Will the ‘G3’ of Maghreb states reshape the balance of power in North Africa?

Will the ‘G3’ of Maghreb states reshape the balance of power in North Africa?

The prospect of Maghreb states’ unity in transforming the oil-rich North Africa, once the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, into a more integrated region of stability and growth was buried at the Carthage summit in April 2024[i] with the launch of a tripartite initiative bringing together Tunisia, Algeria and Libya, nicknamed the G3. The three countries decided to turn their backs on any potential plan of reviving the late Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), established in 1989 and initially improving relations between Mauritania Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

Despite initial optimism, the nascent alliance of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian nationalists that met at the Villa de France hotel in Tangier in 1958 faced significant challenges. It was clear that collective action was essential to achieve the goal of a Maghreb free from colonial domination. But the differences between the countries and the underlying tensions between them were obstacles to sustained progress. The question was who would take the lead in this emerging group. Even before the founding treaty of the AMU was signed, there were signs of potential discord.

The AMU had withstood the challenges posed by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who saw the organization as a stepping stone towards unity between African states, and it had survived the Algerian-Moroccan conflict over the Sahara region. It had held through the popular uprisings of 2011 that toppled supposedly immutable Arab regimes. However, it did not survive the Abraham Accords, conceived by the Trump administration to normalize diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab-majority states it had not had official ties with.

The signing of the Abraham Accords by Morocco in 2020 highlighted significant differences of opinion in the Maghreb.[ii] As Palestinian-Israeli relations touch on the holy sites of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood, the Accords were bound to become highly political and sensitive in the eyes of the broader Arab world. The fatal blow to their standing came with the war in the Gaza Strip. Despite the outbreak of an intensive war in the Palestinian enclave, no signatory state to the agreements withdrew on the grounds that recognising Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself did not preclude severe criticism of its military operations.[iii] Disagreements over Israel served as a cause for further rift between Maghreb states.

Building on common grounds

The creation of the G3 was the culmination of a breakthrough after three long decades of stagnation, during which member countries of the AMU did little more than believe that they still had a chance to build an alliance in the future.

The three partner countries are clear about the challenges they face, and know that their initiative has been greeted with the utmost caution by regional foreign ministries, while their cooperation is off to a shaky start. On the other hand, identifying converging interests in regional geopolitics and finding common ground on which to begin cooperation is a realistic option, if not a shrewd tactic.

While Tunisian-Algerian diplomatic rapprochement was a likely prospect–sharing multiple interests in the realm of Mediterranean issues–Libya’s participation in the grouping is more unstable. It is therefore interesting to note the luxury of precautions taken by the G3 to bring Libya into this alliance. As Tripoli had benefited from Moroccan mediation (the Bouznika process) in its civil war, Rabat did not really appreciate its accession to the G3. Of course, this is not a complete break with the past for Tripoli, but the new direction presents a challenge for Rabat. A positive aspect for the G3 was the involvement of Libyan diplomat Mohammed el-Menfi in signing the agreement. He is a man of consensus and as the current head of the Presidential Council in charge of the elections, he is in contact with all Libyan parties that have agreed to enter this new alliance. The choice of el-Menfi sends a message to those who questioned “which Libya” would participate in the G3, considering the country’s persisting division between its West and East-based authorities.

The G3 is proposing nothing more than what the AMU failed to achieve, namely, to strengthen economic ties and promote political and security cooperation between its participants. Beyond the broadness—perhaps even vagueness—of these objectives, possible concrete synergies can be identified. These include:

  • Relations with the EU—Each of the the three countries has certain tensions involved with its relations with the European Union. Tunisia, for example, rejected a €60 million loan from the EU on the grounds that it was ‘insufficient’[iv], despite the state’s struggles with empty coffers. Perceived subservience to a powerful Europe is strongly resented because aid is conditional on expectations for upholding the standards of participatory democracy, good governance and economic transparency. Maghreb countries can represent a stronger front united than when they negotiate with the EU in individually.
  • Movement of goods and people—The Maghreb is frustrated by the EU’s policy of restricting the issuance of visas at a time when they are being asked to make outsized efforts to curb irregular migration towards Europe. The most sensitive issue concerns migrants expelled from the Schengen area after committing crimes. In the past, Brussels has accused Maghreb countries of blocking such extraditions, sowing further discontent in Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.
  • Energy relations—Algeria, Tunisia and Libya produce varying amounts of oil and gas, but these three countries could form an interconnected energy -producing bloc capable of playing a much more influential role in Europe’s energy supply as well as making their voices better heard within OPEC.

A united front?

The ambition of the G3 is not to create a supranational political authority along the lines of that of the EU, nor to harmonize domestic policies. The aim is to provide these countries with a flexible and responsive diplomatic tool, to facilitate business, and to be capable of formulating common projects on topical issues. Such a non-binding alliance wielded to gain some degree of regional authority could be used as a platform and a source of attraction for engagement with larger powers, particularly the Russia, China and Iran.

The G3 will try to position itself on cross-cutting economic and business policy issues on which all three countries agree, and arguably, there are many of these. One is the development of solar energy, where Chinese industry has real expertise. Another is the development of the infrastructure and services sectors. Together, these three countries have a population of 63 million and a volume of trade of around $30 billion. Iran has already expressed an interest in investing in Algeria in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors.[v] Moscow and Tunis have signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement.[vi] As for Libya, the Misrata Free Zone (MFZ) was announced in 2023, and the Chinese Wangkang Holding group, which specializes in industrial investments abroad, has already set up its first company there.[vii]

While the creation of the G3 clearly reflects Maghreb countries’ desire to gain control and influence, it is also part of a leadership rivalry aimed at disqualifying neighbouring Morocco. The divorce between Algiers and Rabat was solidified years ago, but this new alliance that has explicitly excluded Morocco is a further step in the slow and deterioration of their bilateral relations.

Rabat could potentially be directly affected by this new alliance. Moroccan diplomacy will not fail to highlight difficulties with the G3’s launch and will seek to capitalize on their mistakes to demonstrate the soundness of its own policies as the more viable alternative in the region. The risk of isolation will likely be offset by the official leitmotif of the Moroccan example. Rabat has been seeking to forge alliances of interest with the member countries of the United Nations Security Council and major financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF) in order to acquire the status of a privileged interlocutor in the region. For the time being, this will be difficult to compete with in the G3.

The G3 is nonetheless a serious follow-up to Morocco’s King Hassan II’s conviction, expressed at the time of the creation of the AMU that working towards the unity of the peoples of the Maghreb was “a necessity imposed by the challenges of the future”. Morocco would also have much to gain from the development of a regional economic area. This tripartite alliance and its proclaimed goals will however, cement the division between a G3 roped into the Russia-China-Iran network, and Morocco, which has chosen to lean towards the United States, the UK, the EU, and their allies.

Looking forward

There are two potential scenarios that the development of the G3 could bring about. The G3 can turn out to be an empty shell. The trio can also fail to win over Mauritania. Nouakchott has been kept in the loop about new developments, but it remains wary of this heterogeneous and potentially unstable grouping. Regional cooperation projects, while attractive on paper, could stumble in the face of the three countries’ different socio-economic structures, and level of development. The attempt to isolate Morocco would fail if the organization does not succeed in creating a real pole of economic growth and a level of political convergence when it comes to leveraging such.

Alternatively, if the G3 succeeds in establishing itself as a key interlocutor in energy relations and manages to form a united front vis-à-vis the European Union, the latter might be forced to grant certain concessions when it comes to visa issues and cooperation on curbing irregular migration. The economies of the three countries can be boosted substantially by the inflow of Chinese capital, becoming outposts for Beijing’s advance into the Euro-Mediterranean area. At the same time, Russia and Iran might raise alarm bells in Europe. Russia is stepping up its already substantial military cooperation programs, specifically with Algeria, and uses the North African arena as a threat to European perceptions of security. If not wielded carefully, such alliances might undermine the G3’s long-term prospects and economic appeal, whose development European markets undoubtedly play an important role in.

[i] Amini, A. (2024). “New Algerian clarifications on the tripartite initiative with Libya and Tunisia”, Alwasat, 1 May 2024, retrieved from: https://alwasat.ly/news/libya/437604.
[ii] U.S. Department of State (2023). “Third Anniversary of the Signing of the Abraham Accords”, 14 September 2023, retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/translations/arabic/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B0%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AB%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AB%D8%A9-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%88%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%B9-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A5/.
[iii] Al Quds Al Arabi (2024). “Normalization between the UAE and Tel Aviv goes beyond Gaza tensions”, 7 February 2024, retrieved from: https://www.alquds.co.uk/%d9%81%d8%a7%d9%8a%d9%86%d9%86%d8%b4%d8%a7%d9%84-%d8%aa%d8%a7%d9%8a%d9%85%d8%b2-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%aa%d8%b7%d8%a8%d9%8a%d8%b9-%d8%a8%d9%8a%d9%86-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a5%d9%85%d8%a7%d8%b1%d8%a7%d8%aa/.
[iv] Al Sabah News (2023). “After he described Meloni’s offer as ‘rejected charity’, Kais Saied maneuvers…”, 4 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.assabahnews.tn/ar/%D9%85%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AD/72945-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%A3%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%B5%D9%81-%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%B6-%D9%85%D9%8A%D9%84%D9%88%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%A8%D9%80-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D8%AF%D9%82%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B1%D9%81%D9%88%D8%B6%D8%A9-%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%B3%D8%B9%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%B6-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%8A%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%B3%D9%83%D9%88%D9%86-%D8%A8%D9%85%D8%B0%D9%83%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%87%D9%85.
[v] Azad News Agency (2024). “Iran, Algeria sign MoU to foster innovation, technological cooperation”, 10 March 2024, retrieved from: https://ana.ir/en/news/5399/iran-algeria-sign-mou-to-foster-innovation-technology-cooperation.
[vi] Feuer, S. and Borshchevskaya, A. (2017). “Russia makes inroads in North Africa”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2 November 2017, retrieved from: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/russia-makes-inroads-north-africa.
[vii] Zaptia, S. (2023). “China’s Wangkang establishes its first Libyan company in Misrata Free Zone”, 10 March 2023, retrieved from: https://libyaherald.com/2023/03/chinas-wangkang-establishes-its-first-libyan-company-in-misrata-free-zone/

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