The Arab Maghreb Union—a regional organization promoting trade and political ties between Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia—was founded in 1989 but has since been characterized by its total inaction. The Union’s Council of Heads of State, which brings together the region’s leaders, has not met since the 1994 Tunis summit. The Union has been marred by political rivalry between Morocco and Algeria, most notably on the Western Sahara issue and the Algerian civil war. Libya refused to participate in protest of the lack of solidarity from the UMA against UN sanctions imposed on the country. Various squabbles and political infighting have plagued the organization since its conception and has rendered its functioning completely impossible.
Truth be told, if one looks at the recent history of the region, conflict and competition have been the rule, not the exception. Despite the regular pan-Arab rhetoric of brotherly ties, Maghreb relations have been marked by mistrust, ideological differences and even open conflict. Morocco and Algeria clashed in a border conflict in 1963 before being at loggerheads on the Western Sahara issue, while the erratic Colonel Gaddafi never ceased in trying to topple governments across the region that he deemed “un-revolutionary.”
The five states in the Union have been in a perpetual state of competition since their independence. Morocco and Algeria, the two regional powerhouses, compete for regional hegemony while the three other smaller states try to take advantage of this rivalry by leveraging their alliances according to their interests. Politically, the Maghreb is in a way reminiscent of 16th century Western Europe where Spain and France were the two rival powers while Britain, the Netherlands and the weak Italian statelets gravitated around. In these fractured regional configurations, geopolitical antagonism between two states grows very often into multi-dimensional contests between various sovereign entities. As Spain and France were competing for continental supremacy, Britain grew quickly into a formidable commercial foe to Spain after it had overcome the Dutch hurdle. Nowadays, behind the obvious Moroccan-Algerian rift, other more subtle fault-lines exist in North Africa. For example, economic competition exists between Morocco and Tunisia in attracting Foreign Direct Investments and tourists, not to mention the future possible energy tussle between Algeria and post-Gaddafi Libya.
The rare moments of cooperation between the Maghreb states were more the result of perceived threats, rather than active collaboration. This includes the 1989 Marrakesh summit that saw the formal creation of the Arab Maghreb Union. The convening of the summit was largely the result of a conjuncture throughout the 1980s when the region’s rulers gradually spotted several existential threats to their rule. First, the rise of Islamic militant movements following the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Afghan war; second, the economic hardships created by the enforcement of the IMF structural adjustments programs that fueled social discontent and riots; and last but not least, the 1985 Israeli airstrikes on Tunis and the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli brought to light the realization that the region could also be a theater for foreign intervention. These perceived threats prompted the region’s leaders to put aside their differences and create a regional framework to coordinate policies.
The same is happening again now. The Arab Spring, the consequences of the Libyan war (such as the In Amenas hostage crisis) and the Malian crisis, among other regional headaches, are forcing the UMA into eachother’s arms once again.
Unfortunately, as illustrated by the plus twenty years since the UMA was established, this road leads to nowhere in terms of regional integration. Without a clear framework and careful planning, any initiative is doomed. In fact, regional integration should be an internal process that is carefully planned, not hastily thrown together in reaction to fluctuating events. Regional integration is not a temporary treatment for ills but a long-term commitment. And a long-term commitment needs a unifying and foundational project upon which nascent regional cooperation can build.
The ultimate case study of regional cooperation is, to this day, the European Union. The northern neighbors of the Maghreb states started their successful venture first as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a project aimed at creating a common market for coal and steel between six states (France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux). This project helped in the reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War and established the ground rules for future regional cooperation.
Therefore any project in regional unity should have a high reward for governments and populations alike, as well as having a clear impact on the economic development of the region. Various studies by international organizations have established a clear link between infrastructure development projects, regional integration and poverty reduction.
A great example to follow for the Maghreb countries lies thousands of kilometers to the east in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) project. Like the Maghreb twenty years ago, the countries of the Indochina peninsula (Myanmar or former Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) were characterized by underdevelopment, conflict and disunion. The region had just emerged from decades of violent conflict and Cold War politics. A vicious rivalry, deeply anchored in history, between Cambodia and Vietnam polarized the whole region. Vietnam had invaded Cambodia in 1978 to oust the infamous Khmer Rouge regime and subsequently occupied the country until 1989. At the turn of the decade, the situation seemed far worse than in the Maghreb today. In 1992, with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the countries of the region agreed to launch a program of sub regional economic cooperation designed to enhance economic linkages across their borders. Roads, naval traffic, flight connections, freight and transport regulations were improved to create economic corridors between the countries. As for the results, according to an ADB report, GMS economies have grown at some of the fastest rates in the world since the early 1990s. Between 2000 and 2009, intra-GMS trade grew by 22% and between 1990 and 2011 the Human Development Index improved dramatically for every country involved. More importantly, the region is increasingly integrated and plans to reinforce its linkage with the greater ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region.
The experiences of the European Union and the Greater Mekong Subregion are helpful templates for greater integration in the Maghreb, as well as the rest of the Arab world. A cross-border infrastructure development plan would allow for the improvement of trade and the regional cooperation. Talks of a Trans-Maghreb high speed railway line have regularly made the headlines. It is now time to integrate this project into a broader cross-border infrastructure development plan mimicking the GMS project. In the absence of a regional funding agency with experience in the infrastructure sector and cross-border deals, a key player to facilitate funding and negotiations between governments and private sector stakeholders could be the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, two organizations with growing presence in the region.
To paraphrase Moncef Marzouki, it is high time we work towards a real and tangible cohesion in the region. A superhighway linking Nouakchott to Tripoli passing by Rabat, Algiers and Tunis, transporting goods and people could be a good starting point.