Algerian-Spanish Relations Suffer From Spanish Policy Shift On Western Sahara

On June 9th, 2022, Algeria suspended the friendship treaty established in 2002 between Algeria and Spain. Tensions between Algeria and Spain have worsened due to Spain’s new position on Western Sahara. Algeria has consistently backed the Polisario Front movement in Western Sahara, which fights for full independence and sovereignty. Morocco considers Western Sahara its own property and under its jurisdiction. In March, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez chose to endorse Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara, drafted in 2007. Spain has since accused Algeria of increased relations with Moscow and alignment with Russia. 

On Monday, June 13th, Spanish Economy Minister Nadia Calviño responded to the cessation of the friendship treaty, stating that, “I saw back then that Algeria was more and more aligned with Russia, so this (decision to suspend the treaty) didn’t surprise me.” Algerian representatives, such as President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, asserted that commercial energy supply contracts would be broken over the Western Sahara dispute. However, Algeria has since suspended foreign trade with Spain. Spanish officials have floated the idea of formally renouncing Algeria to the European Union at large. In response, the Brussels representative stated that they were “extremely concerned” at the current situation and that they would “…ask the Algeria party to take another look at that decision” (EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Nabila Massralio).

European states, such as Italy and Spain, have struggled to find gas suppliers other than Russia. Algeria and Italy have been in negotiations to increase gas flows to Italy via the Transmed pipeline. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to Rome to negotiate an agreement between Italian gas company ENI and Algerian state-owned company Sonatrach. However, critics have noted that purchasing gas from Algeria will inadvertently support Putin’s regime because of active weapons supply contracts between Algiers and Moscow. Algeria’s relationship with Russia is marked by its history of weapon trading and arms deals. In April of 2022, Russia and Algeria conducted joint anti-terrorist exercises on the border of Morocco. These military exercises follow a history of “optimizing the readiness of their leadership bodies to continue joint cooperation in the fight against terrorism.”

Umberto Profazio, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Maghreb analyst at the NATO Defence College Foundation, spoke to Al Jazeera about Algeria’s current position in international relations. Profazio stated that  “the roots of this balancing act must be found in the non-alignment movement, where Algeria was at the forefront, which also seems a safe foreign policy choice for many countries in the Maghreb and the developing world – a third way to escape the spiraling and polarization stemming from the conflict in Ukraine.” Riccardo Fabiani, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, argued that “Algeria wants to be heard and taken into consideration by its European counterparts, which have been under increasing pressure from Morocco to renegotiate their relations and review their positions on Western Sahara.” Furthermore, Fabiani asserts that if Algiers attempted to leverage their position as an energy supplier to garner support for Western Saharan sovereignty, it would “risk jeopardizing its role as a reliable energy provider.”

The current relationship between Algeria and Spain is concerning, as the status of Western Sahara could realistically result in a proxy war between these two states. Spain should work to re-establish friendly relations with Algeria. To prevent Algiers from becoming increasingly aligned with Moscow, European states who purchase Algerian energy should encourage Algiers to look towards France for arms purchasing. If Algiers were to cease weapons purchasing from Russia and move towards France, then European states could rely on Algerian energy without fear of supporting Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.