algerian efforts in Libya?
Algeria will need to think strategically about what requests to make of Washington because there is an opportunity now to set a new course for the trajectory of the relationship. It would be shame if Algeria tried to maximize short-term gains at the expense of long-term cooperation and collaboration.