Algeria is distracted by its African surroundings, which it gives priority over its Arab milieu. This increases its isolation from the Arabs; indeed, it is currently hosting the Summit on ransoms.
In addition, the Algerian armed forces played a major role in the second field training of the African Standby Force, which took place recently in South Africa. According to Lamamra, the purpose of this training is to protect the continent from any serious threats that may arise. The Algerian forces transported troops from several countries, especially West African. Along with its partners in the African Union, Algeria seeks to resolve crises by every means possible, beginning with diplomacy, peaceful solutions and pre-emptive moves by relying on the deliberations of the “Panel of the Wise”. Former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi participated in the activities of the UN diplomatic committee recently, in his capacity as a member of the panel, which was chaired originally by the late former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella.
The African Union is seeking a permanent chair in the UN Security Council as well as a greater presence in the continent’s crises. Ismail Sharqi, the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, made a statement regarding the preparations underway by the union to confront Boko Haram in Nigeria and the possibility of sending an African force to northern Mali, as well as the joint forces with the UN in Uganda.
Political landmines on the diplomatic path between Algiers and Riyadh
In light of Algeria’s growing role across the African continent, its relations with the Arab countries in the Middle East are somewhat tepid, especially with the main regional player, Saudi Arabia. This is because of a difference in vision and positions between the two countries, both political and economic, starting with the Syrian crisis. Algeria continues to recognise Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, while Riyadh recently hosted the Syrian opposition conference. The crisis in Yemen further complicates matters, as Saudi Arabia insists on continuing with its Arab alliance, under its leadership, to contain the Houthis and forces loyal to deposed President Abdullah Saleh; Algeria, meanwhile, has proposed a diplomatic initiative and announced its willingness to host the rival groups, but did not possess the cards needed to put sufficient pressure on the two sides. In addition, the Saudis took immediate action with regards to the Yemeni issue compared to its delayed intervention in Syria; this was down to considerations associated with their national security and that of the other Gulf States.
After Algeria had refused to participate in the Saudi-led coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen and establish a joint Arab force, it renewed its position by not participating in the new Islamic Alliance to combat terrorism, again led by Riyadh. We must also not forget Saudi Arabia’s supportive position towards Morocco in its dispute with the Algerian-allied Polisario Front in the dispute over the Western Sahara.
Economic landmines on the path to a Saudi-Algeria rapprochement are placed in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the consequences of oil prices on the Algerian economy, which cannot withstand anything less than $37 a barrel. Here the accusations are directed at Saudi Arabia and its refusal to reduce production in order for prices to reach acceptable levels that do not affect the balance within the Algerian economy. To make relations even tenser, Iran, which has also been affected by low oil prices, took advantage of the moment gifted to it by mining the dip in Saudi-Algeria relations in order to boost its own relations with Algiers.
Tehran and Algiers both recognise the Assad government in Damascus and, to a lesser extent, share similar positions in Yemen, as both reject Saudi Arabia’s intervention. Iran has thus more or less found an Arab axis with regional expansions that remove it from its isolation in the Arab world.
This was manifested in the strategic visit of Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri to Algeria recently, during which he activated the Algerian-Iranian High Joint Commission. This cooperation was reinforced with a number of agreements regarding youth, sports, professional training, culture, public works, education, higher education and scientific research. Algeria was able to benefit from Iran’s experience to develop its motor industry and there has also been talk of military cooperation to develop the facilities and capabilities of the Algerian military industrial complex.
The strategic importance of their relations Iran lies in the fact that Tehran has realised that Algeria the most important country in North Africa; one of the main players in the African continent; a member of the Arab League; and a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation which did not join the alliances led by Saudi Arabia. All of this can help Iran to break the ring surrounding it in the Arab world.
There are many important reasons behind Algeria singing a different tune to its Arab and Muslim surroundings with regard to military alliances and effort must be made to confront this, especially since the government in Algiers does not want to lose two important countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is likely to choose a balanced role and play the role of mediator, as well as find political solutions for the Yemeni and other crises. Algeria is also seeking to bring the Saudi and Iranian points of view closer together; its long experience of mediating between Iraq and the Shah and Revolutionary Iran should help with this, even though it paid a heavy price when the aircraft carrying the Algerian diplomatic delegation, led by Foreign Minister Mohammed Seddik Ben Yahia, was shot down over the Iran-Turkey border in 1982. Iran and Iraq both denied any responsibility.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, considers Algeria to be “a comfortable country that clearly differs with us, but we will deal with it with respect due to its clarity, despite our reproach. The problem with our Egyptian ally is that it hides what it does not show.” This is said by circles close to the Saudi decision-makers.
The strategic result of the Saudi-Algerian rapprochement, while maintaining Algeria-Iran relations, will serve a political settlement for the Yemeni crisis. It will also be an important addition to the political settlement in Syria.