Spain picks sides as tensions rise in North Africa / by Ignacio Cembrero

Let us in: Moroccan workers demand visa-free access to Spanish enclave of Ceuta, May 2022 | Fadel Senna · AFP · Getty

Morocco put Spain under increasing pressure to end neutrality over the disputed territory of Western Sahara and back its own autonomy plan. Spain’s agreement has made a crisis with Algeria inevitable.

Morocco put Spain under increasing pressure to end neutrality over the disputed territory of Western Sahara and back its own autonomy plan. Spain’s agreement has made a crisis with Algeria inevitable.

On 8 June Algeria suspended its 2002 friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation treaty with Spain. The same day, Algeria’s Association of Banks and Financial Institutions (ABEF) ordered its members to freeze all operations relating to trade with Spain. This was a serious step: Spain is Algeria’s fifth-largest supplier, with exports worth €2.7bn in 2019, and Algeria’s third-largest customer for natural gas, to a value of €2.3bn; so far, the sanctions have not affected gas deliveries.

Why is Algeria trying to punish Spain? The rift is over Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1976 and now claimed by Morocco, which occupies a large part of the territory. Algeria, meanwhile, defends the native Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination, as prescribed by the United Nations, and supports the separatist Polisario Front movement. Morocco opposes their independence, proposing limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty instead.

Until recently Spain, as the formal colonial power, tried to strike a balance, saying it would respect UN decisions but also quietly backing Morocco’s rapprochement with the European Union, though this was not enough to satisfy Rabat. So Spain’s sudden policy U-turn on 18 March, when it declared its support for Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara, surprised and angered Algeria.

To understand what’s at stake, we must go back to the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency. On 10 December 2020 the US recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara — a step no other Western country had taken — and in return Morocco agreed to normalise relations with Israel.

Morocco felt emboldened and in January 2021 its foreign minister Nasser Bourita urged EU countries to ‘get out of this comfort zone’ and follow the US example; until then, only France had supported Morocco’s plan for resolving the conflict in Western Sahara, without recognising its sovereignty over the territory.
Morocco angles for Spanish support

Morocco felt sure that if Spain were to support the plan, other European and even Latin American countries would follow suit. Just as Trump announced his decision in December 2020, Rabat found a pretext to postpone a Spanish-Moroccan summit due to take place a week later.

In April 2021 Brahim Ghali, secretary-general of the Polisario Front and president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD), was admitted to a hospital in Logroño, northern Spain, with Covid-19. This gave further ammunition to Morocco, which regarded Ghali as public enemy number one.

Spain had agreed to Algeria’s request that he be admitted for ‘strictly humanitarian reasons’ and tried to keep his arrival secret to avoid upsetting Morocco. However, the Moroccan secret services got to hear of it, perhaps by listening in on the thousands of Algerian mobile phones they were tapping with Israeli Pegasus spyware, as revealed by the Forbidden Stories website last year, or by eavesdropping on Spain’s then foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, whose phone was also tapped, as the Spanish government half-admitted. Either way, the news broke on the El Noticiario website and was immediately taken up by newspapers close to the Moroccan monarchy.

Tensions rose. Morocco’s foreign ministry summoned the Spanish ambassador, Ricardo Díez Hochleitner Rodríguez, and expressed its disappointment with ‘an act contrary to the spirit of partnership and good neighbourliness’. Then in May it recalled its ambassador to Madrid, Karima Benyaich, ‘for consultation’.

Next, Morocco weaponised migration. In less than 48 hours, on 17 and 18 May 2021, more than 10,000 Moroccans, 20% of them minors, illicitly entered Spain’s Ceuta enclave on the Moroccan coast; most swam in from the neighbouring Fnideq beach. Bourita, in a statement to international Spanish-language news agency EFE, blamed the influx on ‘Moroccan police fatigue’ after the Eid celebrations. Though two thirds of the migrants returned to Morocco within a few days, the show of strength had been effective.

Tensions and blackmail over Western Sahara

Dramatic increase in migrants

The Canary Islands, too, have seen a steady influx of migrants. Some 22,316 arrived illicitly in 2021, and in January and February 2022 the numbers were up 135% on the same months in 2021, according to Spain’s interior ministry. Almost all of the 5,496 harragas (illicit migrants from the Maghreb) who arrived this January and February were from southern Morocco and the Moroccan-controlled part of Western Sahara. In early March more than 2,500 Sub-Saharan Africans attempted to storm Spain’s Melilla enclave; nearly 900 managed to scale the security fence and enter the city.

Finally, Morocco suspended passenger traffic across the Strait of Gibraltar and closed the land borders of the Ceuta and Melilla enclaves. Last summer it had resumed passenger traffic to and from France and Italy (suspended during the pandemic) but not Spain.

Does Spain need Algeria? In June there was nothing to suggest that tensions would ease. Algeria’s tourism minister even ordered tour operators to ‘suspend all operations and tourist relations’ with Spain

Until 2019, 3.3 million Moroccans living in Europe passed through Spanish ports (in 760,000 vehicles) on their way home for the summer holidays each year. The boycott has deprived Spanish petrol stations and ports of significant revenue, but has mainly hurt these Moroccans. Ferry crossings only resumed in April and Morocco’s land borders with the Spanish enclaves stayed closed until 17 May.

Spain has taken care not to escalate tensions over the migrant crisis. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has made conciliatory gestures. As part of a cabinet reshuffle in July 2021 he fired González Laya for having agreed to Ghali’s hospital admission. In late May a Zaragoza court began investigating her for organising Ghali’s secret entry into Spain. (She has since been cleared of any wrongdoing.)

Spain reaches out to Morocco

The growing tensions between Algeria and Morocco (1) also allowed Spain to improve relations with Rabat. In October 2021, when Algeria turned off the Maghreb-Europe pipeline (GME) and deprived Morocco of the gas it had been drawing to fuel two power stations (in lieu of some transit fees), the Spanish government showed itself willing to help, agreeing to regasify liquefied natural gas (LNG) bought on the international market and send it back to Morocco via the GME.

Even King Felipe VI was enlisted to help resolve the crisis. At a reception for foreign diplomats in February, he called on Morocco to work with Spain to ‘materialise a new relationship’. But Ambassador Benyaich was still absent and the message went unheeded by Rabat. Spain reaching out in this way was not enough: nothing less than setting aside its neutrality and supporting Rabat’s plan for Western Saharan autonomy would do.

Sánchez finally accepted Morocco’s price for reconciliation. ‘Spain considers the Moroccan autonomy initiative presented in 2007 as the most serious, realistic and credible basis for the resolution of this dispute [in Western Sahara],’ he wrote in a 14 March letter to King Mohammed VI, who published excerpts of the message in a communiqué on 18 March. It was from this royal communiqué that the Spanish people, including most of the government, learned of their country’s new position on Western Sahara.

This breach of diplomatic protocol angered not only the rightwing opposition but also the far-left minority (Podemos) in the government coalition, and nationalists of all stripes. The same day that Sánchez flew to Rabat, the Spanish parliament’s lower house passed a resolution that recalled Spain’s traditional doctrine on Western Sahara — a slap in the face for the prime minister. Only the Socialists opposed the motion; the far right abstained.

Through this strong support for Morocco’s plan, Sánchez hoped to repair the relationship and win concessions from Rabat. He went to collect at an iftar (post-sunset meal during Ramadan) with Mohammed VI in Rabat on 7 April. The joint Spanish-Moroccan communiqué published that day announced the creation of airspace and maritime borders working groups. It also hinted that the customs office at Melilla, which Morocco had closed in 2018 without informing Spain, would be reopened and another established at Ceuta. (This does not mean that Rabat recognises Spain’s sovereignty over the two cities, whose court judgments and notarial documents it still doesn’t accept.)

Illicit immigration, especially to the Canaries, fell sharply after the joint communiqué was published. April arrivals averaged only 25 a day, down from 93 in January and February.

But while Sánchez had resolved the crisis of Spain’s relations with Morocco, he had started another with Algeria. The day after the publication of the royal communiqué about Sánchez’s letter, Algeria recalled its ambassador to Madrid. The Algerian authorities were especially incensed because they had learned of Spain’s ‘treachery’ (a word used several times in the official media) through the press. A month later Algeria’s president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, described Spain’s U-turn as ‘ethically and historically unacceptable’.

As Morocco dropped its sanctions against Spain, Algeria imposed its own. It stopped taking back illicit immigrants arriving in Spain’s Murcia and Almería provinces. On 1 April Toufik Hakkar, CEO of oil and gas company Sonatrach, hinted that the company might put up the price of gas to Spain alone. On 27 April Algeria’s energy ministry demanded that Spain provide a certificate of origin for any gas it delivered to Morocco to ensure that it did not originate in Algeria. Algeria has even threatened to stop supplying gas to Spain if it turns out to be re-exporting it to Morocco.
Reducing dependence on Algeria

Spain has started to reduce its energy dependency on Algeria which, as of January, is no longer its largest supplier. In 2021, 44% of all gas used in Spain was Algerian; in the first quarter of 2022, that fell to 26%, and the US overtook Algeria as a supplier to Spain, whose imports of American LNG rose by 460%. American shale gas makes up 37% of Spain’s hydrocarbon imports.

Does Spain need Algeria? As of mid-June, there was nothing to suggest that tensions would ease soon. On 20 June Algeria’s tourism minister even ordered tour operators to ‘suspend all operations and tourist relations’ with Spain immediately. Spain has appealed to the European Commission in the hope that it can persuade the Algerian authorities to listen to reason, arguing notably that the sanctions are incompatible with the 2005 association agreement between Algeria and the EU. Spain has also talked of requesting international arbitration if Algeria turns off the gas.

However, the Algerian authorities seem to be set on making Sánchez pay for his ‘treachery’ by playing on the internal divisions that the crisis has produced in Spain. They were also irritated by the groundless accusations made by two Spanish government ministers who claimed that Russia was behind Algeria’s ‘aggression’ and that Vladimir Putin was urging Algeria to punish Spain in reprisal for the sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.

It’s highly likely that the Spanish-Algerian crisis will last into late 2023, when Spain’s current parliament ends. And equally likely that Algeria is waiting for the Socialists to be out of government (as polls suggest they will be) before it makes any conciliatory gestures.

Ignacio Cembrero Vázquez (Madrid, 1954) is a Spanish journalist, correspondent and writer, specializing in coverage of the Maghreb.
Le Monde Diplomatique (English), July 2022,