Tebboune’s hostility against Pedro Sanchez rises as Spain shifts its interest to Morocco

  • Pedro Sanchez has created tension with his Algerian counterpart by recognizing Morocco’s plan for Western Sahara.
  • Abdelmadjid Tebboune considers Sanchez’s actions an attack on the goodwill relations between both countries.
  • Sanchez aims to improve his relationship with Morocco and avoid further crises. 
Sanchez and King Mohammed IV Tebboune
La Moncloa- Gobierno de España

Why is Tebboune hostile with Sanchez?

Answer:  Sanchez’s recognition of Morocco’s autonomy plan has deteriorated Spain-Algeria relations and trade deals.

After two decades of friendship and cooperation between both states, the diplomatic relationship between Spain and Algeria is at its lowest point. The recent foreign policies pursued by Spanish president Pedro Sanchez regarding Western Sahara and Morocco have angered Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a historical enemy of the Western Maghreb country.

Pedro Sanchez showed his support to the Moroccan cause after decades of successive governments remaining neutral in the conflict.  He considered Morocco’s 2007 proposition of autonomy for Western Sahara — the one that they still propose — as the ‘most serious, realistic and credible’ to solve the conflict. Morocco’s autonomy plan offers the Sahara autonomous region its own government and a parliament (made up of local tribes’ representatives and directly elected members), its own courts as well as taxation power and budget management. Nonetheless, the Western Sahara territory would still be part of Morocco. The Polisario Front had already rejected this proposition soon after it was made.

In June 2022, Sanchez ratified his decision not to recognise the Sahara’s right to self-determination in the Spanish parliament. This led Tebboune to suspend the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation, signed with Spain in 2002, as well as to freeze all trade relations with Spain. While the decision of Pedro Sanchez did not count on the support of the Spanish parliamentary forces, it now seems that he will remain solid when defending his decision.

What does Sanchez want?

Answer: Pedro Sanchez aims to improve his relationship with King Mohamed VI, who has often threatened with revoking their migration agreements.

The role of Spain in the Northern African feud, as a neighbour of both countries, is fragile and unstable. Between picking a side or keeping the balance, any action can affect its relationship and, therefore, their agreements and diplomacy. Both parties are interested in Spain’s support and, likewise, Sanchez wishes to profit from both.

On one hand, Pedro Sanchez acknowledges the importance of Algeria as an economic partner, particularly for its gas supply. Spain, together with Italy, was one of the least affected European nations by the scarcity of Russian gas thanks to its trade deals with Algiers. Throughout the years, Spain aimed to become an energetic hub between Europe and Africa, due to its geostrategic position.

On the other hand, rescinding Morocco’s goodwill would be a tricky situation. Many territorial disputes between the African and the European countries remain frozen for now, like the Moroccan claims for the Spanish Northern African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Due to its location and historical ties, Morocco has often pressured Spain to ‘return’ them, using similar rhetoric that Spain uses for the UK-owned city of Gibraltar.

As has happened in the past, a rushed decision can make King Mohamed IV regain interest in them. Ceuta and Melilla are as well relevant when considering that they are the only politically European territories in Africa. They serve as the gateway to Europe for thousands of migrants and refugees seeking better living conditions. 

The EU and Spain cooperate closely with Morocco in the field of migration by funding programs for border management, the socioeconomic integration of migrants as well as on migration governance. However, as it has happened in the past, King Mohamed can pressure Pedro Sanchez by turning a blind eye to the migrants attempting to cross the border. Sanchez’s desire is, for once, to finish those repetitive diplomatic conflicts and guarantee a steady relationship with its closest neighbour.

What does Tebboune want?

Answer: Tebboune seeks support in his diplomatic fight against Morocco.

The Algerian president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, is determined to win the race for the leadership of Northern Africa. While sharing economic, political and social prospects, in terms of identity and allies they try to distance themselves as much as possible. While Morocco often resorts to Western countries for support and diplomacy, Tebboune seeks to improve relations with African and Asian nations, such as Nigeria and China.

Tebboune sees itself as an important actor in the Western Sahara conflict. Supporting and backing the Polisario Front’s fight for independence since its foundation in 1973, Algeria has been its best international megaphone. It has acted as a negotiator and an advocate in international summits and conferences and has condemned Morocco’s actions repeatedly. 

When one considers that Algeria is fighting an internal autonomy/independence movement in Kabylia, their support to the Polisario Front seems like shooting themselves in the foot. However, ethnically and culturally speaking, Algerian and Western Saharan people are mainly Arabic, while both Morocco and Kabylia are predominantly Amazigh (or Berber) nations. These differences are key when understanding the Northern African conflict. 

Both French ex-colonies suffered the ‘divide-and-conquer’ policy, where colonists aimed to create cultural and identity tensions between groups. These tensions remain until today, particularly in Algeria where Amazigh identity (through music, politics, and tradition) has been prosecuted and silenced. 

Apart from the identity conflict, while Algeria could not persist without the European market, it counts on other interested partners such as Italy, which could become Europe’s next gas port. Tebboune could then easily replace Spain’s gas demand and still supply Europe. Still, Algeria may no longer maintain the monopoly of the gas transactions to Europe, since other countries like its rival Morocco or Nigeria (even though the latter has as well agreements and pipeline plans with Algeria) are slowly entering the market. Tebboune must be cautious when deciding the approach to take against Sanchez. 

What is Sanchez doing?

Answer: Pedro Sanchez made public in March, and later ratified in June, his support for Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara.

In 2021, Pedro Sanchez was caught in the middle of controversy by hosting Brahim Gali, leader of the Polisario Front, and providing him with medical assistance due to his critical covid-19 infection. When news of this arrived in Morocco, Sanchez was accused of carrying out acts “contrary to the spirit of association and good neighbourliness“.  Despite arguing humanitarian reasons for admitting the Polisario leader, the Alawite kingdom retaliated by opening borders and starting a migratory crisis. The Spanish Minister of Defence denounced these actions as ‘blackmail’ and ‘aggression’.

Sanchez aims to develop relations with Morocco by supporting the Moroccan plan for Western Sahara, even if that implies deteriorating relations with Tebboune. By suspending the 20-year friendship treaty between both nations, Tebboune has retaliated against Sanchez’s decision. Adding on, the current European energy crisis opens a space of uncertainty about providers. In November 2021, Algeria closed the Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline (GME pipeline) after Tebboune’s government rejected renewing their 25-Year contract, halting nearly all of Morocco’s gas supply.

Tebboune still supplies gas to Spain through the direct Medgaz pipeline. And on the 29th of June, Spanish officials made public that Spain initiated exporting gas to Morocco in reverse flow through the GME pipeline, acting once again against Tebboune’s wishes. While Sanchez’s alignment with Morocco is a dangerous move regarding Tebboune and Spain-Algeria’s relations, it almost guarantees Spain a safe performance in the matter of border control in the cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

Moreover, Morocco is also rich in natural resources and has the potential for product expansion. Also, this standing is supported by other allies such as the United States, which has boosted its relations with King Mohamed IV and recognized its plan for Western Sahara in exchange for normalising relations with Israel.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: while Tebboune acts with confidence and inflexibility, in the long run this shift could benefit Sanchez.

Given the context of the tense relations between both countries, Tebboune has a wider margin of action. He can (and is willing to) use these kinds of threats as leverage, intensifying, even more, the neighbours’ relations. Still, in the long run, it is unsure how much these decisions may affect its diplomacy. If the EU keeps backing Spain, Tebboune would be facing a wall.

In any case, Pedro Sanchez is conscious that it is impossible for him to be ambivalent between the two Northern African countries. After decades of prioritising Algeria, the recent diplomatic shift of King Mohamed’s diplomacy with countries like the US or Israel, as well as European partners like Germany, has motivated Sanchez to adopt a different position.

While partially dependent on Algerian gas, if the conflict does not escalate and the Algerian gas provision remains unhindered, Sanchez may be the winner of this quarrel. Even if the Spanish population and parliament have criticised his decision to support Morocco’s plan, it could mean the end (or, at least, the paralyzation) of the migratory and territorial feuds between both countries. 

If you are European, this quarrel could affect you directly. The distant, but possible, loss of Algeria’s energetic partnership means further volatility in gas supply and energy prices. The European Union is currently looking for options to avoid an energy crisis in the upcoming winter. And while it has been proposed to generate alternative energy sources within the European borders, that long-term plan could not arrive in the next couple of years. However, unless you are Spanish (or Algerian in that matter) the current development of the conflict should not affect your daily life much. 

Alberto Campos Moya

Research & Analysis Member