The Maghreb refuses to share


Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have a common culture and cuisine, an oversupply of educated young people, and an undersupply of capital investment. Together, they would prosper, but their governments don’t see it that way

Anyone visiting the eastern Moroccan city of Oujda encounters a bizarre sight: the nearby crossing point into Algeria, which should be bustling, is oddly calm, with only a few policemen wandering around and construction works blocking the road. The silence of the closed border reflects the generation-long enmity between Rabat and Algiers.

The failure of the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) to create a common market has cost the region dearly in energy, banking, transport, agribusiness, education, culture and tourism. Trade between North African countries is only 1.3% of their foreign exchange, the lowest rate for a region in the world. Two conferences on “The cost to the North African Tiger of the lack of economic integration” (1) and a report by the Peterson Institute (2) have demonstrated the benefits that open borders would have for people there. Most North African business leaders say they would like nothing more than to be able to operate freely across frontiers. Both rich and poor suffer from the inability of the region’s political leaders to work together. The Maghreb showed little enthusiasm for the Barcelona Process (3), and it is doubtful it will be any more proactive with its successor, the Union for the Mediterranean (4).

The Maghreb has many natural resources: oil, gas, phosphates, agricultural land (although it suffers from a worsening shortage of grain); a beautiful landscape that attracts millions of foreign visitors; and a youthful population that has become much better qualified since the countries gained independence. The problem is that with so many young people entering the job market, half are now unemployed. The region would need a higher growth rate than China over the next two decades to accommodate them – and not trading with its neighbours costs each Maghreb country two percentage points of growth.

Every year thousands of migrants drown in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Graduates leave because there are so few opportunities at home, where the best jobs are given to family members of the elite. Eight billion dollars of private capital leaves the region every year, adding to an estimated total of $200bn already gone. As the former governor of the Bank of Algeria, Abderrahmane Hadj Nacer, put it, North Africa’s middle class is being formed outside its borders.

Ever since Carthage was founded in the 7th century BC, North Africa has taken advantage of its strategic position: the ships that sailed from the ports of Salé, Algiers and Tunis in the 17th century were renowned, there were more English people living in Morocco and Algeria in 1660 than in the colonies of the New World, and European heads of state treated North African leaders as equals (5). Now the Maghreb is isolated not only from Europe but the rest of the world.

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