Alienating your most important natural gas provider (in Spain’s case: Algeria) is a bad idea even at the best of times. And right now, with the world facing its biggest energy crisis in at least half a century, these are not the best of times.
Yet this is exactly what Pedro Sánchez government has done by calling an abrupt end to Spain’s decades-long position of neutrality over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until 1975. Until ten days ago, Spain, in line with the United Nations, had called for the Saharawi people to determine their own future through a referendum. But all that changed when the King of Morocco Mohammed VI read out on live TV a letter from Sánchez describing Rabat’s plan for sovereignty over Western Sahara as offering “the most serious, realistic and credible” way of resolving the conflict.
As I warned at the time, this subtle but significant policy change risks torpedoing Spain’s commercial relations with its biggest provider of natural gas, Algeria, a staunch defender of the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.
It didn’t take long for the blowback to begin. First, Algiers recalled its ambassador to Spain. Then it announced that it would refuse the return of African migrants intercepted at sea on their way to the Spanish coast. It has also cancelled some flights from Algeria to Spain while increasing the number of air connections with other European countries.
At home, Sánchez has faced virtually unanimous opposition to his unilateral decision to back Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, including among his own coalition partners who were not even forewarned about let alone consulted on the decision. The mood was best summed up by Basque Nationalist Party spokesman Aitor Esteban at last week’s Foreign Affairs Committee: “When you go to Rabat, remember that you do not have the backing of this Parliament.”
Another blow came earlier this week when Algiers sat down for talks with the government of the European country most likely to supplant Spain as Algeria’s number-one gas customer: Italy. On Monday an event was held at the Algerian Embassy in Rome whose attendees included Luigi Di Maio, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and Chakib Kaid, secretary general of the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Unsurprisingly, the main topic under discussion was energy. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Italy procured roughly half of its natural gas from Russia. With that supply now in danger, “Italy views Algeria as a key strategic partner in all respects,” Di Maio said, adding that Rome is angling for “a 360-degree strategic partnership to intensify political dialogue, further strengthen economic and energy cooperation, and to work together for the stability of the Mediterranean.”
As Arab News reports, Algeria is already Italy’s second-largest supplier of gas after Russia:
Gas imports are piped from the Hassi R’Mel field, the largest natural gas field in Africa, through Tunisia to Sicily via the TransMed pipeline.
Italian energy companies Eni, Enel and Edison have long-term contracts with Algeria, which last year shipped about 21 billion cubic meters of gas to Italy, about 20 percent of the country’s gas imports.
Reversal of Roles
“Spain should not be surprised by what is beginning to happen,” Yahia Zoubir, an analyst of Algerian origin closely connected to the Algerian establishment told the Spanish daily El Independiente. “Algeria is going to look for a new partner in Europe, which will be Italy. They will focus on the oil pipeline that goes from Algeria to Italy. In the medium and long term, Italy will replace Spain as the main route of gas supply to Europe.”
Chakib Kaid said that “Algeria will review all agreements with Spain, in all fields”, though he ruled out immediate consequences in the sale of oil and gas. Kaid also confirmed that Madrid did not inform Algiers of its policy reversal toward Western Sahara; they only learnt of it through a press release from the Moroccan Royal Palace.
Italy has a clear interest in reducing its energy dependence on Russia, which until recently provided almost half of the natural gas it consumes. Unlike Spain, Italy has not changed its posture vis a vis Western Sahara. In a statement provided to the Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid Italian President Sergio Mattarella reiterated Italy’s “support for Algeria’s role (in resolving the Western Sahara dispute) and its commitment within the UN framework with Western Sahara.”
The Transmed, a 2,475km-long natural gas pipeline completed in 1983 to transport natural gas from Algeria to Italy via Tunisia and Sicily, has the capacity to deliver 30.2bcm/y (billion cubic metres per annum) of natural gas. That is roughly equivalent to the combined capacity of the two pipelines connecting Algeria with Spain, the larger of which, the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (MGE) which passes through Morocco into Spain, has been closed since November 1, 2021.
While the Italians were charming the Algerians in Rome, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was sitting down with his Moroccan counterpart Naser Bourita on the other side of Mediterranean. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. was the first major Western government to break with protocol and recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. To seal the deal, all Morocco had to do was recognize the state of Israel, becoming the second Arab country in North Africa — after Egypt — to do so.
That was during the final months of the Trump Presidency. Since then France, Germany and now Spain have all followed suit, backing the Moroccan plan for Western Sahara, much to the frustration of the Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, and its backers in Algiers.
“We continue to view Morocco’s Autonomy Plan as serious, credible, and realistic, and one potential approach to meet the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara,” said Blinken.
For his part Bourita called on other European nations to follow France, Germany and Spain’s example and recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara: “Autonomy for the Sahara is the only solution supported by Washington, France and African countries, and recently Spain and Germany.”
One of the main reasons why Morocco is so determined to maintain control of Western Sahara is, ironically, energy, as a recent piece in The Conversation explains:
Western Sahara is very sunny and surprisingly windy – a natural renewable energy powerhouse. Morocco has exploited these resources by building three large wind farms (five more are planned) and two solar farms (another is planned).
But these developments have made Morocco partly dependent on Western Sahara for its energy supply. Morocco already gets 18% of its installed wind capacity and 15% of its solar from the occupied territory, and by 2030 that could increase to almost half of its wind and up to a third of its solar. That’s according to a new report Greenwashing the Occupation by Western Sahara Resource Watch, a Brussels-based organisation I am affiliated with.
In its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris climate agreement, Morocco reports on developments in occupied Western Sahara – which it calls its provinces sud (southern provinces) – as if they were in Morocco. This energy dependence entrenches the occupation and undermines the UN peace process.
According to Saharawi researchers, several Saharawi families have been forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for some of these solar farms. My colleagues have also documented forced eviction associated with the development of the wider energy system in Western Sahara.
So, what does the Spanish government hope to gain from sabotaging its own diplomatic (and potentially commercial) ties with its biggest natural gas supplier? One thing it hopes to achieve is to stabilize its historically rocky relations with Rabat, and thereby put an end to Morocco’s use of the migrant crisis as leverage in its relations with both Spain and the EU.
As with Turkey, the EU has provided Morocco with financial assistance in exchange for preventing refugees from travelling into Europe, primarily through the two Spanish enclaves in Northern Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. But as in Turkey, the policy has backfired.
As Politico pointed out last year, whenever Spain does something Morocco doesn’t like, “Rabat can play hardball by opening up its borders, however briefly.” That is exactly what happened in May 2021. Morocco withdrew its border guards from a beachhead, allowing more people to cross into Ceuta on one day than arrived in both Ceuta and Melilla in all of 2020 or 2019, after it discovered that Madrid had allowed Brahim Ghali, the 73-year-old leader of the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi rebel group that disputes control of Western Sahara with Morocco, to enter Spain to receive medical treatment for COVID-19.
There are also other benefits for Madrid to improved relations with its direct neighbor to the south, notes Politico:
Spain relies heavily on the cooperation of its southern neighbor to monitor and police jihadism. In addition, the new understanding is expected to keep at bay sovereignty claims Morocco has made on Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands. Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares made a carefully worded announcement that the new agreement “guarantees the integrity and sovereignty of Spain.”
A New LNG Hub
But energy is also a key driver behind the recent developments. In Europe’s new energy paradigm that is hastily being constructed Spain will become Europe’s hub of liquified natural gas (LNG), much of which will of course be coming from the U.S. At the same time, much of the gas flowing from Algeria will be piped into Italy.
As the Associated Press reported this week, Spain and Portugal, “both already leaders in renewable energy thanks to solar, wind and hydraulic power, are now poised to reap the benefits of long-term investments in liquefied natural gas, or LNG.” At least that’s the plan:
With six LNG plants in Spain — including Europe’s largest, in Barcelona — and one in Portugal, the Iberian neighbors account for one-third of Europe’s LNG processing capacity. The port-based terminals turn boatloads of supercooled LNG back into gas that then flows into homes and businesses.
“Clearly, this infrastructure gives us more flexibility and strengthens our gas distribution system in comparison to those of other European countries that depend on pipelines,” said Claudio Rodríguez, spokesman for Enagás, the company that runs Spain’s natural gas network.
Spain and Portugal are set to receive more gas imports, along with the rest of Europe, after the United States announced last week that it would help its allies reduce their dependence on Russian gas.
The U.S. said it will boost LNG exports to Europe by 15 billion cubic meters this year, with even larger shipments coming in the future. The U.S. already surpassed Algeria as Spain’s leading source of natural gas at the start of the year.
There are, of course, a number of problems with this plan. First, there is no way that the US, even together with gas-rich countries in the Middle East, will be able to replace EU imports of Russian natural gas, which totaled 155 billion cubic meters last year. There are even doubts as to whether the U.S. will be able to meet its commitment of boosting its LNG exports by 15 billion cubic meters this year.
Second, almost all of the new gas entering Spain will be in the form of LNG, which is much more expensive to ship than gas that flows through a pipeline (as most of the Algerian gas arriving in Spain does). With Spain’s consumer price index (CPI) just hitting 9.8%, its highest level in 37 years, the price pressures are already almost unbearable. To help ease the pressure, at least during the short term, the EU has temporarily released Spain and Portugal from the common market rules, giving room for electricity prices to fall, however briefly, in the coming weeks.
Third, when the LNG arrives in Spain, there is no easy way to ship it on to other parts of Europe. Spain and France share two small gas pipelines that can transport the equivalent of seven boatloads of LNG each month, but that is nothing compared to what is needed. A large pipeline connecting the two countries — the so-called Medcat — was under construction but work on the project stopped in 2019 in the Catalonian town of Hostalric, roughly 100 kilometers short of the French border.
Until work on the pipeline is restarted and finally finished, which will take some time, most of the LNG arriving in Spain will have to be shipped onto other destinations using, well, ships, which brings us full circle back to one of the biggest obstacles preventing Europe from becoming an LNG wonderland: the acute shortage of LNG terminals and processing facilities at major ports.
While Alegria has ruled out shutting off the one remaining pipeline serving the Spanish market, the so-called Medgaz, it is talking about raising natural gas prices. In a desperate, cynical ploy to make amends that has backfired spectacularly, Madrid deported the asylum seeker Mohamed Azzouz Benhalima, a former corporal in the Algerian army and member of the Rachad Islamist movement. Despite receiving supported by Amnesty International, Azzouz Benhalima is back in Algeria where he is almost certainly undergoing torture. Seemingly unimpressed with the gesture, Algeria has, if anything, hardened its stance toward Spain while criticism of the Sánchez government intensifies.