The cost of missed opportunities in the Maghreb

The cost of missed opportunities in the Maghreb

The cost of missed opportunities in the Maghreb
The tensions between Morocco and Algeria are a rather convenient scapegoat for the lack of any initiative. (AFP)
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Thirty-five years ago, fleeting pan-Maghreb ambitions led Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania to found the Arab Maghreb Union with the aim of transforming this sub-region into a country with one passport, one identity and a single currency.
That dream remains as elusive as ever, with little prospect for the kind of unity envisioned by the idealism of decades past. The Maghreb countries have, in their own ways, resolved to take the seemingly “easy” political path of pursuing discrete, at times hostile and even harmful, policies that are responsible for a waning spirit of cooperation in this part of the world.
Even with the urging of the international community, and the extensive literature outlining the advantages of embracing economic integration by tapping into the region’s plentiful synergies, the political classes in the capitals of the Maghreb remain skeptical.
The most recent meeting of the AMU that brought together all five members took place in 1994. Since then, the borders between Algeria and Morocco — the sub-region’s largest economies, capable of reviving or establishing a new a Maghreb union — have remained closed.
Tensions over the Western Sahara, a disputed area the UN considers a non-self-governing territory, continue to obstruct relations between the two regional heavyweights. Therefore any effort to reenergize discussions on the potential resurrection the economic union envisioned nearly two generations ago will simply collapse, absent mechanisms that can compartmentalize those tensions in the hopes of ultimately engaging in meaningful dialogue to resolve them.
After all, neither Rabat nor Algiers will commit to any eventuality that could potentially grant a rival any perceived advantages, not when the state apparatus in both countries is organized around perpetuating this zero-sum antagonism.
The tensions between Morocco and Algeria are a rather convenient scapegoat for the lack of any initiative, forward-thinking leadership or a bit of daring creativity from the sub-region’s governments. There are, however, other constraints to cooperation, which lie in the preservation of factors responsible for the sub-region’s economic, political and security disintegration.
For instance, the enduring ties north and south of the Mediterranean are commonly overlooked when analysts investigate the root causes of Maghreb resistance to integration, even when it is simply restricted to trade liberalization. Those ties continuously nurture a legacy of post-colonialist hegemony, where self-interested external actors intentionally stoke tensions to monopolize trade, capital flows and ownership of natural resources, invariably influencing the ways in which Maghreb countries conduct their foreign policies.
The end result is little appetite for cordiality and reciprocity within the Maghreb, even to safeguard shared interests or when trying to mobilize against shared challenges, if doing so goes beyond convenient and otherwise unavoidable bilateralism.
Naturally, while inaction might present fewer political risks at home or avoid frosty relations with a former leader abroad, the cost of doing nothing has only grown in terms of the missed opportunities since 1994.
The Maghreb is one of the least politically and economically integrated regions in the world. Trade volumes within the region stand at less than 5 percent of overall trade and less than 2 percent of the Maghreb’s combined gross domestic product. This is not exactly surprising considering that what trade there is between Morocco and Algeria must transit through Marseilles in France.

A turning point is long overdue. The many years of think-tanking must now transform into actually doing something — before it is too late.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Lifting barriers, artificial or otherwise, to the free movement of people, goods, services, capital and technology would open up vast economic opportunities to the benefit of the sub-region’s swelling ranks of younger, more educated, yet jobless, youths.
Trade liberalization could also help to achieve inclusive, pluralistic societies that are foundational to the growth, prosperity and resilience of the Maghreb.
However, this cannot be accomplished without the kind of painful reforms most Arab governments are all too happy to avoid, since they entail revising the economic, social and political structures underpinning their continued monopolies on power.
Nonetheless, it can — and must — be done because trade openness and harmonious standards will help make inroads even on difficult subjects such as political integration or the building of common institutions that enhance stability, improve governance and reward responsive leadership.
Alternatively, the persistent instability has only left some of the sub-region’s most vulnerable people susceptible to populist demagoguery, extremism and other malign influences, creating a downward spiral into uncharted and violent territory, a tragic prospect that is already a reality in Libya and quickly becoming one in Tunisia.
The current landscape is only receptive to fragmentation and pointless competition, even when an unprecedented convergence of political and socioeconomic challenges is highlighting the futility of such a confounding posture.
In this era of increased regionalization, it has become more difficult for non-integrated countries to remain economically and politically viable. Bilateralism and protectionism are no longer sustainable approaches, and if the countries of the Maghreb cannot speak or negotiate with one voice, they will only fall prey to other blocs seeking to leverage their heft and maximize their comparative advantage, including those south of the Sahara.
It is a disappointing — and frankly embarrassing — reality, considering the Maghreb’s strategic location between the EU, with its $16.6 trillion combined GDP of member states representing about a sixth of the global economy, and a rapidly growing, vastly untapped sub-Saharan Africa that is gradually coming into its own.
Internally, the failure to capitalize on opportunities to build closer relations have cost Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia increases to per capita real GDP of just over 33 percent, according to World Bank projections nearly a decade ago. Such unrealized gains have only grown since, accelerated by vulnerabilities in the region to external shocks such as the pandemic, climate change, worldwide recession fears, and even the war in Ukraine.
Furthermore, despite proclamations about empowering women and promoting their role in society, gender equity, economic citizenship and labor force participation rates for women in the region are among the lowest in the world.
Even worse, gender-responsive interventions remain alien concepts, owing to the lack of access for women to decision-making and policy-setting bodies, even among the few that manage to get elected.
A common social policy and identity would help dislodge the Maghreb from archaic customs blocking half the region’s population from fully realizing its potential, which will undercut any gains even after successfully forming a single market.
It will be a long, almost impossible road to make progress on any of this, unfortunately. Old grievances must not be allowed to poison new synergies, especially when the enduring stability of the region is of great interest to all parties, regional and global, including the US, African Union, EU and UN.
After all, chronic instability, violent outbursts, underdevelopment, transnational crime, and irregular migration might pose further risks to security, peace and development in the Maghreb.
A turning point is long overdue. The many years of think-tanking must now transform into actually doing something — before it is too late.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.
Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

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