Geopolitics and the Greater Maghreb Security Complex in a Time of Financial Distress

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 7


The first months of 2020 witnessed significant diplomatic activity between the Gulf and the Maghreb. However, the emerging global economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will likely affect some of these diplomatic dynamics. In January 2020, the Berlin conference on Libya offered an occasion for many countries to target Maghrebi partners. Germany largely ignored local actors: Morocco, Mauritania, and the Arab Maghreb Union were not invited. Taieb Baccouche, the Secretary-General of the Arab Maghreb Union openly criticized this European attitude, voicing the regional disappointment for this approach (Affari Internazionali, March 5). Tunisia was invited only the day before the conference, and the new President Kais Saied made an explicit reference to this late invitation when rejecting the offer (Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 18).

Among Gulf countries, the UAE was the sole country invited to the conference. This should not come as a surprise. The UAE is likely the most influential external actor in Libya these days and the only country with the ability to impose choices on Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the warlord dominating eastern Libya (see Terrorism Monitor, February 7).

In the immediate aftermath of the conference, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, flew to Morocco, where he owns a house, and met with the Moroccan King Mohammed VI (, January 20). The picture of the meeting was widely shared online, but this did not change the complex nature of Emirati-Moroccan relations, which remain tense due to Rabat’s commitment to neutrality over the Qatar blockade. In March, Morocco recalled its ambassador and two consuls from the UAE. Notably, this decision came after Fouad Ali El Himma, one of the most influential Moroccan politicians and a close senior advisor to King Mohammed VI, toured the Gulf in late February, excluding the UAE from his visit (Le1 Maroc, March 11).

Emirati regional diplomatic activism continued in the following weeks. In essence, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan met his Algerian counterpart, Sabri Boukadoum, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad, and President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Algiers in late January, with Libya being at the forefront of the talks (Algeria Press Service, January 27, Ashar Al-Awsat, January 28). A few days later, the Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani also went to the UAE for an official state visit.

The UAE’s recent diplomatic activity was matched by a renewed activism from Qatar as well. At the end of February, the emir of Qatar went to Tunisia, the regional country in which Doha likely has the most significant leverage (AnsaMedInfo, February 25). The UAE has been trying to deepen its role in Tunisia for years, but these ambitions have often been frustrated. The Qatari emir also went to Algeria and despite some ongoing problems—the most notable being the Ooredo issue—on more strategic and regional issues the countries seemed to be on the same page (The Arab Weekly, February 23, The Peninsula (Qatar), February 25)

This activism on both sides remains part of the broader confrontation, despite some feeble attempts to start settling issues regarding the 2017 blockade. This confrontation goes beyond the mere diplomatic sphere, as it embraces a much more comprehensive set of questions: it is a confrontation between models of governance, ideological approaches to the relationship between power and religion, and how to develop their global presence in the coming years

Mauritania as the UAE’s Key to the Region?

The diversified problems that the UAE face vis-à-vis Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are likely the main reasons explaining why, over the past few months, Abu Dhabi has become even keener in deepening relations with Mauritania. Relations between the two countries were already good. Under previous President Mohammad Ould Abdul Aziz, Mauritania took several positions that were in line with Abu Dhabi’s feelings—a harsh stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood; and severing diplomatic ties with Qatar in the wake of the spat that led to the blockade in 2017 (GulfNews, September 24, 2018, Khaleej Times, June 7, Al-Araby, September 27, 2014). The situation did not change after the Mauritanian power transition.

The UAE’s greater engagement with Mauritania is becoming increasingly multidimensional and not only limited to political and security issues. The Emiratis announced the allocation of $2 billion towards investment and development projects. National media highlighted how this effort is particularly significant, as Mauritania’s GDP is worth $5 billion. As such, the UAE plan would represent no less than 40 percent of its entire economy (The National {Abu Dhabi}, February 9). Cooperation is also ongoing in areas like environmental and social issues (Mauritanian News Agency, February 19). In March, the UAE-led “Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies” organized the first consultative forum for scholars from Sahel countries in Nouakchott under the patronage of the Mauritanian presidency (Emirates News Agency, March 12). The two countries signed a memorandum regarding a mutual visa exemption (SaharaMedias, February 2). The UAE even helped Mauritania evacuate its citizens stuck in China as the coronavirus outbreak erupted. The two countries also coordinated a response to deal with this crisis (Al-Mashhad Al-Araby, March 4; Emirates News Agency, March 30).

Over the past years, Mauritania’s regional importance has indeed increased, partially as a result of growing economic investments, especially in the oil sector (Africa News, December 25, 2016). In the geostrategic context of the Maghreb-Sahel region, Mauritania can hardly be considered a crucial player, given its limited demographic and economic size. However, its position as a country in between the Maghreb and the Sahel—areas whose connections have been more and more important over the past few years—makes it an ideal target for diplomatic action by Abu Dhabi. A more substantial presence there can be used as a tool of influence in both regional blocs, but also vis-à-vis the other countries of the Maghreb in which, for one reason or another, Abu Dhabi struggles to exert influence.

The current Mauritanian president was the primary political architect behind the significant strengthening of relations between Mauritania and Western actors, namely France and NATO (The New Arab Weekly, November 4, 2018, NATO, May 29, 2018). As the UAE is increasingly close with France, as observable in the Libyan quagmire, deepening its ties with Mauritania can also serve as a means to become more involved in the Sahel. France could seek greater support from the UAE as it tries to step up its efforts in the region to make up for American disengagement from Africa and the increasing profile of globally connected local jihadist organizations in the region, both al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). Mauritania has also built up a reputation of being effective in coping with the jihadist threat. As it takes the leadership of the G5 Sahel, Nouakchott will become a major asset to UAE eyes.

Conclusions: Diplomatic Depth in a Time of Profound Financial Distress

This diplomatic activism will inevitably be affected by the looming economic crisis set to burden the world over the next several years. The impact of the ongoing global coronavirus crisis is set to be quite significant since the foreign policies of both the UAE and Qatar are directly in service to their economic well-being. In addition, for Gulf countries, the financial crisis will be even more significant given the ongoing price wars that are bringing the global demand for energy, already in freefall because of the coronavirus impact, to a total standstill. The economic crisis is also likely to shake the social fabric and economic foundations of Maghrebi countries, whose health systems are weak and socio-economic stability are already undermined by years of financial crisis. In Tunisia, a country whose democratic transition moved ahead despite years of economic troubles, people in historically marginalized areas of the capital, such as Mnihla, have already taken to the streets, and Algeria and Morocco are bracing to cope with the economic sequences of the pandemic (Tuniscope, March 30; Courrier International, March 27; Yabiladi, April 3; Tuniscope, March 30).

At the same time, these issues create problems and potential for more engagement. Maghrebi countries will need money to support their economies. Gulf countries might need to reduce their external commitment, however, depending on the extent of the impact, and the length, of the ongoing crisis. So far, in the theater in which the UAE is more active, Libya, economic hardship has not turned into lesser engagement, at least yet. Mauritania will remain at the forefront of UAE efforts to become more relevant in both the Maghreb and the Sahel. That said, the impact on the external projection of the Emirates might be significant. Paradoxically, the fact that Qatar had to adapt to the blockade since 2017 made it more resilient to sudden economic and logistic shocks. This aspect might also play a role in determining the efficiency of its external engagement in the coming months, as it needs less time to adapt to its foreign projection to a more challenging domestic economic environment.