In February 1993, the Arab Maghrib Union (AMU) marked its fourth anniversary. Despite the great hopes that were vested in this regional economic organization, it has not thrived. [1] There have been five summit meetings since the Treaty of Marrakesh was signed to great fanfare, but the heads of state have been sorely distracted by issues other than building an economic union in North Africa: the unresolved matter of Western Sahara, the Islamist movement in Algeria, the international sanctions against Libya, the pressure for democratization in Mauritania and Tunisia, even the Persian Gulf war.

The obstacles facing the AMU are both economic and political. In 1989 inter-Maghrib trade was only 3 percent of the member states’ total trade (as compared with 40 percent for the six original partners of the EC in 1957). With economic underpinnings so fragile, the AMU depends even more than other regional economic schemes upon the political will of the partners. In the turmoil of the early 1990s, that has not been the priority.

Algeria, the core of any Maghribi construction, has been consumed by the challenge of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) — first as an electoral force and then as an armed insurgent movement. Moreover, the military’s return to the forefront of Algerian politics has stiffened the government’s posture on the Western Sahara issue, a major variable in the prospects for Maghrib unity since the 1970s. Indeed, the “Greater Maghrib” idea was as much a strategy for resolving this conflict as it was a project for economic union.

The five AMU summits are critical because the Marrakesh treaty designates the “Presidential Council,” heads of state of the five member countries (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia), as “alone authorized to make decisions,” which “are taken by the unanimous consent of its members.” [2] The first summit did not occur until January 1990, thus setting a pattern of delay that has become the unofficial norm. Tunisia hoped to see the AMU secretariat lodged in Tunis (from which the Arab League headquarters were about to depart) and emerged as the organization’s strongest booster at a moment when Algerian-Moroccan relations had begun to sour over the slow implementation of the UN peace plan for Western Sahara. Tunisian President Ben Ali brokered numerous bilateral meetings between Moroccan King Hassan and Algeria’s then-president Chadli Benjadid, realizing that hopes for a dynamic regional organization were largely hostage to the quality of Algerian-Moroccan relations.

The primary achievement of the July 1990 session in Algiers was a decision to implement a customs union by 1995. Benjadid was preoccupied with the FIS, which had just swept to victory in local elections. King Hassan seized the occasion of the Algiers locale to meet personally with FIS leader Abassi Madani. When the Arab League convened in Cairo in the August aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the five Maghribi governments each managed to take a different stance, although public opinion throughout the Maghrib was widely against the deployment of Western military forces in Saudi Arabia. The Gulf crisis contributed to the delay of the third summit, which was finally held in March 1991 in Libya, where the main decision was to reconvene again. Although the fourth regular summit should have been held in Mauritania, Morocco’s King Hassan, wanting to reassert his role as the Sahrawi question was moving back into the diplomatic spotlight, successfully pressed Mauritania to defer, and the summit took place in Casablanca on September 15-16, 1991. There Morocco was successful in securing Rabat as the headquarters for the AMU. Tunisia settled for the post of secretary-general, which went to Muhammed Amamou (a close aide to Ben Ali). King Hassan was less fortunate in getting the AMU to back the Moroccan approach to the UN referendum in Western Sahara. The Moroccan press called upon the AMU partners “to distance themselves once and for all from the secessionist misdirection” which had “hobbled the unionist process.” Algeria, though, persuaded the others to leave this matter to the UN, and the AMU did not vest King Hassan with any particular mandate for his trip to Washington.

The fourth summit also served to parcel out the future institutions of the AMU. The parliament or consultative council (majlis al-shura), composed of 20 representatives per member state, was to hold its sessions in Algiers. The judicial organ, entrusted with interpretation of the Treaty of Marrakesh and AMU conventions, was to sit in Nouakchott. An investment and foreign trade bank was to be located in Tunis, while Libya was assigned the responsibility of setting up a Maghribi University and Academy of Sciences. Thus some two and a half years after its founding, the AMU had established a more permanent organizational framework, but more than a year passed before the next “semi-annual” summit meeting could be convened.

The turbulence in Algeria, Libya’s tribulations over the Lockerbie affair and Mauritania’s electoral timetable combined to postpone the next summit to November 1992, but at the last moment neither Qaddafi nor Hassan made the trip. Instead it became the occasion for the Algerians to return in force as the new president of the High State Committee, ‘Ali Kafi, arrived with a large and diverse delegation on what was his first trip abroad since assuming the post after the assassination of Muhammad Boudiaf. Although Morocco was represented by its prime minister and Libya by its ambassador to Morocco, the presence of the Algerian, Tunisian and Mauritanian heads of state seemed almost a throwback to December 1983 when Mauritania joined Algeria and Tunisia in the Treaty of Fraternity and Concord. Once again the Tunis-Algiers-Nouakchott axis appeared to be the backbone of a region to which Libya’s attachment was ephemeral and Morocco’s circumstantial. [3] Ben Ali is the only chief of state to have been present at every summit, and Tunisia was the only member to have ratified all AMU conventions as of November 1992. Furthermore, Ben Ali is scheduled to hold the chairmanship for 12 months, the members having realistically acknowledged at Nouakchott that the notion of semi-annual summits was overambitious and impractical.

Political Hostage

The AMU history underscores the extent to which it is more a diplomatic than an economic construct. Although the Nouakchott summit did finally provide an annual operating budget for the AMU secretariat ($1.75 million), the fact remains that the heads of state comprise the motor that drives or stalls the regional project. The logic of national political interests has consistently overridden the logic of functional cooperation.

The AMU was founded in the wake of a major rapprochement between Algeria and Morocco in 1988 that was seen by each as a framework within which to resolve the long dispute over the Western Sahara. [4] Morocco and the POLISARIO Front had just accepted a UN-brokered plan to resolve their dispute by referendum. The referendum, though, has not happened, as Morocco has posed conditions regarding voter eligibility unacceptable to the Sahrawis. [5] Neither side is willing to lose the referendum, and no third party (Algeria, the US) has been willing to force a compromise. In the absence of a settlement, neither Morocco nor Algeria can accord the AMU the priority necessary to make it a major institution in regional affairs.

Morocco and Algeria, as the two most populous countries with the largest gross national products of the five, must collaborate if the AMU is to have real vitality. Morocco seemed little inclined to spur cooperation in the early part of 1993. Certainly the king’s remark to a Saudi newspaper that an FIS takeover “would have been an interesting experiment,” Algeria thereby serving as a useful “laboratory” for Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia, was not calculated to improve relations between the two governments. [6] Muhammad Boudiaf’s assassination in Algeria and the subsequent appointment of Belaid ‘Abd al-Salam as prime minister had turned the tables against any presumption of easy accommodation between the two regimes: ‘Abd al-Salam was associated with former President Houari Boumedienne’s strong support of POLISARIO, and his hardline economic nationalism was at odds with Morocco’s liberal options.

The AMU foreign ministers decided in February 1993 that it was time to take a break in order to sort things out. A large part of the rationale for creating the AMU was to allow the Maghrib to bargain collectively with the European Community. About 70 percent of the AMU countries’ trade is with the EC. The AMU has sought to deal collectively with the European 12, and especially with the EC’s southern four (Portugal, Spain, France and Italy). The idea of economic cooperation in the western Mediterranean was explored concretely when the “five” met the “four” in Rome in 1990, then again a year later in Algiers. Issues discussed in these gatherings included the status of North African workers in Europe, the debt problem and matters of investment.

While such meetings continue — as recently as March 1993 — the partnership across the Mediterranean has remained modest and unstructured. With 3.5 million North African workers in Europe, the two shores are bound to maintain forums for consultation and collaboration. Despite frequent appeals to develop Euro-Maghribi relations, though, Europe has not accorded any exceptional attention to the Mediterranean’s southern flank. As a consequence, the states of the Maghrib, especially Morocco, have fallen back on bilateral relations with Brussels. Morocco’s Foreign Minister Abdellatif Filali recently argued that Morocco was entitled to a special relationship with the EC “because it is the country closest to Europe in the orientation of its economy, its diplomacy and its internal policies.” [7] Filali’s contention suggests that Rabat’s priorities have tilted away from the Maghrib. Morocco requested and has been granted the practice of “institutionalized political dialogue,” which means that Moroccan ministers, high civil servants and parliamentarians will meet with their European counterparts on a regular basis — a status heretofore reserved for East European, Latin American and Southeast Asian states. This ambiguity in Morocco’s stance toward the Maghrib — its self-image as the “European of Africa” (or is it the “African of Europe”?) — has rankled the rest of the AMU.

AMU or Mini-Maghrib?

Four years after Marrakesh, the member states have essentially succeeded in erecting an organizational scaffolding. The various organs do meet. In January 1992, for example, the parliamentary consultative council met in Libya, primarily to express the members’ solidarity with Libya in its juridical confrontation over the Lockerbie affair. This same matter provoked an emergency session of the AMU foreign ministers at the end of the year. Yet in between these two meetings, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 748, imposing an air embargo and other sanctions upon Libya, which the other members felt compelled to obey.

Other somewhat more sheltered AMU bodies have held meetings and conducted studies. The June 1992 meeting of AMU energy ministers in Mauritania decided to undertake feasibility studies for a regional industrial oil factory and a regional maintenance company for the petroleum and natural gas industries. Transport specialists met in Fez in November 1992 to study the prospects of a trans-Maghrib highway, a $15 billion project with a 30-year timetable. The Maghribi Union of Farmers held its first congress in Tunis in March 1993, and urged the governments to give the highest priority to trade in agricultural products. These meetings suggest what the building blocks are, but they also reveal that so far there is little mortar holding them together.

The AMU economies are to a high degree supplementary rather than complementary. Orange groves blossom from the Cap Bon peninsula in Tunisia all the way to the Atlantic coast in Morocco. Energy exports to Europe and beyond will long remain the backbone of the region’s hard currency earnings. The payoffs from regional integration tend to be long-term rather than immediate, and that means that functional cooperation can be readily shunted aside when political problems intervene.

As of mid-1993, the Maghrib appeared precariously poised between the AMU concept and the “mini-Maghrib” of Tunisia-Algeria-Mauritania. While Libya may conceivably be expendable, a Maghrib without Morocco is not a viable option. Yet Morocco’s tactic of thwarting the UN peace process regarding Western Sahara has sapped the will of Algeria to make Maghrib cooperation its highest diplomatic priority. The political turmoil in Algeria has also dealt a severe blow to its capacity to mend regional conflict. Geopolitics and regime survival are likely to dominate the agendas of the heads of state upon whose decisions the AMU depends for the foreseeable future.


[1] Francois Soudan, “Pourquoi l’UMA n’existe pas,” Jeune Afrique, June 11-17, 1992.
[2] Articles 5 and 6.
[3] Foreign Policy 76 (Fall 1989), pp. 160-175.
[4] See my chapter “The Greater Maghreb and the Western Sahara,” in Yahia Zoubir and Daniel Volman, eds., International Dimensions of the Western Sahara Conflict (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993), pp. 169-186.
[5] For a thorough account of the tribulations of the UN mission, see William J. Durch, “Building on Sand: UN Peacekeeping in the Western Sahara,” International Security 17/4 (Spring 1993).
[6] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 14, 1993, as reported in Jeune Afrique, January 28-February 3, 1993, p. 6. In May the king drew back from his provocative observation.
[7] Africa Research Bulletin 30/2 (February 1993).

How to cite this article:

Robert Mortimer "Regionalism and Geopolitics in the Maghrib," Middle East Report 184 (September/October 1993).

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