Western Sahara

Algeria, Morocco and Western Sahara: Why Tension, Not Conflict, Has Become the Norm

During an interview on 29 December with the French daily Le Figaro, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared that his country had cut ties with Morocco in the summer of 2021 to “avoid war.”[i] Tebboune’s comments reflected just how far relations had deteriorated, and that avoiding conflict required a strong response. Hence, the diplomatic break of August 2021. What has resulted in this bilateral nadir? Three distinct and long-standing dynamics contributed to this escalation: the status of the Western Sahara conflict, the foreign policy priorities of the current Algerian leadership in Algiers, and Morocco’s own foreign policy, including its growing relationship with Israel.

The costs of conflict—including the prospect of significant economic disruptions, social harm, and regime instability—continue to make active hostilities unlikely.

Despite these tensions, the costs of conflict—including the prospect of significant economic disruptions, social harm, and regime instability—continue to make active hostilities unlikely, even on a small scale. However, tensions are likely to continue, not only due to the impasse over the Western Sahara, but also because Algiers continues to view Rabat with suspicion, and maintaining tension helps put pressure on the latter. Furthermore, Algiers’ antagonism toward Rabat has a significant domestic component: it serves as a public justification for a strong army. This is an important factor in the aftermath of the protest movement of 2019 that led to the removal of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and began to implicitly threaten the military’s political role.

For Morocco, this tension has created practical inconveniences and drawbacks, including suspended travel and the inability to import Algerian gas (although the suspension of the Maghreb Europe Gas pipeline was foreshadowed before the diplomatic break in August of 2011). This also closes the already tiny apertures for international negotiations on the Western Sahara and increases the risk of a worse conflict with the Polisario. Morocco has publicly and quietly called for mediation and a lowering of tension; however, the kingdom is not willing to appear weak or cede its regional influence to appease Algeria. Nor is Morocco willing to compromise on the Western Sahara conflict while it is in a position of strength.

Between Flame Wars and Real Wars

As the diplomatic tension plays out, an important trailing indicator is the extent to which public opinion reflects official acrimony. The latest public manifestation of their diplomatic spat tainted the African Nation Championship that kicked off on 13 January in Algeria. By suspending Moroccan flights to Algeria after the diplomatic break, the Algerian government prevented the Moroccan national team from flying directly to Algeria, leading Morocco to withdraw from the tournament.[iii] Moreover, the chants of fans in the stadiums calling Moroccans “animals”[iv] and myriad other slights from both sides all point to increased negative social sentiment. This is especially prevalent on social media, where Moroccan- and Algerian-linked accounts propagate mutually hateful rhetoric that often centres around morality or other character defects.

Over the course of the past year, the two sides traded frequent attacks around geopolitical issues (such as the Western Sahara and normalisation with Israel) but also cultural issues, including food, traditional clothing, jewellery and other such elements of daily life. An example of this is the controversy over the Algerian national football team’s jerseys, in which Morocco lodged a complaint against sports attire company Adidas for alleged theft of cultural heritage. This issue centred on Zellij, a mosaic pattern that is found in both Morocco and Algeria, and which both claim to be the “real” or “rightful” owners of.[v] When relations break down, even the smallest disputes become highly contentious.

At times, this hostile discourse, which is largely present on social media, is also reflected in mainstream media. For example, Algerian official media omitted any discussion of the Moroccan national team’s performance in the World Cup in Qatar, including its wins and historic qualifications to the semi-finals, when the rest of the Arab world and Africa shared in the celebration and pride. Outside of mainstream media—including on social media—Morocco’s performance temporarily overcame these divisions and engendered positive sentiment between Moroccans and Algerians. However, these dynamics reverted quickly, and the larger social media battle remains an important component of the ongoing diplomatic tension, as public animosity helps legitimise official hostility.[vi]

Geopolitics of the Western Sahara

The Western Sahara’s usefulness as a buffer may be changing.

Morocco and Algeria’s geopolitical rivalry has largely played out in the Western Sahara, where Algiers backs the Polisario against Rabat. As a territory over half of Morocco’s size, the Western Sahara issue has not only dominated Moroccan foreign policy but has always been tied to the legitimacy of the monarchy. For Algeria, the question of the Western Sahara is also tied to its own independence struggles, harkening back to feelings of betrayal and ultimately fear of Moroccan predation that linger on from the Sand War of 1963. In that regard, Algeria has viewed the Western Sahara conflict as a means to contain Morocco. Nevertheless, the Western Sahara’s usefulness as a buffer may be changing: Morocco’s diplomatic and political headway on the issue outside of the international UN process and generally more assertive foreign policy has diminished the sense that Rabat is mired in an ongoing morass. Morocco is no longer hampered by this issue at the regional or international level the way it was in the 1980s, 1990s or even the 2000s. Even the return to active fighting in November 2020 has not substantially changed that.

The Western Sahara Conflict

For the past two decades, the long-running conflict between Morocco and the Polisario over the Western Sahara’s sovereignty has been at an impasse. The UN has been negotiating an internationally sanctioned resolution to the conflict since the late 1970s. Major international inflection points have included the ceasefire of 1991 and the formation of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MUNERSO) to lay the groundwork for a referendum through which Sahrawis would choose between independence or full integration with Morocco. In 2007, Morocco unilaterally proposed a third option of autonomy — where the Sahrawis would run their government under Moroccan sovereignty — and insisted it was the only outcome Rabat would accept. As the process dragged on, conditions on the ground shifted to reflect each side’s changing aspirations. This has made a solution harder to reach. The closest it came to a breakthrough was under James Baker, Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara from 1997-2004. But Baker’s plans were eventually abandoned, and the process has been stalled since.[vii] There is little promise of a resolution on the horizon.

Over the years, both Morocco and the Polisario have seemed to find comfort in the status quo. The Polisario leadership (distinct from the Sahrawi refugees) founded a government and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in exile in Algeria in the late 1970s and have continued to build upon their aspirations for an independent Western Sahara largely from exile. In the early days, the Polisario government benefited from both Libyan[viii] and Algerian support.[ix] Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya provided military training and weapons. Algeria continues to provide diplomatic support and hosts the SADR government in exile and camps to host the refugee population. While Gaddafi’s support for the Polisario waned in the 1990s and ended with the collapse of his regime in 2011, Algeria remains the Polisario government’s main political and diplomatic supporter. Meanwhile, refugee generations in Tindouf live a subsistence life often bereft of basic commodities and services.[x]

Similarly, Morocco has also set about establishing its own reality in the Western Saharan territories—come what may of the international negotiations. In the years of active fighting, especially in the 1980s, Morocco began to gain control over most of the territories and ensured the defence of the area with the construction of a berm. That berm has become a demarcation of Moroccan-controlled areas versus what is often referred to as the disputed lands that Polisario forces can access and patrol. Since then, the Moroccan government has established an absolute presence in the territory it has control over, pursuing accelerated development and investment plans. The area is home to a diverse group that includes Sahrawi who have come to embrace, oppose or distrust Moroccan sovereignty; military personnel stationed there over the decades and their families; and people who have gradually migrated to the area in search of jobs and opportunities as the rate of urbanisation and development increased. All the while, Morocco has also pursued its own diplomatic solutions.

Morocco’s strategy of securing bilateral recognition of its sovereignty claims over the Western Sahara has allowed it to sidestep the stalled international process and actualise its preferred outcome. The Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco’s claims in December 2020 fits in this category.[xi] Given the sheer diplomatic weight of the United States, this recognition tilted the scales further in Morocco’s favour, necessitating action first from the Polisario and then Algeria. Prior to the recognition, in November 2020, the ceasefire broke down and the international process collapsed into a further impasse.[xii] Soon after, the diplomatic break dealt another blow to the prospect of negotiations.

Morocco beyond the Western Sahara

Morocco’s strategy toward the Western Sahara has been bolstered by Rabat’s efforts to be more “present” on the African stage. In the 1980s and 1990s, Morocco’s role in the engagement between Maghreb Sahel or northern sub-Saharan African states was overshadowed by Algeria and Libya and tainted by the Western Sahara conflict, especially in institutional structures like the African Union that are defined by their anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism.

Morocco’s efforts to extend itself diplomatically, economically and security-wise in the Sahel come at Algeria’s expense.

Another aspect of the shifting geopolitical dynamics is intertwined with the Western Sahara issue. Morocco’s engagement with the African continent increased in the aftermath of the 2011 fall of Gaddafi, whose influence and petrodollars had previously dominated Maghreb-Sahel and Maghreb-African engagement. Together with Algeria’s limited foreign policy focus in the latter years of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1999-2019), these events allowed Morocco to take up more diplomatic space and expand its engagement. Algeria has long viewed the Sahel as its own sphere of influence and Morocco’s efforts to extend itself diplomatically, economically and security-wise in the region come at Algeria’s expense. Algeria’s leadership wants to stem any further competition in the area.

Morocco’s efforts to evolve into a regional power were years in the making and involved extensive diplomatic and economic outreach and partnership with previously overlooked partners. This not only resulted in important shifts in several African nations’ positions on the Western Sahara conflict—many of which have now either accepted Morocco’s sovereignty or moved away from fully embracing the SADR[xiii]—but also reshaped Morocco’s image in Africa as a rising and ambitious economic and diplomatic actor, further increasing the sense of competition with Algeria.

Morocco’s bilateral relationship with Israel, especially the military component, has introduced a real challenge for Algeria.

Furthermore, Morocco’s nascent relationship with Israel has implications for the military balance of power and the country’s broader regional ambition to feature in a new security architecture for the Middle East and North Africa.[xiv] Morocco’s bilateral relationship with Israel, especially the military component, has introduced a real challenge for Algeria. Not only does Algiers have to contend with a possible shift in the regional military balance but also the potential for increasing Israeli engagement in North Africa and even the Sahel through its partnership with Morocco. The prospect that Morocco could gain greater military capabilities has created an environment ripe for tension, misunderstanding and perhaps costly accidents, despite that the triggers of a more acute or armed conflict remain distant.


The closest these tensions have come to erupting into active conflict was in November 2021, when an alleged Moroccan drone attack on Polisario targets resulted in three Algerian casualties.[xv] The lack of armed retaliation potentially indicated that the tensions remain largely a matter of posturing and politics for public consumption. For Algeria, the benefits of sustaining diplomatic pressure are substantial. Such a strategy shows action, resolve and unwavering commitment to its revolutionary ideals—support for the Polisario, the plight of Sahrawis and rejection of Israel—and presents a clear case for a consistently powerful military. The persistent rejection of mediation and efforts to lower tensions, however, further risks international perception of Algiers as intransigent and inflammatory.

Algeria’s growing importance as a supplier of gas to Europe—as Russian supplies dwindle—could help Algiers muster international support from where it would have been difficult to do so a year prior. Morocco’s desire to put this bothersome issue aside so it can continue to pursue its ambitious agenda—including on the Western Sahara conflict—gives the appearance of a more sympathetic partner, even when it breaks international rules or norms. Fortunately, neither Algeria nor Morocco have yet deemed it advantageous to plunge into armed confrontation, yet both are setting the ground for intractable tension that could become harder to manage.

[i] Yves Thréard, “Abdelmadjid Tebboune: «Il est urgent d’ouvrir une nouvelle ère des relations franco-algériennes»”, Le Figaro, 29 December 2022. https://www.lefigaro.fr/international/abdelmadjid-tebboune-il-est-urgent-d-ouvrir-une-nouvelle-ere-des-relations-franco-algeriennes-20221229.
[ii] Adam Nossiter, “In an Epic Standoff, Unarmed Algerians Get the Army to Blink,” The New York Times, 29 July 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/29/world/africa/algeria-revolution-standoff.html
[iii] “Morocco to skip tournament in Algeria over flights ban”, Reuters, 12 January 2023. https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/morocco-skip-tournament-algeria-over-flights-ban-2023-01-12/#:~:text=RABAT%2C%20Jan%2012%20(Reuters),football%20federation%20said%20on%20Thursday.
[iv] Safaa Kasraoui, “CHAN: Moroccan Alliance of Sports Journalists Condemns Algeria’s Hateful Acts Against Moroccans”, Morocco World News, 15 January 2023. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2023/01/353542/chan-moroccan-alliance-of-sports-journalists-condemns-algerias-hateful-acts-against-moroccans
[v] Malu Cursino, “Adidas row: Morocco demands change to Algerian jersey design”, BBC, 30 September 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-63084459.
[vi] Based on a forthcoming co-authored study of social media attitudes around the diplomatic tension.
[vii] The Associated Press, “Baker Quits West Sahara as UN Envoy”, The New York Times, 13 June 2004. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/13/international/africa/baker-quits-west-sahara-as-un-envoy.html
[viii] Pranay B. Gupte, “Libya Announces Peace Efforts in Sahara, Lebanon and Persian Gulf”, The New York Times, 20 June 1981. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/06/20/world/libya-announces-peace-efforts-in-sahara-lebanon-and-persian-gulf.html
[ix] Houda Chograni, “The Polisario Front, Morocco, and the Western Sahara Conflict”, Arab Center Washington DC, 22 June 2021. https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/the-polisario-front-morocco-and-the-western-sahara-conflict/
[x] Lamine Chikhi, “In Western Sahara refugee camps, little optimism over frozen conflict”, Reuters, 20 January 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/western-sahara-refugee-camps-little-optimism-over-frozen-conflict-2022-01-20/
[xi] Ishaan Tharoor, “Trump’s parting gift to Morocco”, The Washington Post, 14 December 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/12/14/trumps-parting-gift-morocco/
[xii] “Polisario leader says Western Sahara ceasefire with Morocco is over”, Reuters, 14 November 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-morocco-westernsahara/polisario-leader-says-western-sahara-ceasefire-with-morocco-is-over-idUSKBN27U0GE
[xiii] These are two different categories (the ones that have reversed their recognition of SADR and the ones that have recognised Morocco’s claims. The “many” I am referring to here are the states that have diplomatic representation in Laayoune or Dakhla (both contexts territory), including Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Zambia, the Central Africa Republic, Malawi and Arab nations such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
[xiv] Intissar Fakir, “Morocco and Israel: Economic Opportunities, Military Incentives, and Moral Hazards”, Middle East Institute Publications 01 December 2022. https://www.mei.edu/publications/morocco-and-israel-economic-opportunities-military-incentives-and-moral-hazards
[xv] “Algiers blames Morocco for deadly attack on Algerians in Western Sahara region”, France24, 03 November 2021. https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20211103-algiers-blames-morocco-for-bomb-attack-that-killed-three-algerian-truck-drivers

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