Counterrevolutions in the Middle East

Counterrevolutions in the Middle East


05/2019  | Reading time: 12 minutes

The events of the Arab Spring brought the subregion of the Maghreb from its marginal position into the centre of Arab regional politics. For many years, Algeria remained stable, and therefore, it became the most important actor in North Africa within the Euro-Mediterranean security complex. Although not the most important players in the subregion, the Arab monarchies of the Gulf have used their financial tools to try to influence the direction of regime changes. Partly as a result, a military regime took over power in Egypt in 2013. However, their influence in the Maghreb has been only moderately felt. In Algeria, after two decades and four completed mandates, Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned from his presidency. The redistribution of the leading roles of the country may provide an opportunity for the Gulf states (too) to influence the process of political transition.


Source: Saddek Hamlaoui / Shutterstock

The Maghreb and the Gulf are two subregions of a partly virtual unit that is often referred to as the “Arab region,” and which the Gulf states regard as a unified “strategic space.” The unit is partially virtual, as the relative linguistic and cultural homogeneity means that with some exaggeration, the region can be considered as a coherent whole, while in other respects, the distance is much less between the EU and the Maghreb than between the Maghreb and the Gulf. For the Maghreb states, the EU is the most important trading partner, and the two regions can be considered as one security complex. The Maghreb–Gulf relationship has become asymmetric after the Arab Spring: the Maghreb states are not dependent on the Gulf’s economic support to the same extent the Gulf perceives the Maghreb’s stability a strategic priority, learning from the domino effect created during the Arab Spring. The Gulf states can take on different roles in the Maghreb. They may appear as donor states, conciliatory mediators, or even spoilers, i.e., players who block peace-building to achieve their own strategic goals. When we look at the counter-revolutionary activities of the Gulf states, we see them primarily as spoilers. Earlier, we wrote that in Sudan, the Gulf states are looking for an opportunity to consolidate power on their own terms after the fall of the Bashir regime. However, due to the distance between the Maghreb and the Gulf and the different foreign policy interests of the two subregions, this spoiler effect cannot be felt as strong in Algeria as in the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, Arab Gulf monarchies pursue active diplomacy here as well. Now, we will briefly elaborate on the details of this limited influence.

The events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt jeopardised the Algerian political regime in two ways. The most immediate threat was the transfer of armed conflicts into Algerian territory. This did not happen eventually, but a feared outcome did happen: a large number of light and heavy weapons were scattered across the region, significant quantities of them in Algeria. Another major threat was the possible spread of general popular dissatisfaction to Algeria. This latter actually happened, but the Algerian government had enough fiscal resources to stop the growing popular dissatisfaction before it could have evolved into a national movement. During the five years after the Arab Spring, due to the governments’ enormous efforts, the economy of the Algerian government has been stabilized, the infrastructure has been improved, defence capacities have been strengthened, and the government has implemented comprehensive reforms to increase popular support for the regime. However, maintaining systemic corruption and having an economy highly dependent on the oil and gas sectors predicted a political crisis in the long term. At the same time, as developments and reforms had been implemented, civil society organizations formulated the need for a systemic change. The current popular protests in 2019 reflect those demands, i.e., the replacement of the corrupt elite.


Protests in Algiers in March 2019: people demanded the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Source: Saddek Hamlaoui / Shutterstock

After 2011, the Arab Gulf monarchies, as part of their active foreign policy, gave substantial amounts of direct financial support, development aid, and investment in all states of the Maghreb. Since local Islamist parties had enjoyed the greatest popularity and taken the lead in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, Qatar had been the most significant sponsor in these countries until 2013, when the Egyptian military coup happened. Subsequently, Islamist parties lost their political superiority, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Arab monarchies, who preferred secular or military regimes, allied with them, and actively contributed to the rebalancing of power. Although Morocco or Tunisia are much more dependent on these aids or investments than Algeria, they all took a neutral stance on the crisis after the political rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2017. Algeria’s oil and gas treasures save it from the immediate danger of the Gulf states’ withdrawing their support; moreover, Algeria can use its role in OPEC to influence the Gulf states’ actions. However, the relationship between the Gulf states and Algeria is not only determined by their direct relations but also by the formers’ other activities in the Maghreb region. It is almost evident that if a Gulf state supports the Moroccan government, it will be frowned upon by the Algerian leadership. However, Gulf states’ spoiler activities in Libya pose a much greater threat to the security of Algeria. It is well-known that the Algerian leadership opposed the Gulf states’ involvement in Maghreb relations as early as in 2011, when the civil war broke out in Libya, and Gulf states military supported the anti-Gaddafi armed groups. Since that time, Libya’s territory has been cut into inner state-like entities while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE has remained to be actively involved in the conflict, allied with different armed groups. Arms transfers of the aforementioned group of states contribute significantly to maintaining the armed conflict between warlords who dominate the western and eastern parts of Libya. According to Algeria, this makes the peaceful political closure of the conflict impossible.


The headquarters of Sonatrach, an Algerian gas and oil company. Gulf monarchies are mainly willing to invest in these two sectors in Algeria.
Source: Oguz Dikbakan / Shutterstock

The economic influence of the Gulf states in Algeria has in recent years been limited to a few billion dollars’ worth of investment, mainly in the mining and real estate sectors. It is telling that the ten-year joint investment of the Gulf monarchies barely exceeds the sum the EU invested in Algeria in only one year. Thus, there is plenty of room for the Gulf leaders to exercise their influence through the Algerian economy. Analysts dealing with Algerian domestic policy processes (and those of most Arab states) often note that it is difficult to identify key policy and decision makers. After Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, there was an uncertainty of who would hold key powers while peaceful popular protests continued. It is also a huge question that, from the civil and military leaders of the state, who will be able to transfer his or her position into the new regime. This uncertainty can be exploited by the Gulf states to enforce their interests, and presumably, Algerian key players are also aware of this. However, the Algerian and Gulf leaders probably agree on one thing: Islamists should not be allowed to gain leadership in the next Algerian regime.

During the regime changes in North Africa, ideological rifts between the Gulf monarchies have been intensified. However, uncertainty about the Algerian political transition has created a situation where it would be important for the states of the Gulf to set aside their disagreements and make Algeria’s stability a priority, as it is vital for all major powers and regional actors that the country retain its leading role in the Euro-Mediterranean security complex.

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