Maghreb countries must take this opportunity to unite
Aside from the ties of heritage, religion and language that group the Maghreb countries, another more important reality binds them: Insufficient growth to alleviate youth unemployment. The Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), founded in 1989, was in 2017 described by King Mohammed VI of Morocco as effectively dead. The once-ambitious organization, which hoped to unite Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania, is today, if not dead, then at least in a state of paralysis. However, given the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic on regional economies, there is a distinct opportunity to grow what is, at present, the least economically integrated region in the world.
Maghreb unity is in a pitiful state. Trade among regional countries represents only 2 percent of the total gross domestic product of the Maghreb region. It is cheaper for Maghreb countries to import from China than it is from their neighbors. Moroccan fruits are imported by Algeria via France, while Libyan oil is imported to Morocco by boat in lieu of a more direct pipeline. Moroccan investments have created 60,000 jobs in Nigeria, yet Tunisia’s youth suffer from the same destitution that caused them to revolt in 2011. This bleak picture is the result of the high tariffs imposed by the Maghreb countries on one another’s products, as well as political issues that have fostered disunity — constraints labeled as the “politics of trade protection in North Africa” by Oxford University’s Adeel Malik, the foremost global expert on the matter. By some estimates, the region loses about $530 billion annually as a consequence of barriers to trade.
Divergent foreign policy interests, especially between the two regional powers, Morocco and Algeria, have undermined the stability of the entire Maghrebi sub-regional system. The situation is, however, not without hope. While the Maghreb has not been characterized by strong intra-regional collaboration, certain initiatives that have emerged from the pandemic — particularly in the digital field — point to a more interconnected future.
With international trade severely affected by recent events, necessity and economic logic would dictate that the long-mothballed AMU be reinvigorated to keep the region’s economies afloat. The perils of the many millions employed throughout the region’s informal economies were illustrated during lockdowns. Modest growth is simply not an option for the Maghreb countries, which must create employment or risk further instances of the social strife of the last decade. Projects such as the Maghreb Startup Network and Maghtech have illustrated the readiness of the region’s young people to supersede the political issues that molded the attitudes of their predecessors and create opportunities to work together.
It is only a matter of time before the calls for economic growth via regional integration become louder than the war drums of the military.
Zaid M. Belbagi
In addition, Morocco’s hosting of peace talks to bring about a resolution to events in Libya is reminiscent of a more hopeful outlook that was prevalent in historical movements that supported regional cooperation. The Etoile Nord-Africaine of the 1920s and the Arab Maghreb Liberation Committee of the late 1940s, chaired by the Moroccan Emir Abdelkrim El-Khattabi, were centered on the idea of Maghreb unity. Such spirit must be used to meet today’s challenges. The biggest trade partner of the region is the EU, so the Maghreb countries would do well to act as a bloc when negotiating, as opposed to accepting unfair agreements due to their diminutive economic size. American diplomats have long highlighted the need for expanded markets for the Maghreb countries to increase foreign direct investment; only structural reforms across multiple jurisdictions will allow for megaprojects to transform the regional patterns of trade.
Recent events have also highlighted the need to address historical issues to allow the creation of strong economic ties. Trouble in the Western Sahara has brought to the fore Morocco’s commitment to develop its southernmost region and the role of its neighbors in perpetuating conflicts that should have long been brought to a close. The regional tinderbox ignited with the holding up of civilian trucking from Morocco to Mauritania, highlighting the precariousness of the trickle of regional trade. But it is only a matter of time before the calls for economic growth via regional integration become louder than the war drums of the military.
The mood of resignation is increasingly palpable in the Maghreb, as well as rising frustration with the hypocrisy of regional integration efforts. Given the impact of free market economics in markedly improving living standards in Morocco, while its brethren in resource-rich states struggle to source basic foodstuffs, it is clear that improving regional trade is an urgent necessity. There will be political concessions to be made and there will be a need to mitigate the impact of regional trade at first, but the vision of Morocco’s King Hassan II at the creation of the AMU “to turn the Arab Maghreb into one country with one passport… one identity and a single currency” can certainly be achieved with the territorial integrity of its members intact.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid