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Defense & Security

Conflict between Algeria and Morocco

MOROCCO v. ALGERIA Confrontation, religious conflicts

Image Source : Shutterstock

by Carlos Echeverría Jesús

First Published in: Apr.29,2024

Jun.10, 2024

The growing tension between Algeria and Morocco must be analyzed considering the backdrop of the geopolitical competition among major powers characterizing the current world, wherein Morocco, above all, strives to position its conflict with its neighbor. However, this should not overlook the local and regional dynamics that have characterized it since ancient times.

The origin and evolution of the strategic tension between both Maghreb states.

Since Algeria achieved independence in 1962 – Morocco's independence dates back to 1956 and was much less dramatic than Algeria's – Rabat has been applying the concept of "territorial deficit" also in relation to this Arab, African, and Muslim neighbor. Defining the concept of "territorial deficit" immediately shows that Morocco is an uncomfortable neighbor for a number of states. It was so before Algeria for Mauritania, as it took ten years to recognize it as an independent state, not doing so until 1970. And before that, it was in relation to Spain, as in 1958, that is, two years after its independence, it managed to reclaim Tarfaya. And in 1969, it would achieve the return of Sidi Ifni. Even in relation to Mali, independent since 1960, Morocco immediately began to argue about the supposed rights acquired by Moroccan power, that is, by the reigning dynasty, based on old caravan routes and the political, religious, and commercial ties that for centuries allowed weaving contacts that Morocco would like to see reflected in terms of sovereignty over territories that have never been theirs. But Algeria is the state with which Morocco has been developing a more intense and assertive policy, which has already led both states to two armed conflicts: in 1963, in the Sand War, and in 1976, against the backdrop of the war between Moroccans and Mauritians, on one side, and with the Sahrawis, on the other, which had erupted that same year after the evacuation of Spanish forces. The strategic tension between the two Maghreb states is based both on Morocco's questioning of its neighbor's borders and on the evolution in the positioning of each on the regional and global stage.

Morocco’s questioning of inherited borders

Although both states signed a Border Treaty on June 15th, 1972, in Rabat, which was ratified by Algeria on May 17th, 1973, and by Morocco on June 22nd, 1992, two decades later; the Moroccans not only dragged their feet to ratify it but also, once authorized by Parliament, Morocco did not take the final step of depositing the ratification instruments with the UN. Therefore, we can affirm that the Treaty is not in force, and also that Morocco did accept the inherited border at that time, and it is important not to forget this.

Morocco’s questioning of the possibility of an independent Western Sahara

Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Algeria in 1976 and would not restore them until 1988. During that distant period, Algeria was the champion of national liberation movements and initially supported the emergence of the Polisario Front in 1973, a movement committed to accelerating the self-determination and independence of the still Spanish Sahara. It must be said that Spain was already preparing to leave the territory at that time – with the development of a rigorous census in 1974 in preparation for the self-determination referendum under the direction of Colonel Rodríguez de Viguri, Spanish diplomatic dynamics at the UN led by Ambassador Jaime de Piniés, etc. – but everything would accelerate with the regrettable launch of the Green March in the fall of 1975, which forced our country to evacuate the territory in February 1976 parallel to the invasion of our former province by Moroccan and Mauritanian troops. Already in 1975, Morocco was demonstrating its skills in relation to hybrid strategies that it has continued to apply to this day. The war would last until 1988, and throughout that time, we find a diplomatic maneuver that once again brings Morocco into relation with the 1972 Border Treaty: King Hassan II suggested at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Summit in Nairobi in 1981 that he accepted the formula of a referendum to define the final status of the territory, then he retracted, leading to the situation we are in 43 years later, with an expansionist Morocco that uses all sorts of tricks under the leadership of his son, Mohammed VI, to annex the territory.

Competition between the two regional powers and their African scenarios

If it was Morocco who broke diplomatic relations with Algeria in 1976, it has been recently Algeria, in August 2021, who broke them with Morocco. Both countries have had their land border, the one that Morocco now questions with renewed zeal, closed since 1994, indicating thereby that the foundation of the relationship is structurally flawed, hence the concern that burdens us. The three most important tension scenarios between Algeria and Morocco on African soil today are as follows: the management of the future of Libya, the growing Moroccan influence in the Sahel, and the open competition for the construction of respective gas pipelines connected to Nigeria. All this against the backdrop of a relentless Moroccan offensive within the African Union (AU), the successor of the OAU that Morocco left in 1984 – as a protest against the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) – and to which Mohammed VI decided to return in 2017 to weaken Algeria's strong position within it from within. In the diplomatic management of the evolution of Libya – aiming to pull this Maghreb country out of the chaotic situation it found itself in as a result of the Arab uprisings and the subsequent fall of Muammar Al Gaddafi in 2011 – two Moroccan cities, Sjirat and Bouznika, have been chosen as the venues for sensitive meetings and achieve supposed progress. This only exacerbates the double wound perceived by Algeria: the first, resulting from foreign interference that led to the destabilization of Libya and, with it, that of the Sahel; and the second, the positioning of its Moroccan rival in a scenario of the eastern Maghreb where Algeria had traditionally held a privileged position, a position that we will soon see is also being lost in the Sahel. Morocco also leverages its advantages in relation to Libya, including its strong relationships with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who are also present in Libya, as well as its influence in multinational circles, particularly at the UN. When advocating for the territorial integrity of Libya, Morocco skillfully introduces the caveat of the "territorial integrity" of Morocco regarding the Western Sahara, something that is always present in all Moroccan diplomatic dynamics. And linked to the Libyan dossier is also the Sahelian dossier in Moroccan initiatives that enter into direct competition with the interests of Algeria. Algerian foreign and security policy, which in the 2000s established the Coordination of Joint Operational Staff (CEMOC, by its initials in spanish), based in Tamanrasset, and which in 2015 achieved the signing – in May and June of that year – of the Algiers Accords – considered since then and until recent times the key tool for achieving the stabilization of Mali – has been overshadowed by the development of events and Moroccan exploitation of its initiatives. Although – from the Algerian point of view – the pernicious Western military presence in the Western Sahel, led by France, is now practically gone, instability persists, and the events that have occurred are exposing Algeria and facilitating the acceleration of Moroccan penetration. Examples we are going to highlight as illustrative, the first is the drift in Mali, where the coup government led by Colonel Assemi Goïta considers many of the signatories of the Algiers Accords as "terrorists," pursues them, and thereby deteriorates relations between Algiers and Bamako. In parallel, Morocco's presence is becoming increasingly visible, from diplomatic and commercial dimensions to the religious one. The second example is of a multilateral nature: in a complex scenario where the three coups d'état that have occurred and consolidated – in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger – have cooled relations with the West and also those of Algeria with these three members of the Western Sahel subregion, Morocco threw down the gauntlet with the holding of the meeting of Foreign Ministers of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger, in Marrakech, on January 4th, 2024, convened by their Moroccan counterpart Nasser Burita to strengthen ties and design the future. The competition for gas pipelines pits, and will continue to do so in the coming years, the oldest and supposedly most viable initiative - lingering since 2009, although it has been delayed -, of the Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (TSGP) connecting Nigeria with Algeria through Niger, against the newer and also complex initiative, the Nigeria-Morocco Gas Pipeline (NMGP), in relation to which Rabat is deploying all its tools of influence. The TSGP has the advantage of being only 4,300 kilometers long and having sections already completed both in Algerian and Nigerian territory, requiring an estimated financial effort of $13 billion, and the possibility of being operational between 2027 and 2030. Its main drawback is having to traverse the volatile scenario of Niger. The NMGP is, of course, longer and more expensive, as it has to be deployed through the waters of fourteen states and its cost is estimated at over $25 billion, in addition to the estimated two decades it will take to put it into service. However, in its seduction efforts, Morocco seeks to attract important international, Arab, and Western backers, as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), by designing attractive scenarios of "Atlantic cooperation" - Mohamed VI described it in his speech on the 48th Anniversary of the Green March, on November 6, 2023, as a "development tool for the Atlantic band of Africa" - and, of course, includes the territory of Western Sahara as one of its important stages. With the latter, it aims to consolidate the image of an always prosperous and full of potential "Moroccan Sahara" in the region and in the world. If the TSGP can be a link promising energy supply to Niger and other countries in the Western Sahel, Morocco has already conveyed to these same states that with the NMGP, their energy needs and even access to the Atlantic of these landlocked states will be met. And finally, Morocco's diplomatic repositioning in the AU also exacerbates tensions with Algeria, which has been accustomed to a comfortable position during more than three decades of absence of its Moroccan adversary from the continental organization. Algeria has lost some key positions held by its diplomats in the peace and security organs of the organization and must be very attentive to subtleties such as Morocco's attempt, along with other African countries, to accept Israel as an observer state in the AU. Led by the AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki in July 2021, the combined Algerian-South African effort in Addis Ababa prevented this from happening. Since then and up to the present, Morocco's efforts to weaken the position of the SADR as a full member of the organization remain constant.

Struggle led by Morocco in an international arena characterized by geopolitical competition among major powers

During the Cold War, Morocco demonstrated great skill by presenting itself as a champion of the West in the sensitive region of the Western Mediterranean. It convinced the US and European capitals that, apart from being a moderate and stable country in the Arab world, it should be considered a bulwark against communism, which it perceived as taking root in Algeria and Libya. After the Cold War, Morocco continued to play the card of moderation and stability against the radical Islamist threats emanating from neighboring Algeria. This was the period when it devised its alleged excellence in preventing and managing the jihadist threat, thanks to its information and intelligence tools, which, it tells us, we should still rely on as a guarantee for our security. Throughout this time, Morocco has managed, thanks to its evident ability to promote its own image while tarnishing that of its adversary, to establish a privileged strategic relationship with both the United States and NATO, as well as with the EU starting in the 2000s. In relation to the United States, Morocco skillfully sells the narrative that it all began in December 1777 when the Moroccan sultan of the time, despite Morocco not being a modern state at the time, was the first world leader to recognize the independence of what is now a superpower. Acting as a bulwark against communism for decades, and now against the advances of Russia or Iran in the Maghreb, Morocco holds high regard in Washington DC, and its ‘lobbyists’ continuously polish its image. The longstanding combined military maneuvers "African Lion" enjoy a momentum that grants Morocco leadership, enabling it to showcase its territory – endeavoring at each stage, albeit unsuccessfully thus far, to solidify the ‘de facto’ "Moroccan-ness" of Western Sahara – and continue projecting the image of an indispensable actor. And in relation to the EU, Morocco – who formally and unsuccessfully applied for accession to the European Communities in 1987 - perseveres in its efforts to continue benefiting from privileged treatment in various domains, all of them lucrative, and to ‘lobby’ in EU institutions using various tools to strengthen its most sacred aspirations, prominently among them the consolidation of the principle of the "Moroccan-ness" of the Sahara.

Are we heading towards an open conflict?

In relation to Western Sahara, Moroccan ambition is becoming increasingly evident, and the use of various pressure tactics is becoming more scandalous, to the point of blackmailing various states using different instruments. Meanwhile, the territory is the scene of a hybrid war in which the Polisario Front – which broke the ceasefire in place for more than three decades on November 13th, 2020, due to incidents at the strategic Guerguerat border with Mauritania – issues periodic war reports, and Morocco primarily uses drones to inflict casualties on the Polisario (and incidentally, as collateral damage since then, deaths of Algerian and Mauritanian nationals). Although considered by the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, as “low-intensity hostilities”, the risk of escalation is always present. Meanwhile, Morocco's relations are increasingly tainted not only with Algeria but also, and more recently, with Mauritania, and to a lesser extent, with Tunisia. But let's remember that it's not just the unresolved Western Sahara conflict the cause of tension between Algeria and Morocco; it runs deeper. Apart from the reinforcement of irredentist discourse in recent years – reviving the term “Eastern Sahara” accompanied by increasingly provocative cartography –, and as it also does in relation to Spain, Morocco is situating the management of its neighborhood within the broader context of geopolitical competition among major powers, hence the growing concern about the potential evolution of the situation. The transaction that led to the murky scene in which the recognition via Twitter of the “Moroccan-ness of the Sahara” in 2020, by President Donald Trump, who in exchange obtained, advantageously, Morocco's inclusion in the Abraham Accords signed with Israel by three Arab states (Bahrain, UAE, and joined by Morocco), opened a Pandora's box in the Maghreb and Western Mediterranean region. To the effects of our analysis on the increasing tension between Algeria and Morocco, Algerian authorities had to add, to their strategic concern about the deterioration of the situation in Libya and the Western Sahel due to foreign interference and the resizing of Morocco's foreign and security policy during all this time, the landing of the considered by Algiers "Israeli enemy at its doors". After the signing of the Abraham Accords by Morocco, Israeli presence on Moroccan soil is increasingly visible, with its epicenter in the visit to Rabat in November 2021 by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and reflected in the growing acquisitions of high-end Israeli defense material. All this occurs furthermore in a scenario aggravated by the outbreak of the fifth war between Israel and Hamas in October 2023. The presence of Israeli military observers in the multinational exercise "African Lion 2022", which might seem innocuous to other states, was seen – by Algeria, which had just severed its diplomatic relations with Morocco the previous year – as a hostile act to add to the increasingly long list of grievances. Morocco also uses this scenario to portray Algeria, which, as a traditional supporter in the Arab world of the Palestinian cause, reinforced its perception of threat regarding Israel in the second half of the 1980s - following the Israeli bombing of the PLO Headquarters in Tunisia in 1985 - as an ally of Iran and its ‘proxies’, particularly Hezbollah. Morocco, which severed diplomatic relations with Iran twice, in 2009 and 2018, seizes any opportunity to launch delusional accusations against Algeria, portraying its neighbor as a close ally of Iran - both to its Western partners and to the Gulf petro-monarchies most opposed to Iran - and to accuse Hezbollah of training and arming the Polisario Front. In addition to exploiting the volatile Middle East scenario to its advantage, Morocco also adds to the equation the backdrop of growing tension between Russia, as well as China, and the West. Morocco, which has excellent relations with Russia, reinforced even after the invasion of Ukraine - signing the Morocco-Russia Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2022, an Agreement on nuclear cooperation with ROSATOM also in 2022, or hosting the Arab-Russian Summit in Marrakech in December 2023 - does not hesitate to portray Algeria as a dangerous ally of Russia at the gates of the West. As an example, Morocco, through its various electronic tools, portrayed the Algerian-Russian maneuvers in November 2022 in the Bechar region, an area claimed by Morocco from Algeria and which involved the participation of a hundred Russian paratroopers, as an imminent threat. It is interesting to note that these maneuvers took place shortly after 7,500 troops from thirteen countries, including Israeli military observers, participated in the "African Lion 2022" exercises; in this case, near the borders with Western Sahara and also with Algeria. References, although less intense, to China, overlook the fact that Moroccan military personnel have been trained in recent years at Chinese bases in drone operations, and that both China and Russia are fishing in the waters of Western Sahara, thereby violating International Law as it belongs to a non-self-governing territory and not to Morocco. And to the political-diplomatic and security dimension, we must add the advancements, especially those made by Morocco, given that Morocco is the most proactive actor, as we have been witnessing, occurring in the defense realm, which are also a cause for concern. The backdrop is the increase in defense spending by both countries, which represents a typical example of a security dilemma. Algeria has traditionally been among the small group of states spending more than 7 percent of its GDP on defense, but Morocco's entry into the club of states generously spending on defense, and in its case growing in geometric progression (from 3.6 percent in 2022 to the projected 9 percent in 2024), increases our concern. Moreover, qualitative aspects are more important than quantitative ones, especially concerning Morocco, as Algeria evolves as usual, maintaining the specificity of a submarine weapon that Morocco does not possess, with significant figures in its land and air power. However, Morocco, while also modernizing and expanding its land and air assets, takes advantage, and does not hide it, of its advantageous relations with Israel to make acquisitions in select areas such as air defense systems, electronic warfare, and its upcoming observation satellite, which will no longer be French (Thales Airbus) but Israeli (Israel Aerospace Industries, IAI). And all this while persisting in the use of armed drones in a war scenario like the Western Sahara, while continuing to refine its tools in the ongoing hybrid warfare.


Morocco, which is accustomed, and has accustomed us, to playing with the white pieces, thus always taking the initiative, is immersed in a game where its ambition and arrogance stand out, and its neighbor Algeria suggests with its attitude, as does Spain, that it accepts such a situation. In ruptures’ times — the ceasefire by the Polisario Front in November 2020, and diplomatic relations by Algeria in August 2021 — the growing tension between Algeria and Morocco is at a much more dangerous level than in previous crises. The possibility of escalation, either in Western Sahara or at the common land border, is more present than ever, and the multiplication of deteriorating fronts in the Maghreb and the Sahel makes the situation much more volatile than before. Having analyzed the case of the relationship between Algeria and Morocco and its characteristics, we should not conclude this article without a reference to Spain. Morocco is undoubtedly an important commercial partner and a window of opportunity for Spain to develop significant business ventures. However, this should not make us forget that Morocco is also an actor that consistently plays an unfriendly role with its illegitimate territorial claims. In terms of national interest, it has never been clearer than today that Spain needs to have more demanding relations with Morocco, shaking off the constant annoyance represented by both its territorial claims and its attempts to consolidate the annexation of Western Sahara. And in the turbulent times of permanent tension between Morocco and Algeria, the latter country cannot be sacrificed by a Spanish foreign policy that should have a healthy and advantageous relationship with both states.

First published in :

faes Fundación


Carlos Echeverría Jesús

Professor of International Relations at UNED  

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