Western officials are now openly admitting the war against Russia (and China) is worldwide and composed of competing blocs.
The colonial mindset comparison is apt as the West seeks to take control over African and Latin American resources. While this is nothing new, as the statements coming from the West make clear, countries that are friendly with Moscow and/or Beijing should expect even more concerted efforts at infiltration, sanctions, and any other means to restrict ties with the Russia-China bloc.
While some smaller states could benefit from being wooed by both sides, many will likely suffer as increased subversion and proxy conflicts are likely to play out in those countries. Take the comments from US officials to Bloomberg on Feb. 24 that the US, in year two of the war, is going to double down its efforts to “tighten the screws” on countries still keeping a foot in both camps.
This will be especially true in states that are resource rich – whether in oil, gas, or “green” commodities. These battles are already underway across Africa and are likely to intensify. North African countries have thus far been unwilling to help “isolate” Russia. The EU energy situation is still dire, which it is trying to remedy with a renewed push into Africa in search of oil and gas, as well as a race to control “green” resources. China does not want to give ground in Africa, and Russia, while seeking to prevent any isolation, can also sooner bring Europe to its knees if it throws a wrench in the EU-Africa energy plans.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how the West’s demand that states pick a side wouldn’t only isolate Europe further and exacerbate its energy woes, as I’ll discuss here regarding North Africa.
The Widening War in North Africa
The EU has set its sights on North Africa for a variety of reasons, summed up here by the European Council on Foreign Relations:
North Africa is also a promising place for the future production of green hydrogen, an energy source that is likely to be essential for the EU to fulfil its climate goals in hard-to-decarbonise sectors. And the region is also home to critical raw materials (CRMs) necessary for the energy transition, offering the EU the opportunity to further diversify its supply chains for clean energy technologies. North Africa’s young and well-educated workforce also offers the EU not only a potential workforce for technology manufacturing closer to home than Asian markets, but also the skills necessary for meaningful cooperation in areas such as research and development (R&D).
Algeria, just across the Mediterranean from Europe, is currently Africa’s largest oil and gas producer. It’s naturally a prime candidate to fill Europe’s gap in energy needs after the EU cut itself off from Russian supplies. Italy is trying to ramp up gas and energy imports and even locate electric vehicle industry in Algeria, but there are a myriad of problems.
First and foremost, the numbers just don’t add up. From GIS:
The entire African continent’s proven gas reserves are equivalent to 34 percent of Russian resources, and North Africa’s reserves equal only 10 percent of Russia’s. The African and North African gas production is 36 percent and 15 percent of Russia’s output, respectively. In 2020, total gas trade between Europe and Russia was nearly 185 bcm, about four and a half fold the trade with North Africa.
On the oil front, the same story that’s played out elsewhere is occurring in North Africa, which buys up Russian crude and increases supplies to Europe as a sanctions workaround. But back to gas: Europe, and Italy more specifically in its bid to transform into an EU energy hub, is trying to up imports from Algeria, but again there are infrastructure issues. During a Meloni trip to Algiers in January, Italy and Algeria signed agreements, including for the study and construction of an additional pipeline, as well as an underseas power cable, but those are years away. More from Natural Gas Intelligence:
To reduce dependency on Russian gas supplies following the invasion of Ukraine as others across Europe are doing, Algeria’s Sonatrach and Eni agreed to a supply deal in April. Algeria would deliver an additional 9 Bcm of gas in 2023 and 2024 via the Transmed Pipeline.
But the Transmed system connecting Algeria and Italy is not operating at full capacity. Algeria has had production issues. The country has not invested in new infrastructure to increase production in the past three decades, and it needs to divert gas to meet increasing domestic demand for electricity.
“The additional 9 Bcm from Algeria by 2023 is unrealistic, especially considering that Algerian supplies to Italy increased by 80% between 2020 and 2021, Giuli said.
Giuli said a large increase by 2023 can only occur if there is a diversion of flows from Spain to Italy. Algeria’s relations with Spain have been strained because Spain has sided with Morocco over a land conflict in the Western Sahara.
So Italy is able to siphon off a little more gas because the flow to Spain has dwindled, but obviously this does nothing for Europe as a whole. The situation with Spain hints at the array of geopolitical issues that complicate efforts to turn North Africa into Europe’s new primary source of energy. More cross-border cooperation and energy trade (especially third-party pipeline access) would be beneficial to both North Africa and Europe, but the region is racked by divisions. NATO destroying Libya in 2011 certainly didn’t help matters, as Egypt is effectively cut off from its North African neighbors, but Algeria and Morocco also have their own rivalry. From the Barcelona Center for International Affairs:
Combined with Algeria’s traditional rivalry with Morocco, this has resulted in the closure of the pipeline which until last autumn carried Algerian gas to the Iberian Peninsula via Morocco, even as Medgaz has remained open, which carries Algerian gas directly to Spain. This closure was effective well before Spain’s change of position on the eventual status of the disputed territory of the Western Sahara [backing Morocco]. Algeria expressed its displeasure at the Spanish move but continues to value Spain as its second-largest gas client.
Spain, which has roughly twice the regasification capacity its domestic market requires, will only be able to contribute more to the EU’s overall gas security when France’s nuclear lobby lifts its longstanding veto on increasing the 7 bcm capacity of the gas line that carries gas northward across the Pyrenees. The Iberian corridor will then come into its own. Meanwhile, flows in the Maghreb–Europe pipeline restarted on June 28th 2022, with reverse flows of gas using the pipeline that closed on November 1st 2021 when Algeria cut off supplies to Morocco. The largest German energy company RWE has won the contract that allows Morocco to access Europe’s largest LNG market.
Meanwhile Morocco is developing other energy links beyond the EU with the United Kingdom. Energy tech pioneer Octopus Energy Group, in partnership with Xlinks, last May contracted to build the world’s largest subsea power cable to deliver renewable energy from Morocco to Devon in the southwest of the United Kingdom. This project fits with Morocco’s longstanding ambition to become a world leader in solar energy.
Currently Morocco is a net importer of energy, the majority of which comes from coal, but it could become a transfer point for the energy resources from further south in the Sahel. There are also big plans to make Morocco (and to a lesser extent, Tunisia and Egypt) a major supplier of green energy to the EU.
Beyond Natural Gas
Morocco’s Noor and Egypt’s Benban solar farms, two of the largest in the world, were originally meant to reduce the countries’ reliance on coal. But both (and many more solar farms and wind projects across North Africa) are now set to send their energy to Europe.
Additionally, both Egypt and Morocco are also planning to manufacture “green” hydrogen and ammonia, made with renewable power, for export to Europe. These plans don’t come without major environmental and social consequences for North African countries.
The “clean” power is destined for Europe rather than domestic or regional use in Africa. Desert ecosystems will be destroyed. Nomadic tribes will lose land and routes for their livestock pastures. The projects will also use up what little water resources are available in the areas they take root. The wider areas also typically become militarized with surveillance towers to guard the sites and the water. More from Yale Environment 360:
Atman Aoui, president of the Moroccan Association for Mediation, an NGO, sees large renewable projects such as the Noor solar park as part of a wider attempt to take control of desert regions that have previously been the domain of tribal groups. The sheer scale of the projects is “challenging assumptions that a low-carbon energy transition is inherently progressive,” he says.
Noting the scheme’s use of large amounts of water, he adds, “The irony that a project intended to mitigate climate change is only worsening the effects of climate change in one of Morocco’s poorest and most water-stressed regions is not lost on residents.”
Much like Algeria and Italy, Morocco has been negotiating with European electric vehicle battery manufacturers to set up a plant in the country, aiming to exploit its cobalt and phosphate resources. A large share of Morocco’s natural resources are located in the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Citroen plans to double its production capacity Morocco within two years from 50,000 supermini electric cars. Morocco is home to production plants of Renault and Citroen parent company Stellantis with a current combined production capacity of 700,000. Plans are in the works to increase that number to one million. According to Reuters, Morocco’s automotive manufacturers and part makers were the country’s top exporters over the past seven years surpassing phosphate sales.
You can start to see how the Brussels brain is spinning: The clean energy comes in, and the and industry goes out where it’s joined by the mining – a better delineation of the garden-jungle boundaries, as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell likes to describe it. More on that thought process from the European Council on Foreign Relations:
The European Green Deal aims to scale up the commercial application of breakthrough clean technology innovation. By diversifying supply chains in this sector, the EU hopes to reduce its reliance on the dominant players, including the United States and China. North Africa’s skilled labour force gives countries there the potential to become important partners in this endeavour. Europeans should seek to build secure, cost-effective, ethical, and sustainable supply chains for transition-related technologies under a common umbrella framework.
Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation programme, could also be an important instrument to support R&D in North Africa. It contains a focus on climate change and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and offers a separate funding stream for research and innovation.
Using European funds to relocate industry outside the EU? That should play well with the proles.
Russia and China Involvement in North Africa
Russia has long standing close ties with Algeria, and Beijing and Algiers have also grown closer. Foreign Policy:
China has been the main exporter to Algeria since 2013, displacing former colonial power France, and the pair signed a second five-year strategic cooperation pact earlier in November. Meanwhile, Russia supplies around 80 percent of Algeria’s weapons, making Algeria Russia’s third-largest arms importer, after India and China. Algiers and Moscow held joint military exercises near the Moroccan border in November.
Algeria also applied in November to join the BRICS shortly after signed up to extend Belt and Road Initiative projects with China on infrastructure, energy, and space exploration.
Moscow has kept quiet on the increase in Algeria’s gas production for Europe, but many European MPs and US congress members are calling for sanctions on Algeria as a result of its ties with Russia. To do so would likely cut off another of Europe’s energy sources, however.
The US, fearful of Russia’s influence in Algeria, is planning to build a military-industrial base in Morocco. Additionally, the US announced a $1 billion arms sale agreement with Morocco in 2020 that included drones and precision-guided munitions, signed a 10-year military cooperation deal, and last year, the US sent wireless tactical and ground control systems to Rabat.
Still, Morocco is trying to maintain a foot in both East and West camps. Rabat abstained during a recent UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russian aggression, and ignored US efforts to join the western camp. The arrangement has benefits for Morocco. Middle East Eye explains:
Chtatou, the professor at Mohammed V University, told MEE that Morocco’s friendly relations with Russia were economically driven.
“Morocco has no choice but to remain neutral,” Chtatou said. “Basically, the country is an ally of the West but it also has good relations with Russia and China. As much as the country needs the U.S. and Europe for investment, it also needs the eastern world for technology and trade, so neutrality can pay.”
As Western countries limited their imports of Russian fossil fuels, Morocco increased its own. In 2022, the kingdom imported 735,000 tonnes of diesel fuel from Russia, 11 times more than in 2021.
International sanctions have also complicated the ability of Russia, the world’s largest exporter of fertiliser in 2020, to sell this crucial product. Morocco, the fourth-largest exporter that year, responded with plans to up its production of phosphates by 10 percent.
The Western Sahara Issue
Where the opposing blocs, the North African countries, and control of green energy resources really comes together is in Western Sahara. Morocco is increasingly extracting resources and erecting wind and solar farms beyond its southern border in Western Sahara despite the territory not being internationally recognized as part of Morocco. More from Yale Environment 360:
Morocco has already installed three large wind farms and two solar farms in Western Sahara, all hooked up to the Moroccan grid. The largest wind farm, comprising 56 giant turbines erected onshore by a Scottish company close to the coastal fishing village of Aftissat, is now to be doubled in size to more than 400 megawatts, following an agreement signed in 2021 by Morocco with a subsidiary of General Electric.
A war for liberation continues in Western Sahara, waged by guerillas at least partly based in Algeria, where many refugees live in camps. Despite its historic military and economic partnership with Algeria, Russia, is trying to placate all sides. While calling for a “just” and “mutually acceptable” solution to the conflict in Western Sahara, it is also seeking detente with Rabat. Morocco is not on Moscow’s list of pro-Atlantic states and continues to receive annual imports of wheat from Russia.
In recent years, the US got fully behind Morocco despite such a stance flying in the face of the “rules-based international order.” The details from The Progressive:
Western Sahara — formally known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) — has been recognized at various points in time by 84 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. Morocco invaded that nation, then known as Spanish Sahara, just prior to its scheduled independence from colonial rule in 1975.
The United Nations Security Council, the U.N. General Assembly, and the International Court of Justice have all gone on record asserting Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. For decades, no international body or foreign governments have recognized Western Sahara as part of Morocco.
However, in his final weeks in office, former President Donald Trump formally recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the occupied country, including roughly 25% of Western Sahara still under the control of the SADR government. The Biden administration has rejected bipartisan calls to reverse Trump’s decision and the United States remains an international outlier.
Washington is now joined in its support of Morocco by other European countries such as Germany and Spain. The backing for Rabat comes despite UN legal counsel that exploiting the region’s region’s natural resources “in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara would be in violation of the principles of international law”.
Hey sometimes the “rules-based international order” has just gotta do what it’s gotta do.
Assuming she’s talking about anything beyond the LNG profiteering, maybe this is part of the US promise to lend a helping hand to Europe after blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines.