España y el Magreb: la crisis sigilosa

Spain and the Maghreb: the stealth crisis


25 | 10 | 2022


Elements of a complicated relationship that should be kept under observation so that they do not combine negatively against Spanish interests.

In the picture

Satellite image of the Strait of Gibraltar and the two shores of the Mediterranean [Wikipedia].

Morocco is, for many reasons, a priority for Spanish foreign policy. Despite this, since the Transition there has been no explicit state policy -with defined objectives and basic consensus on resources, approaches and measures- to guide Spain's policy towards its southern neighbor. Spain and Morocco are much closer than it seems, but much more distant than desirable.

Two features that have traditionally characterized relations between Spain and Morocco are their complexity and frequent ups and downs. Geographical proximity, added to the presence of a large Moroccan community in Spain (more than 800,000 people), the per capita income differential (30,090 euros compared to 3,930 euros in 2021, according to the IMF) and political, demographic and cultural differences, provide fertile ground for divergences and frictions. However, these same realities mean that there are also reasons to cooperate more and seek formulas of complementarity beneficial to both societies, especially when there are multiple overlapping economic, social and political crises on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar.

Spain is the only European country with a territorial presence in North Africa and, consequently, with a land border with Morocco. Therefore, the relations between both countries are very important not only at a national level but also within the European framework . These are marked by the existence of cyclical conflicts, the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria for regional hegemony and by the skill between France and Spain to exert their influence in the Maghreb.

Numerous issues affecting relations with Morocco are part of Spanish national policy, in addition to issues relevant to International Office (immigration, Western Sahara, Spanish possessions in North Africa, the terrorist threat and drug trafficking, among others).

Spain has devoted a great diplomatic effort to its relationship with Morocco. However, during the last few years, Spanish-Moroccan relations have followed a love-hate patron saint that has given as result a movement ranging from displays of friendship and good neighborliness to situations of high tension. However, these signs of friendship - represented, above all, between the former kings Juan Carlos I and Hassan II - have considerably diminished, being replaced by rupturist actions such as the reception of Brahim Gali, followed by the migratory crisis of Ceuta, the Sahara issue and its political crisis, the energy crisis, and the military crisis.


Immigration, specifically Moroccan immigration, has always been a focus of Spanish political agendas and the action plans of various NGOs and has been dealt with effectively. However, today, Spain is facing the biggest migratory crisis ever experienced with Morocco. It all starts in April 2021 due to the hospitalization in Logroño, Spain, of Brahim Ghali, the highest representative of the Polisario Front, the Saharawi independence movement. Following this event, Spain-Morocco diplomatic relations deteriorated to the point that the North African country decided to reduce supervision and security control at the border with Ceuta, thus allowing thousands of migrants from Morocco to access the Spanish city, mostly in very precarious conditions. An estimated 12,000 people, including many teenagers, crossed the border illegally. It is one of the most difficult moments in the recent history of the autonomous city.

This event brought about a major diplomatic crisis between the two countries which seems to have been settled this year 2022 due to the support shown on the possession of the Sahara by the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, one year after the beginning of the tensions. In spite of this, the migratory movement has only increased: a year after the beginning of the crisis, around 50,000 Moroccan immigrants had entered Spain illegally, through the city of Ceuta or by storming the fence of Melilla. It is precisely this last autonomous city which has suffered in 2022 its largest assault of immigrants, characterized this time by showing great violence against the Spanish police forces, some of which left wounded.

The question that arises from this status is: why has Morocco decided to redouble the migratory pressure against Spain in an international context of war? According to some security and defense experts, while Spain and the whole of Europe are focusing on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Morocco is taking advantage of the situation to generate tensions in the Spanish autonomous cities with a single goal: to stifle them economically. The uncontrolled entrance of thousands of Moroccan immigrants is the birth of a state of maximum tension and causes a very localized damage in the area of interest of Rabat, avoiding that it affects the whole of the European Union.

The growing international neglect of the migratory problem plays in favor of Morocco, which seeks to increase internal Spanish problems in order to have more influence over the country, and to diminish the dependence of northern Morocco on Ceuta and Melilla.

On the other hand, there are also those who point out that this pressure strategy is nothing more than another attempt by the Moroccan government to make Spain consolidate its position with respect to the Western Sahara conflict.

Finally, other experts point out how Spain's attitude towards Morocco is partly reminiscent of that of the European Union towards Russia. The neighboring country, has a profile "eerily similar" to the Russian one. This is because both Russia and Morocco are well aware of the weaknesses of the EU and Spain, respectively, and exercise tough measures. Therefore, Spain should act with all caution, present clear ideas and not succumb to pressure in order to avoid future conflicts with the North African country and high costs due to unforeseen situations.

Military capability

A country's military capability is the sum of many factors. This capability is not only based on the quantity and quality of weapons and equipment available, nor on the issue of deployed troops. It is also important to take into account the level of training of the armies, the number and size of their allies, as well as a factor that often seems to be forgotten: the political will of their leaders to use, and in what way, the available military capabilities, an aspect closely linked to the popular support enjoyed by the leaders.

Morocco, in this regard, has been investing heavily in its military power over the last decade, significantly modernizing and expanding the capabilities of the armed forces and forging strong alliances with leading strategic players, such as the United States and Israel. The growing international recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara, especially in the wake of that made by Donald Trump, is test of its success.

This considerable diplomatic and budgetary effort also includes measures such as the reactivation of compulsory military service, a detail indicative of the seriousness of Moroccan rearmament.

With all this, Rabat has achieved a position of strength in its confrontation with Algeria, a country supported by Moscow. And not only with a view to Western Sahara, but also to its conversion into a regional power.

In addition, Israel and Morocco have already launched a project which has led Rabat to manufacture military drones. The possibility of building instructions military drones near Melilla was also considered, specifically in the town of Afsó, 50 km from the autonomous city, very close to the Monte Arruit airport.

On the other hand, a significant loss of capacity can be seen in Spain, due to a clear lack of investment (which has already been pointed out by international allies belonging to NATO). According to the 2022 General State Budget (PGE), Spain will invest 10,155.26 million euros. This budget seems not to be enough, as there has been a breach in the plans for the renewal of obsolete material, which have been postponed for a decade. However, recently C has been uploaded on the defense budget .

Among the adversities faced by the Spanish military corps we can highlight: the loss of strategic in-flight refueling capability; the loss of anti-submarine capabilities in the Navy and the Air Force; the unrecovered leave of airborne electronic warfare means; the loss of rocket launcher artillery; the non-renewal of self-propelled artillery; the serious threat posed by the loss of embarked combat aviation; the need for update of the battle tank fleet; the delay in the selection and commissioning of the new 8x8 armored vehicle; the eternally delayed provision of missile batteries for coastal defense; the insufficient provision of ammunition and missiles; the need to modernize and/or replace internship the entire anti-aircraft defense means, from NASAMS, Hawk, Mistral and Patriot missiles (acquired second-hand from Germany), etc. The desirability of renewing equipment is underlined by the fact that, in countless cases, it was manufactured before the military personnel who operate it were born.

 Despite the fact that at a global level Spanish capabilities continue to maintain an advantage and the great professionalism and training of the armed forces are highlighted, these strengths are in danger of weakening over the next few years if corrective measures (innovation, modernization, etc.) are not taken.

In conclusion, the fact that the improvement in the military capabilities of our North African neighbors has coincided in time with the loss of our own military capabilities has posed a serious threat in the military sphere, to which must be added the continuous political tensions.

Western Sahara

One of the issues that has best reflected the conflictive side of relations between Spain and its southern neighbor over the past four decades is the Western Sahara conflict. The sovereignty of that former Spanish colony is in dispute between Morocco and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front). The latter invokes its legitimate struggle for self-determination of the territory, while Morocco qualifies this organization as a "separatist" movement; Morocco has controlled most of the territory since 1975 and is considered "occupier" by the Polisario Front. The question suffers from a prolonged deadlock, result of two long-lasting and difficult to resolve conflicts. One is the clash of Moroccan nationalism with Saharawi nationalism and, although the major armed hostilities have long ceased, the effects of mutual suffering, more evident on the Saharawi side, have not disappeared. The other conflict is the skill between Morocco and Algeria for the hegemony in the Maghreb, reflected in bilateral relations which are manifestly improvable.

The majority of Spanish public opinion and various political forces support, in one way or another, the right of self-determination of the Saharawi people, as established by the UN. Many Spaniards consider that Spain has a historical and moral responsibility towards the Saharawis for having hastily withdrawn from the former colony in February 1976 without first allowing self-determination, to which the Saharawi people were entitled under international law. The existence of a broad movement of solidarity with the Saharawi cause has led to periodic friction between Spain and Morocco. Successive governments have tried to prevent these from contaminating the bilateral relationship as a whole, expressing for decades their full adherence to UN resolutions, while maintaining a position of "active neutrality" in their relations with the parties involved.  

However, this neutrality is over. In the middle of a war, with prices out of control and without prior notice, Pedro Sanchez gave on March 18 a 180° turn Degrees to the historical position of Spain with regard to the sovereignty of Western Sahara. In a letter to King Mohamed VI, the contents of which were disclosed by Rabat and not by Moncloa, Sanchez conveyed that "Spain considers the Moroccan autonomy initiative, presented in 2007, as the most serious, credible and realistic basis for the resolution of this dispute". This initiative, which would be submitted to a prior referendum, foresees certain competences in subject of Economics, infrastructures, development social and culture, among other areas, for the former Spanish colony while reservation areas core topic such as defense, foreign relations or religion are placed under the direct control of King Mohamed VI.

This decision has brought Pedro Sanchez a lot of criticism, both from his government partners, who have completely dissociated themselves from this new position, and from civil service examination. This lack of internal cohesion may well be perceived by Morocco and Algeria as a sample of inconsistency and weakness of the Spanish position that both countries may try to exploit in the future. Moreover, the change of position of the Socialist government has been criticized by the Polisario Front, whose delegate in Spain, Abdulah Arabi, has complained that they were not warned beforehand of this change of position. In his opinion, Sanchez "succumbs to the pressure and blackmail" of Morocco by endorsing this plan as a "toll" to resume the damaged political and diplomatic relations between the two countries.

It is, in short, a fundamental turn in Spain's foreign policy, adopted without discussion or agreement in the Spanish domestic sphere, contrary to Spain's values, since it places itself, in this matter, outside international law and also contrary to its national interests, since it fails to obtain from Rabat any guarantee regarding Spain's territorial integrity. 

Thus, just as Rabat was not informed of the arrival of the Saharawi leader, neither was Algiers informed of the new position of the government on the Sahara. Despite the sensitivity of the status, both Sanchez and his Foreign Minister have indicated that a trip to Algeria is not on their diary . In an informal conversation with journalists who accompanied him on his last trip to Rabat, Sanchezx maintained that the status of the relationship is "reasonable".

However, Mario Draghi, who as Italian Prime Minister went to Algiers in July at framework as part of Italy's renewed efforts to diversify its energy sources, did travel to Algeria. His visit followed that made at the end of February, after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, by Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who was accompanied by the CEO of the energy business company ENI, Claudio Descalzi.

In the picture

Gas pipelines from Algeria to Spain [Euronews].

Algeria and the energy crisis

As a consequence of the change in Spain's position on Western Sahara, Algeria suspended on June 8 "immediately" the agreement of friendship, good neighborliness and cooperation signed with Spain on October 8, 2002, in addition to freezing all foreign trade operations with our country.

According to some experts in the Spanish media, the moment in which Spain and Algeria signed their agreement "is no coincidence". "The year 2002 was characterized by the bad relationship between Spain and Morocco", says Miguel Hernando de Larramendi, Full Professor of programs of study Arabs and Islamics of the University of Castilla-La Mancha, who quotation the "acrimony of Aznar with the topic fishing and the Moroccan invasion of the island of Perejil". This favored the rapprochement between Algeria and the Spanish Government. That same year, moreover, the direct gas pipeline between Spain and Algeria, Medgaz, was built without passing through Morocco.

For his part, Eduard Soler warns that the consequences of the deterioration of the relationship between the two countries "were already taking place". According to the CIDOB's researcher , in recent years there has been a "deterioration of the political relationship" evidenced by the "lack of communication, the withdrawal of ambassadors or the lack of technical cooperation in police and migration issues". Now, Algeria wants to "make its anger visible and warn the Spanish government and society", he stresses.

Algeria is Spain's main gas supplier, sending 29% of supplies, according to the Spanish company Enagás. Algerian gas reaches Spain through two routes. The Medgaz pipeline, which ends in Almeria, brings the gas directly from Algeria through a 200-kilometer, 2,160-meter-deep pipe that crosses the Mediterranean. But in the second route, Algerian gas has to cross Morocco through the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline (GME) to Tarifa, a route that has been cut off since October 2021, which has led to 25% of its flow being sent through the Medgaz pipeline, and the rest, liquefied, by ship: a more expensive and polluting process.

 But, in addition to Morocco, the other loser is Spain. Algeria covered 51% of Spain's gas needs in 2018; the figure fell to 33% in 2019 and 29% in 2020. So far in 2021, gas imports from Algeria rebounded to 47%, according to Enagás. That 47% was a total of 15 billion cubic meters of gas. Of that, 6 billion came through the pipeline that crosses Morocco and 8 billion was transported through the Medgaz pipeline, which goes directly to Almeria; the remaining 1 billion cubic meters were transported by ships, as liquefied natural gas.

The Third Vice-President and Minister for Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, traveled to Algiers to meet with several Algerian authorities. But Algeria did not change its position. The Algerian government has guaranteed the Spanish government the supply of the same amount of gas that reached Spain through the GME, but only when the winter is over will it be possible to know whether Algeria is in a position to fulfill its commitments with solvency.

As a result, the Rabat authorities issued a statement distributed through the official MAP agency, in which they assure that the Algerian government's decision will have only a "negligible" effect on the Moroccan electricity system in the short term deadline . "The necessary steps have been taken to ensure the country's power supply," the statement said.

And indeed, in April Pedro Sánchez took a further step in his rapprochement with Mohamed VI and announced the opening of the Maghreb gas pipeline to take gas from Spain to Morocco, reversing the direction of the GME flow. A decision that has not gone down well in Algiers, which has issued an ultimatum: if the fuel sent to the Iberian peninsula returns to Africa to meet Alawite demand, commercial contracts with Spain will be broken.

Some sources in the energy market explain that there are currently great difficulties in distinguishing the exact origin of the gas that may arrive in Morocco, since the network does not separate gas by origin. In other words, gas arriving in Spain from other parts of the world is mixed at network. However, Enagás is already working on an origin certification procedure , under the indications of the Ministry for Ecological Transition, to ensure the transparency of shipments and verify that the Algerian fuel will not pass through the Maghreb pipeline.

Despite the obvious commercial link between Spain and Algeria, the government of Pedro Sanchez has plunged headlong into the energy war between Algeria and Morocco and has sided with the Alawite regime. The risks of this decision are so obvious that the Algerian Energy Minister himself, Mohamed Arkab, has warned that the bulk of Spain's gas supply is up in the air: "Any quantity of Algerian gas exported to Spain whose destination is different from those provided for in the contracts will be considered a breach of contractual obligations and may therefore lead to the cancellation of the contract".

In the midst of the energy crisis that will make us do without Russian gas, Sánchez is once again moving closer to Morocco and distancing himself from Algeria, a country with which we have two co-financed gas pipelines and which, until now, provided us with cheaper gas because it arrived through two pipes (without the cost of liquefying and re-gasifying it afterwards, and without the cost of transporting it by methane tanker). 

Anticipating a crisis

In conclusion, Spain-Morocco relations have never been stable due to the numerous political and migratory issues, in addition to the lack of a defined and solid foreign policy to deal with them. These issues have been aggravated by the events we have experienced so far this century, among which we can highlight: the bad management of the migratory crisis experienced in recent years in Ceuta and Melilla; the lack of resources and investments in the Spanish military field, which are not enough to face the various adversities; and above all, the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. A conflict that has led to an energy crisis facing the whole of Europe and which has caused countries such as Italy to look to Algeria for a new commercial partner to provide them with gas. However, in the face of this status, the Spanish government changes its position on the Western Sahara conflict and strains relations with Algeria.

Therefore, it could be said that it was neither the best moment to dissociate itself from neutrality and UN resolutions, nor was it done in the right way: without national political consensus or prior notice or taking into account relations with other actors involved, such as Algeria, which disputes with Morocco the hegemony of the Maghreb.

Knowing the risks we face is the difference between being able to anticipate and manage a crisis or being exposed to the consequences of not understanding its importance and scope. Therefore, investment in diplomacy should be increased and knowledge with the goal to detect potential threats and anticipate them.

* This analysis was presented as a paper at the XXIX International Defense congress held in Jaca in September 2022.