Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — the “Boycott Quartet” — have been trying to isolate Qatar since their embargo began in June. But in North Africa, their search for supporters failed remarkably. Despite the Gulf Cooperation Council’s significant investment there, most North African countries have maintained a neutral position rather than siding with either camp. Why haven’t they?
While many view this decision as a traditional diplomacy of neutrality, my research shows that the strategy is jointly driven by fears of hegemonic expansionism and the lure of Qatari investments. North African regimes saw the quartet coalition as a rising threat to regional security and so have indirectly balanced with the weaker player, Qatar.
GCC investment in North Africa
Since 2011, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have competed for political and financial influence in North Africa. Qatar’s sway peaked in the first two years following the Arab uprisings, as its allies — mainly political Islamists — led transitions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.
But its role shrank after 2013, following the military coup in Egypt that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government, the Islamist Ennahda party’s withdrawal from power in Tunisia and the quasi state-collapse in Libya.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have expanded their efforts in North Africa. They poured billions into Egypt after the coup, and have pledged to invest in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. The UAE government has armed proxies and intervened militarily in Libya.
Morocco: A Saudi ally seeking neutrality
Rabat’s position was perhaps the most surprising. Morocco is Saudi Arabia’s closest ally in North Africa, and Morocco has strong economic ties with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Yet the kingdom not only stated its neutrality, but it has also sent food shipments to Qatar. Why?
Partly, self-interest. Qatar has recently increased its investments in Morocco. It also supported Morocco in brokering the Skhirat agreement on Libya. The ruling Islamist PJD party, moreover, has publicly sided with Qatar. Days ago, Qatar announced a lifting of visa requirements for Moroccans.
Morocco also has various disagreements with the other GCC countries, which promised to invest heavily in the kingdom and even invited it to join the GCC, but little materialized. Morocco has joined the war in Yemen and other Saudi-led initiatives, but with limited results.
Meanwhile, the UAE’s history of supporting separatist entities — Somaliland, eastern Libya, southern Yemen and now possibly Gaza — is also concerning for Morocco, which has its own Western Sahara question.
By remaining neutral, Morocco is showing its discontent to its allies. However, the Saudi monarch’s decision to spend his August holidays in Tangier shows the enduring strength of that relationship.
Algeria: A resource-rich hegemon fearing expansion
The official statement out of Algeria was also neutral, advocating dialogue. However, 31 Islamist members of parliament formed a parliamentary committee in solidarity with Qatar, and Qatar’s ambassador in Algiers has held weekly public meetings with high-level officials.
Even though Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pledged to invest heavily in Algeria, they disagree on the oil production strategy that should be adopted by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Libya is another point of contention; the Emirati-Egyptian axis backs a military solution, which Algiers thinks could compromise its security. It also fears that an axis victory could make Libya a Saudi ally in OPEC.
Qatar, conversely, has just invested in a $2 billion steel project in Algeria. It also lobbied with Algeria in OPEC to reach an agreement to reduce production. Algiers fears that an isolated Qatar may withdraw from the deal, affecting oil prices. Furthermore, the two countries have similar views on Libya. Algeria is, moreover, Iran’s closest North African partner, while Iran sides with Qatar on this crisis.
Tunisia: The delicate balance of a democracy
Since 2011, Tunisia has been a site of GCC competition for regional influence. But Tunisia’s foreign minister stressed his country’s neutrality in the current crisis. Ennahda — whose leadership is actually close to both Qatar and Saudi Arabia — echoed this position.
In June, the UAE sent two envoys to Tunisia. Qatar has also sent its minister of state for foreign affairs. Iran’s foreign minister also stopped in Tunisia during his North African tour to discuss the crisis. In July, the Saudi minister of commerce and investment landed in Tunis with a 50-strong delegation, reiterating “Tunisia 2020” conference pledges of $800 million, and adding contracts worth $200 million.
Nonetheless, the “Tunisian model” is often bashed in Egyptian and Emirati media, while the UAE snubbed Tunisia diplomatically and economically since 2011. Qatar, however, remains the biggest Arab investor in Tunisia and an important diplomatic partner.
Libya: Oil prospects and civil war alliances
Engulfed in a civil war, Libya has rival governments based in the country’s west and east.
In western Libya, Qatar remains a major player with strong alliances in Tripoli and Misrata. But Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) has recently taken steps away from Qatar as it attempts to broker a peace deal with eastern Libya. Yet while it may be decreasing its dependence on Qatar, the GNA cannot stand against it without risking major infighting in its control zone. It will also need the emirate to strengthen its negotiation role (with the government in the east).
Tripoli has so far refrained from issuing any statement on the GCC rift.
Eastern Libyan leaders, by contrast, participated early in the anti-Qatar campaign. They accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and fomenting divisions in Libya. In fact, the UAE has been running a military airport near Benghazi since 2015, while Egyptian and Emirati fighter jets occasionally operate in Libyan skies. Eastern Libya is often seen as an Egyptian-Emirati satellite, which makes its alignment expected.
The future of North African relations with the gulf
Direct hegemonic pressure from the Boycott Quartet and “softer” economic power exerted by Qatar have led the major North African countries to adopt positions of neutrality. But as eastern Libya shows, this is not a consistent position in the region. Mauritania, a junior member of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), is also anti-Qatar, and so are most of the countries forming the AMU’s southern belt (Chad, Niger and Senegal).
Far from following a default policy, each country made unique calculations that led it to choose neutrality. Countries that usually have little else in common reached similar political conclusions. But this also means their decisions may change if the quartet increases pressure, putting them again at odds.
Youssef Cherif is a Tunis-based political analyst and a member of the Civic Activism Network at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is on Twitter as: @faiyla