The importance of Oil and Gas in Algerian-European relations (1956-2013)

A Political Science professor at Abdelhamid Ben Badis University, in Mostaganem Algeria, and member of the Transition to a Green Economy Laboratory, he holds a doctorate in International Relations from the University of Algiers 3. He is the author of Energy Security in Europe and TheFuture of Algerian-European Relations (in Arabic).

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Al-Arabi al-Arabi’s The Importance of Oil and Gas in Algerian-European Relations (1956-2013) as part of its “Doctoral Theses” series. The book analyzes the impact that Algeria’s mid-twentieth century discovery of fossil fuels and natural gas has had on the time-honoured relationship of Europe and the southern coast of the Mediterranean.

Drawing upon the available quantitative data, the author queries the extent to which oil and gas were major determinants - subject to variation with high or low fuel prices - of Algerian policy towards the European Union, and whether the country’s decision-makers have been able to deploy these factors successfully in their tricky negotiations with European counterparts. 

Petroleum in Algerian-European Relations

The first chapter examines Algerian - French relations during the discovery of oil in the Algerian desert, as European states proposed partition of the Sahara Desert from the country’s north with promulgation of a Saharan Petroleum law, while adapting security policies to counteract the independence movement led by the Algerian National Liberation Front. The French were determined to preserve Algeria as an undivided entity, with the Sahara envisioned as an “internal sea,” the wealth of which all neighboring countries would be entitled to exploit. The Algerian NLF counterstrategy relied domestically on armed resistance to alter the balance of power on the ground, and on diplomatic foreign policy initiatives. The oil factor heightened the power and ferocity of the Algerian revolution’s struggle for independence but also intensified the doggedness of the French claim that the Sahara was and must always remain French. Upon gaining independence, Algeria pursued a policy prioritizing oil and gas sector nationalization and internationally defended her hydrocarbon resources thorough early nineteen-seventies advocacy for a New International Economic Order (NIEO).

Algerian negotiators disputed the colonial authorities’ claim that the Sahara was a land without a people and that neighboring countries enjoyed a right to exploit it to satisfy European energy needs. Moreover, the Sahara provided essential strategic depth for European security in the face of any threats to the Old Continent. For Algerians, however, “the Sahara and its wealth could not be conceded, as is attested by the intensity of the diplomatic contest between Algerian and French negotiators over the Evian and Algiers Accords”.

Oil and Gas in Algerian-European Partnership

Chapter Two examines The Barcelona Process (also known as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership - Euromed), the European Neighborhood Policy, and the Union for the Mediterranean. These constituted a reassertion of European political and security hegemony that Algeria could not risk isolation and turn away from; energy played a critical role in Algeria’s contribution to these alliances.

The European states’ Mediterranean policy called for inter-cultural dialogue and political reform throughout southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, considered sources for the export of terrorism and associated security risks. These projects failed soon after their launch, but al-Arabi cautions for this one cannot blame European countries entirely: “countries of the South bear a large part of the responsibility for the failure of these regional groupings”.

Oil and Gas in the Future of Algerian-European Relations

The third chapter assesses the weight of oil and gas variables in shaping future Algerian-European relations, given a European Union strategy viewing Algeria favorably in terms of European energy needs, the environmental importance of renewable energies in view of global warming, and the consequent enhanced global consumption of natural gas. With pipelines connecting it eastwards and westwards to the European Union, Algeria is at the forefront of European attention.

In the author’s view one cannot predict the impact of the oil and gas variables on the future direction of Algerian-European relations: an economically weak and politically unstable country negotiating unilaterally with a financially, economically and politically well-endowed European bloc cannot be expected to play a strong hand in its negotiations. Moreover, Algerian decision-makers have historically proven themselves unable to deploy these two basic resources to successfully advance their country’s interests.

In al-Arabi’s view Algerian authorities must carefully consider the country’s options as the planet enters a post-oil and gas phase in a not-too-distant future. Any sustained economic development in the next five or more decades will require investment in alternative sectors that are less prone to depletion: agriculture, tourism, and scientific research.

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