The UK must wake up to the strategic importance of the Maghreb

The northwest of Africa holds opportunities for a country reassessing its priorities

October 28, 2021
The enormous new Tangier port, Morocco. Photo: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo
The enormous new Tangier port, Morocco. Photo: agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Reading the UK press in recent months, you might hardly have noticed that North Africa’s only remaining Islamist-led government was decisively voted out of power in peaceful, orderly elections in Morocco, or that in Tunisia the first ever woman prime minister has been appointed to lead a government in the Arab world. Nor would you probably know that, after a series of diplomatic spats, Algeria has closed its airspace to French aircraft and is now threatening to cut gas supplies running through Morocco to Europe.

There’s a lot going on in the Maghreb, but events in Africa’s mostly francophone northwestern corner are consistently under-reported in the UK media, except when British tourists seeking North African sun are affected. Morocco’s remarkable economic progress over the past 20 years has attracted surprisingly little attention here. So too have the huge protests rocking the region’s “sleeping giant,” Algeria, since 2019.

The Maghreb countries, with a population of almost 100m people between them, are the UK’s closest “near abroad" beyond our immediate western European neighbours. They cover a geographical area bigger than Europe—Algeria alone islarger than France, Spain, Germany, Poland, Italy and the UK combined—that borders the Sahel, one of the world’s poorest and most unstable regions. The political collapse of Libya in 2011 and the spread of jihadism into ungoverned spaces in North Africa, along with the growing challenge of managing irregular northward migration from sub-Saharan Africa, have underscored the importance ofmaintaininga close partnership with the region.

It is also a region with huge economic potential, and a young population increasingly interested in Britain. There is an appetite, especially in Morocco and Tunisia, for UK investment, as well as growinginterestin English language learning. It is something of a mystery, then, that the region has attracted suchrelativelylittle attention from successive UK governments. Having worked in the Maghreb as both a UK and an EU diplomat, it can sometimes feel as if British politiciansand businesses still regard it as a French preserve—a curious deference markedly absent from France’s approach to regions ofhistoricBritish influence. 

Over the past 20 years, Morocco has transformed itsinfrastructureand business climate—outscoringa number of European countriesin the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking—and invested massively in renewable energies, which it hopes will provide half of its electricity by 2030. Ithassteadily built up a position as a leading investor in Africa. Withthe Mediterranean’s largest container port at Tangier andoneof Africa’s keyfinancialcentres at Casablanca, it is seeking to capitalise on itsgeostrategiclocationbetween the eastern Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and position itself as a business-friendly “gateway toAfrica.”

By contrast, the continuing stalemate in Algeria between an ossified, inward-looking regime and a frustrated population is a worry for the region’s stability. Its closed economy, largely dependent on oil and gas, remains the main obstacle to building sustainable prosperity across the Maghreb. As numerous studies have shown, economic integration would boost growth and create jobs for Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians who constitute a significant proportion of irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of opportunities in Europe. The absence of a regionalmarket is a particular problem forTunisia, which remains very fragile—caught between the civil war in Libya and a closed Algerian market.

In this context, the appointment of the experienced diplomat Staffan de Mistura as the UN secretary-general’s special envoyfor the Western Sahara is encouraging. Without a realistic settlement for this disputed territory that Moroccans regard as an intrinsic part of their country, there islittle prospect of theMaghreb getting its regional act together. De Misturawill have his work cut out. The WesternSahara dispute is one of the world's most intractable conflicts, and he enters the diplomaticfray at a moment whenrelations between Morocco and Algeria are at a low ebb. He will need all thehelp he can get, especially from permanentmembers of the UN Security Council and the EU, tomake progress.

The UK can play an important role, along with other European countries, in boosting the Maghreb’s stability through greater political engagement and well-thought-through cooperation projects—but most of all through increasing economic links withtheregion. There are some exciting signs of more strategic UK investment in Morocco. A new sea link between Tangier and Poole, operated byUnited Seaways, will make it possible to import Moroccan fruit and vegetablesdirectly to the UK rather than via Europe,reducing bureaucracy andhalving freight time. Meanwhile, British developer Xlinks aims to supply the UK with renewable energy from a massive wind and solar farm of 1,500 square km in southern Morocco, by creating the world’slongest undersea cable from the kingdom’s southern Atlantic coast to Devon.

But there is much more potential.If the UK is to build a prosperous future outside the EU and give substance to its "Global Britain” slogan, it must be prepared to shake up its longstanding foreign policy priorities. That means looking beyonditstraditional comfort zones tostrategic regions like the Maghreb, where it has tended to punch below its weight in the past. The Maghreb is not just a crucialpartner for containing violent extremism in Libya and the Sahel, and managing migration and drugs flows; it is a region of real opportunities for UK business.