Natural disasters can have significant political implications and can sometimes serve as catalysts for changes in diplomatic relations and cooperation, especially in regions with complex geopolitical relationships.
In the Middle East, the occurrence of earthquakes can end the isolation imposed on one country by another or help restore relations between neighbouring countries.
The earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria in February this year, killing 52,000 people and affecting millions of others in both countries, opened the door to improving relations with Syria, which has been isolated since the outbreak of the Civil War in 2011.
International and Arab aid rushed to help the country in the aftermath of the earthquake. Many diplomatic visits took place to Damascus, and humanitarian aid was delivered to the government to be distributed among the victims.
It seems a similar scenario is developing following the earthquake that struck Morocco’s Al-Haouz Province south of the city of Marrakesh last week. Algeria for one has declared its “sincere condolences to the brotherly Moroccan people” in this period of their great affliction, striking a new tone in the sometimes difficult relationship between the two countries.
The Algerian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying that Algeria “is following with great sorrow the repercussions of the violent earthquake that affected several regions in the Kingdom of Morocco” on 9 September.
It “expresses its sincere condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the brotherly Moroccan people, with warm wishes for a speedy recovery for the injured,” the statement said.
Hours later, the Algerian presidency issued a statement, conveyed through the country’s official news agency, expressing “the full readiness of the Algerian authorities to provide humanitarian assistance and to mobilise all available resources, both human and material, in solidarity with the brotherly Moroccan people, should the Kingdom of Morocco request such aid.”
Algeria has also made the decision to open its airspace to aircraft involved in transporting humanitarian aid or evacuating the wounded and injured.
On Sunday, Algeria’s Foreign Ministry offered further details regarding the assistance it stands ready to provide to Morocco. A spokesman said that “in the context of our urgent logistical and material support, which we are ready to extend to our brotherly Moroccan neighbours in addressing the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, Algeria, upon the acceptance of our offer by the Kingdom of Morocco, proposes to dispatch a swift intervention team from the Civil Protection Agency.”
“This team comprises 80 specialised rescuers, including a search-and-rescue unit, a medical team, and experts skilled in locating individuals trapped under debris. In addition to this, we are ready to supply initial humanitarian aid, including tents, camp beds, and blankets,” the spokesman said.
Up until Monday this week, Morocco had accepted aid from Spain, the UK, the UAE, and Qatar in order to address the aftermath of the earthquake.
In 2021, Algeria severed diplomatic relations with Morocco, following allegations made by then Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra who accused Rabat of engaging in “hostile acts” against Algeria.
In October of the same year, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune decided not to renew the contract for transporting Algerian natural gas to Spain through Morocco. Algeria also closed its airspace to Moroccan aviation.
The strained relationship between the two countries was exacerbated when the Moroccan ambassador to the UN declared his support for “the right to self-determination of the inhabitants of the Kabylie region” in Algeria.
This was a response to Algeria’s backing of the Polisario Front, which declared the Sahrawi Arab Republic in 1976 on a portion of the Western Sahara, a territory over which Rabat claims sovereignty.
Algeria has accused Morocco of harbouring organisations that it classifies as terrorist groups, specifically the Rashad Al-Islamiya and MAK Separatists in the Kabylie region. In addition, Algeria has alleged that Morocco has engaged in espionage, targeting a significant number of Algerian officials through their smartphones.
The tension between the two countries did not originate in recent years, nor was it solely prompted by the recent normalisation agreement between Morocco and Israel, facilitated by the US declaration of support for Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
In 1994, Morocco accused Algeria of being involved in bombings targeting a tourist hotel in Marrakesh. In response, Algeria closed the border between the two countries and imposed visa requirements for Algerians intending to visit Morocco.
Despite repeated declarations from Morocco regarding its stance on the Western Sahara issue as a criterion for assessing the friendship of other countries, and Algeria’s steadfast support for the Polisario Front, which opposes Moroccan sovereignty, both nations have refrained from engaging in armed conflict, however.
Over the past few years, they have embarked on significant joint ventures, including the development of Moroccan solar farms, the Al-Buraq high-speed train project linking Tangiers with Casablanca, and the notable resurgence in the automobile industry in cities across Morocco.
Algeria has embarked on various projects including irrigation schemes, dam construction to manage rainwater, the expansion of road and electricity networks, and the initiation of social housing projects.
While Morocco boasts an active tourism industry in cities such as Marrakesh, Agadir, and Casablanca, Algeria has launched its “Study in Algeria” campaign. This reflects Algeria’s efforts to make substantial changes in its educational system, notably through the introduction of English language programmes to attract a larger number of African and Arab students.
These projects illustrate the aspirations of both countries to compete in terms of development rather than focusing on military superiority, despite the fact that their armies are among the strongest in Africa and the Middle East. This commitment to development persists even amidst well-known political conflicts.
Rabat has sought to forge extensive economic and political ties in Africa, particularly in collaboration with Senegal. Conversely, Algeria has pursued closer relations with South Africa.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly