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May 3, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

5 mins read

Bad Blood Still Flows Between Algeria and Morocco

Old Animosities Renew Between Algeria and Morocco
(FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Despite weakening finances, Algiers will continue to prioritize military spending, shifting the balance of power between Algeria and Morocco in Algeria’s favor.
  • Consequently, Morocco will increasingly look to its regional and Western allies to better secure its position.

Suspicion and unease are creeping back into relations between Algeria and Morocco. An undeniable shift in power has occurred between the neighboring countries, as Algeria's military spending outpaces Morocco's. Large-scale Algerian arms purchases in 2016 reinforce the likelihood that Algiers will continue investing heavily in its military. And as Algeria bolsters its forces, Morocco's position in the region will only get more precarious, especially if a crisis or conflict erupts. To counter Algeria, Rabat will seek alternative strategies to retain its security. But whether Morocco chooses to do so through select military procurements or through alliances, there is no guarantee its forces can match Algeria's new weaponry. 

The modern states of Morocco and Algeria were defined by mutual mistrust. Shortly after gaining independence from France, the absence of demarcated lines along certain sections of the Algeria-Morocco border brought about territorial disputes, which eventually led to the Sand War in October 1963. The border was finally demarcated in 1972, but hostilities between the two countries persisted. 

Tensions between Rabat and Algiers were further inflamed during the 1975-1991 Western Sahara War. Algeria actively backed the Polisario Front — a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement that sought to gain independence from Morocco in the Western Sahara — to check Morocco's expansion and regional influence. Algeria provided critical support for the Polisario Front, supplying the rebels with heavy weapons and equipment as well as sanctuary in Algerian territory. Algerian forces even clashed directly with Moroccan forces during the 1976 Battle of Amgala, almost leading to a full-scale war.

The Western Sahara War eventually ended in September 1991 with a cease-fire that left Morocco with 80 percent of the territory of the Western Sahara and the Polisario Front with the rest. However, subsequent negotiations to fully resolve the conflict have failed to make much headway, and the simmering conflict continues to poison relations between the two countries.

Weapons Superiority

Given its long-standing animosity toward Algeria, Morocco has historically formulated its strategic defense plans around a potential conflict. These plans require not only a large standing army, but also considerable investment in military hardware capable of withstanding an Algerian attack. For more than a decade after the end of the Western Sahara War, Morocco was largely able to maintain a sufficient balance of force with Algeria. But Algiers steadily began pushing ahead of Morocco around 2003, using its abundant hydrocarbon resources to invest in its military. While Morocco's military budget largely matched or even surpassed that of Algeria's at the turn of the century, Rabat can no longer afford to keep up.

By 2009, Algeria had surpassed South Africa as the continent's largest defense market. In 2013, it became the first African country to spend more than $10 billion on its military, an increase of 176 percent since 2004. Algeria now spends approximately $10.5 billion a year on defense, more than three times as much as Morocco.

Algerian Military Spending, Moroccan Military Spending

Because Algeria is a major energy exporter and depends on its hydrocarbon resources for public spending, the crash in oil prices beginning in 2014 severely hurt the country's finances. Algeria's budget deficit nearly doubled between 2014 and 2015, jumping from 6.2 percent to 11.5 percent. Nevertheless, as a number of large arms deals recently signed by Algeria indicate, the country is not planning to significantly cut back on its military spending.

In January 2016, reports announced that Algeria had ordered 12 Su-34 fighter-bombers from Moscow. It will be the first country besides Russia to operate the aircraft. Then, in April, Algeria reportedly increased the number of Russian Mi-28NE attack helicopters it is buying from eight to 42. Large-scale Algerian arms purchases, including negotiations over the Su-35 air superiority fighter and a host of other equipment from Russia, will only continue.

Balance by Other Means

Military spending, or advanced weaponry for that matter, is not the only thing that defines military strength. Still, it is evident that Algeria is steadily tilting the balance of power with Morocco in its favor. And, while Morocco can make strategic investments in its armed forces, it is clear that it will also have to rely on other measures to ensure its security and interests.

As in the Western Sahara War, a key part of Morocco's strategy will depend on its Arab allies. Its close relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will be especially important. Morocco has maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia in particular, having consistently deployed forces to the Gulf region in support of Riyadh's goals. For example, Rabat sent fighter jets to take part in the campaign in Yemen, even losing an F-16 jet and its pilot. And the GCC has reciprocated this allegiance, firmly standing by Morocco with financial and diplomatic support. In an extreme case, Morocco could call on the GCC to send military aid, especially air power.

Morocco also benefits from close ties with France and the United States. Both countries are major arms suppliers to the kingdom, and whose militaries regularly hold joint exercises with Moroccan forces. The United States designated Morocco in 2004 as a major non-NATO ally, allowing Rabat to benefit from priority deliveries of military surplus, reciprocal training, and the use of U.S. financing in purchasing specific defense equipment. Morocco will undoubtedly continue to sustain and advance its relationship with the U.S. military as a hedge against Algeria's militarization.

As Morocco uneasily prepares for the shifting balance of power with Algeria, it will have to increasingly rely on its alliance network to counter Algiers' military spending. Rabat will seek more cooperation with the GCC and with Western allies such as France and the United States. But even Morocco's alliances are no assurance against potential clashes with Algeria, especially while disputes remain over Western Sahara.

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