US-Algeria Relations Remain Troubled, but Neither Side Wants a Break

Relations between Washington and Algiers have remained at a low point ever since the Trump administration, in its last month in office, recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara—a position long resisted by the Algerian government, which backs the Polisario Front, the chief representative of the Western Sahara independence movement. The fact that the Biden administration has not reversed this decision has not been well received in Algiers. Nor has US pressure on Algeria to condemn Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. And adding further tension to the relationship, Algeria opposes the administration’s drive to expand on the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and some Arab countries. Nonetheless, the United States and Algeria do not wish to see relations deteriorate further, as both countries benefit from counterterrorism cooperation that has been in place since 2001, as well as from the limited political and economic cooperation that they have developed in recent years.

Fallout from the Abraham Accords

The Trump administration viewed the so-called Abraham Accords—with which some Arab countries, notably the UAE and Bahrain, established formal diplomatic relations with Israel without any forward movement on the Palestine issue—as a diplomatic victory. After a signing ceremony at the White House in September 2020 involving Israeli, Emirati and Bahraini officials, the Trump administration hoped to get other Arab countries to follow suit. Morocco seemed a natural choice because of its long-standing, behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel over many decades. However, Morocco’s price for joining the Abraham Accords was for the US to recognize its claim of sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. And in December 2020, then President Donald Trump, eager to score another “win,” complied with this demand against the better judgment of most foreign policy professionals, including former Secretary of State James Baker. This decision reversed the long-standing US position of supporting UN efforts for a negotiated settlement of the Western Sahara territory.

The Algerian government was taken by surprise by this US policy reversal, and quickly condemned it. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad characterized the development as “foreign maneuvers which aim to destabilize Algeria,” and claimed that “there is now a desire by the Zionist entity [Israel] to come closer to our borders.” Algeria has long been a champion of the Palestinian cause and sees Israeli efforts to establish formal ties with Morocco as a security threat because of the possibility of Israeli-Moroccan military cooperation. Meanwhile, the Algerian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the US decision had “no legal effect” because the Western Sahara conflict is a “decolonization issue that can only be resolved through the application of international law.” Undoubtedly, the Algerian government was nervous that the US decision on Western Sahara would boost Morocco’s diplomatic efforts related to the conflict. Although Morocco controls about 75 percent of Western Sahara, the Polisario controls the remaining 25 percent, and its political administration there, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, has been recognized by numerous United Nations member states and is a full member of the African Union.

Disappointment with the Biden Administration

Any Algerian hopes that the Biden administration would reverse the Trump decision on Western Sahara were dashed when the Biden team settled into office in January 2021. Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a reporter that the US was focused on “supporting the efforts of the United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura…to find a durable and dignified solution” to the Western Sahara conflict, his comments did not signal a reversal of the Trump policy supporting Morocco’s claims of sovereignty over the area. Most likely, the decision to let the policy stand was made because Blinken and other Biden administration officials view the Abraham Accords positively and want more Arab countries to join them. This is made clear, for example, in the comments of one anonymous, high-ranking US official who said, “We’ve worked to strengthen the existing Abraham Accords, and we are working quietly but quite assiduously to expand [them].”

The decision to let the policy stand was made because Blinken and other Biden administration officials view the Abraham Accords positively and want more Arab countries to join them.

In the meantime, Algerian-Moroccan relations have further declined, to the point that they were broken in August 2021. At the time, Algeria accused Morocco of aiding a Berber nationalist party, the Movement for Self-Determination of Kabylie, which Algerian authorities claim was responsible for fires that burned tens of thousands of acres of forest and that resulted in the deaths of at least 90 people, including 30 soldiers. Given that this break in relations occurred just months after the United States’ recognition of Moroccan claims to Western Sahara, the US decision undoubtedly contributed to the acrimonious atmosphere between Algiers and Rabat.

Pressing Algeria on Russia

Another major irritant between Algeria and the United States has been the US-led campaign to elicit condemnation of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine from members of the international community, including Arab states. Algeria, however, has maintained close relations with Russia since gaining independence in 1962, and approximately 80 percent of its military hardware is Russian. Hence, any US effort in this regard was always going to be an uphill battle. The most that Algeria has done on this front so far was to abstain on two UN votes in 2022 condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, despite US entreaties for a tougher response.

In late March 2022, Secretary of State Blinken traveled to both Morocco and Algeria, where he implored the international community to “increase the pressure on Russia to end this unprovoked and unjustified war.” He also emphasized while in Algeria that the Russian invasion of Ukraine should cause all countries to reevaluate their support for the territorial integrity of other states, stating, “I know that that’s something Algerians feel strongly about.” But given the United States’ support of Morocco’s takeover of much of Western Sahara, the irony of such a statement about territorial integrity was probably not lost on the Algerians.

While in Morocco, Blinken reportedly praised the country’s plan for governance for Western Sahara as “serious, realistic and credible.” However, he did not repeat that commendation in Algeria, likely knowing that it would not be well received, and instead only saying that the US fully supported UN efforts to resolve the dispute.

Although the Algerian government did not provide a readout of Blinken’s meeting with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the secretary of state’s efforts to weaken Algeria’s relations with Moscow did not appear to bear fruit. In October 2022, Russia and Algeria held joint military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, and some reports have suggested that Algeria, now flush with hydrocarbon revenues, will soon make major purchases of even more Russian military equipment, including submarines, bombers, and other aircraft. In September 2022, a bipartisan group of congresspeople sent a letter to Secretary of State Blinken calling on the Biden administration to impose sanctions on Algeria for its military ties to Russia. But for various reasons, including Algeria’s position as a major gas resource for Europe, the letter did not make any headway.

Benefitting from Being a Gas Hub

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Algeria was the third largest gas exporter to Europe, following Russia and Norway. Since the reduction of Russian gas exports to the European continent because of the war in Ukraine, Algeria has been courted by several European governments as they search for additional gas supplies to make up for the Russian shortfall. For example, in July 2022, then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi traveled to Algeria for this very purpose. Algeria already sends substantial gas exports to Spain and Italy through pipelines and tankers, but these countries now want more. In 2021, 83 percent of Algerian gas exports went to Europe, with Italy and Spain receiving the lion’s share, 65 percent. Given that the United States favors alternatives to Russian gas, it undoubtedly sees any increase in Algerian gas exports to Europe as a positive development. And the issue works in favor of keeping US-Algerian relations on an even keel, despite the two nations’ sharp disagreement over the Western Sahara and Russia.

Given that the United States favors alternatives to Russian gas, it undoubtedly sees any increase in Algerian gas exports to Europe as a positive development.

However, there is some disagreement among energy experts as to how much extra gas Algeria can actually send to Europe in the near future. Chair of the board of Italian energy firm ENI Lucia Calvosa was quoted as saying that gas to replace Russian supplies “will largely come from Algeria, whose supplies to ENI will double from about 9 billion cubic meters per year to 18 billion cubic meters by 2024.” But gas exports through Spain are tied up by politics, as Spain has expressed support for Morocco’s proposed governance plan for Western Sahara, a stance that has resulted in Algeria limiting gas exports to Madrid. In late 2021, Algeria stopped sending gas through the Maghreb-Europe pipeline that runs from Algeria through Morocco to Spain, even though other Algerian gas exports to Spain were still sent through the Medgaz pipeline.

In addition, some energy experts believe that Algeria’s main challenge in increasing gas exports is production capacity. The CEO of Algeria’s state-owned Sonatrach oil and gas company suggested that Algeria’s gas production will focus on domestic consumption, which may grow by 50 percent by 2028 according to some estimates, and on existing export obligations. There is also the problem of attracting more foreign investment in Algeria’s energy sector, which is beset by allegations of corruption. Nonetheless, every bit of gas helps Europe in the current context, and if ENI’s optimistic projections are accurate, Algeria will be seen by both Europe and the United States as an important energy resource as long as the Russian war in Ukraine continues.

Trying to Keep Bilateral Relations Intact

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the United States and Algeria have developed close counterterrorism ties, as both countries saw al-Qaeda and its affiliates, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as major threats. The details of this cooperation are necessarily out of the public domain, but one former CIA official has written that Algeria provided the United States with “excellent intelligence” on al-Qaeda. With the recent departure of French forces from some countries in the Sahel region, it is possible that existing US-Algerian counterterrorism cooperation will be enhanced since several Sahel countries bordering southern Algeria continue to face threats from extremist groups that both Washington and Algiers want to contain and ultimately defeat.

In this vein, several US security delegations have visited Algeria over the past year, including one led by Brett McGurk, the US National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, one led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Chidi Blyden to co-chair the US-Algeria Joint Military Dialogue, and the aforementioned delegation led by Secretary of State Blinken. Although Blinken was compelled to address thorny foreign policy issues such as Western Sahara, he also used the occasion to underscore that security and the fight against terrorism are the “cornerstone” of bilateral relations, adding that “Algeria’s efforts are essential to improve stability and security in the region.”

While relations are still troubled, neither side wants them broken, especially as Algeria sees relations with Washington as a balance of sorts, particularly when it has trouble with other western countries like France and Spain.

These efforts by US officials have been important in preventing the US-Algerian relationship from deteriorating further in the wake of the US policy reversal on the Western Sahara issue. While relations are still troubled, neither side wants them broken, especially as Algeria sees relations with Washington as a balance of sorts, particularly when it has trouble with other western countries like France (its former colonial power) and Spain. In a move that was indicative of this situation—where Algeria is upset with Washington but does not want to burn its bridges—President Tebboune decided not to attend the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in December 2022, but instead sent his prime minister so that Algeria would still be represented at the gathering.

The Need for Democratic Reforms

While other aspects of the bilateral relationship exist, including cultural exchanges, support for entrepreneurship, American private sector assistance to improve Algeria’s power grid, and some American foreign direct investment in Algeria’s hydrocarbon sector, the US has not focused enough attention on Algeria’s lack of democratic progress. Although the US ambassador to Algeria recently touted the Biden administration’s emphasis on human rights as a fundamental aspect of US foreign policy and went on to congratulate Algeria on its accession to the UN Human Rights Council, what has been missing is significant US pressure on the Algerian government to improve political freedoms and encourage democratic change in the country. The US position on the Western Sahara issue has undoubtedly weakened US leverage in this regard, but a key question is whether the US is even keen to exercise leverage on this matter at all.

What has been missing is significant US pressure on the Algerian government to improve political freedoms and encourage democratic change in the country.

To be sure, Algeria is not the only authoritarian country to have gained a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. But activists within the country’s Hirak movement, who were instrumental in bringing down aged authoritarian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2019, must have been disappointed by the congratulatory message the US sent concerning Algeria’s accession to this UN panel, especially considering that the powers that be in Algeria—the military and intelligence elite, referred to locally as “le pouvoir” (the power)—still pull the strings in the country and close to 300 political activists remain in prison.

Although the Hirak movement appears to have diminished for the time being, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic and in part because higher hydrocarbon revenues have enabled the government to increase social welfare spending, this grassroots movement of educated young people wanting a better future, not just economically but politically as well, is likely to resurface in the not-too-distant future. The question for Washington will be whether the United States will stand with the forces advocating for true political freedom in Algeria, rather than just remaining content with being the government’s partner in counterterrorism, as important as that is.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Nina images