“We might as well index the price of natural gas on that of haute couture clothes”. It was near the end of a long conversation with the Algerian energy ministry's secretary-general, Sadek Boussena, on the rather fraught relations between France and its former départements beyond the Mediterranean, and his tone was somewhat sarcastic. "The price," he continued, "can only go one way, which is up, rather than up and down as the price of crude oil, on which natural-gas international contracts are indexed, does."
This was the second time that I had met the urbane Boussena, who had risen quickly through the ranks. When I first travelled to Algiers for the Financial Times in March 1977, he had already, at 29, become the energy ministry's director-general. He had been promoted from running the energy portfolio at the ministry of heavy industry, whose all-powerful boss until 1976 was Belaïd Abdessalam, the man who liked to boast that by 2000 he would turn Algeria into the Japan of Africa.
In those years, which proved to be the later ones of Houari Boumedienne (the then Algerian president died in December 1978), two schools of thought - in fact, two clans - confronted each other on how best to develop the country’s plentiful oil-and gas-reserves. One school, to which Abdessalam belonged, believed that oil-and-gas extraction should be pushed to the limits of what was technically possible, and that vast quantities of gas in particular should be sold to the United States. He even got several agreements signed with his US counterpart which suggested Algeria’s state oil-and-gas company, Sonatrach, would sell 70 billion cubic metres of gas to US companies such as Trunkline and El Paso within a decade. When the then American president Jimmy Carter deregulated gas prices, they quickly plunged, thus consigning such agreements to the dustbin of history.
Those belonging to the second school were more cautious, arguing that Algeria should fit its extraction policies to suit the manner in which the country developed its industry and agriculture. They should build up the country’s energy and industrial base more slowly, associate Algerian engineers and private companies more closely with the projects, thus reducing the need for foreign consultants and the corruption which went, inevitably, with large ticket industrial items. The Vallhyd plan completed in 1976 Bechtel, DeGolyer and McNaughton argued the minister’s case. In 1978, it was shelved. (Indeed, shortly before Boumedienne’s death, Abdessalam was demoted to the ministry of light industry - and people in Algiers promptly nicknamed him le ministre de la gazzouz (the minister of lemonade).
After Chadli Benjedid succeeded Houari Boumedienne in January 1978, the more cautious school of argument won the day. The new energy minister, Belkacem Nabi, was a choleric man who was inclined either to stonewall international journalists or to insult any who dared question the wisdom of his policies. Indeed, he refused to grant me an interview for more than three years, as he felt I was too close to the Vallhyd report school of thinking of his predecessor, Sid Ahmed Ghozali. At last, in September 1982, he relented, following wise advice from Algeria’s ambassador in London, Redha Malek, and senior members of the government such as Boualem Beassaih.
My meeting with him was awkward. But he decided that henceforth, my contact at the ministry would be Sadek Boussena, who throughout those years had managed to keep on good terms with protagonists of both sides in the trench warefare on Algeria's energy policy. Boussena went on to become director-general of Algeria’s state oil company in August 1988 and minister of energy in September 1989. By then Sonatrach could not even fulfil its oil-export quota agreed with Opec - not because its engineers were mediocre, quite the contrary, but because its rules of engagement with international oil companies were too restrictive (the situation remains true today). The new minister drafted a new hydrocarbons law which his successor Nordine Ait Laoussine pushed through the national assembly in autumn 1991; the liberalised the rules governing foreign investment in Algeria’s oil-and-gas fields resulted in a huge boom in new discoveries, in recoverable reserves figures and in exports, notably of gas.
My only knowledge of oil and gas, as an adolescent, had been meeting senior members of Royal Dutch Shell in the west of London district of Richmond, where my maternal grandparents lived after 1945. My grandfather retired from a senior position in Shell in 1950 and was happy to guzzle champagne with his former British and Dutch peers as they celebrated the fall (via an Anglo-American putsch) of the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. In 1974, when freelancing for the financial monthly Euromoney, I decided to try and understand the basics of what was a very new market, that of internationally traded liquefied natural gas (LNG). The Algerian ambassador in London, Lakhdar Brahimi, whom I had met in Oxford as I was finishing my thesis on Algeria, strongly encouraged me, and in 1975, on my first visit to Algeria as a journalist I was received by one of Sonatrach’s senior vice-presidents, the same Nordine Ait Laoussine.
Nordine was a very polished performer: handsome, fluent in English, with a complete command of his brief: the ideal Sonatrach vice-president in charge of natural gas. At seminars in London I ran into senior Shell executives so that, by the time I joined the Financial Times in 1977 I was keen to start writing on the subject.
Algeria's education in natural gas
The first-ever liquefaction plant had been built by Shell in Arzew in western Algeria, opened in 1964; the first LNG ship carried gas from Arzew to Canvey Island in the Thames estuary. The co-chairs of the company which carried out that trade, Camel, were Abdelkader Chanderli and Peter Vrancken. I had met Abdelkader in Oxford with Lakhdar Brahimi in 1972: he was the son of the Maleki Cadi of Algiers (who, it was said, preached on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, repaired to Marseilles to continue drinking, and returned to north Africa at the end of the month of fasting.) Abdelkader had rallied the Free French in London during the second world war, worked with senior French officers in Italy in 1944-45 and then became the Agence France Presse correspondent in Palestine in 1947-48. By 1956 he had rallied to the Front de liberation National (FLN) and its envoy to the United nations in New York, Mohammed Yazid.
He then co-chaired the Organisation de Dévelopement Saharien with Claude Cheysson (who was to become Francois Mitterrand’s first foreign minister in 1981) before taking on his job at Camel. He left Algeria in 1976 as he strongly objected to President Boumedienne’s decision to nationalise Shell’s stake in Camel without offering compensation. Camel trained the best oil-and-gas engineers in the young republic, and Chanderli thought his country should be grateful for that; he never shared the "third worldism" of Algerian leaders, and by the late 1980s was wondering when the frustrated youth of Algeria (and other Arab countries) were going to rise in revolt. He was one of the few who was lucid on that count.
Abdelkader knew everybody, loved good food and pretty women, and was well versed in the ways of the world. He was one of two men who helped me understand the deep scars of the war of liberation of 1954-62, and the consequences they would have on Algeria’s behaviour for years to come. The other was Cherif Benelhadj Said, who was elected to the French Assemblée Constituante in 1946 to represent Constantine, the capital of eastern Algeria. Cherif hailed from one of the oldest families of Constantine and worked closely with one of the early nationalist leaders, Ferhat Abbas, then after 1962 with independent Algeria's first finance minister, Ahmed Francis. He went on to found the state insurance company of Algeria. "Si Cherif", who had perfect English, with clothes and manners to match, like "Si Abdelkader" straddled worlds - that of traditional Algeria and that of Paris, London and New York. The former has quite vanished but had its eastern counterparts in Alexandria, Beirut, Smyrna (Izmir) and Istanbul.
A few months after joining the Financial Times I wrote my first ever article on LNG. The deputy editor, Geoffrey Owen, told me it was very interesting but inquired as to whether I had quite mastered this “new” area to which I told him “honestly no”. “Continue writing," he told me, it is an important subject”. A year later I met the man who had built the oil-and-gas base of Arzew, Mohammed Mazouni, known to his friends by his nom de guerre, Halim. Halim had fought as an intelligence officer in the Algerian Armée de Libération Nationale and was as tough as that suggests. When he was arrested, the French officer found his notebook and decided not to torture him because from sheer admiration at the wit and intelligence of Halim’s comments on the FLN khatiba (battalion) he worked in.
In 1962, when Algeria became independent, Halim went to Paris to study engineering, then returned to build the new Algeria. He was very critical of western policies vis-à-vis the Arab world, and thus wholly in tune with the third-world policies of Houari Boummediene. Halim was a hard taskmaster for those who worked under his orders, a terrific manager and totally honest. One day I chided him for never going to America, which I thought strange on two grounds: it was an important market for the liquefied gas Arzew was producing, and American banks were the source of many of the loans which allowed Algerian industrialisation to proceed. He laughed but stuck to his guns and never crossed the Atlantic.
Algeria's diplomatic relations with the United States had been broken off in the wake of the six-day war in 1967, so in the 1970s there was no US ambassador in Algiers. That said, at an individual level, relations with Americans were excellent: many among the thousand or so American engineers who were then working on building the different plants in Arzew had their families with them, and an American school had been set up. A brilliant chargé d’affaires, Richard Parker, was present, and the frostiness of political relations between the two countries had no visible impact on life in Arzew. Years later, Halim told me the Americans had been excellent partners; certainly they were not prone to the deep chauvinism and refusal to help Algerian engineers learn the tricks of the trade which were to characterise Japanese engineers when they appeared on the scene in the early 1980s.
An awkward minister
Belkacem Nabi, energy minister in Chadli Bendjedid's government from 1978, began by setting the Vallhyd plan aside. He soon found himself taunted by his predecessor on account of not having fought in the war of liberation of Algeria but rather working for a French company in Morocco. That this had nothing to do with Nabi’s policy deeply irritated him. In 1981 he was the only Opec minister who chose to rewrite the mechanism tying gas prices to oil prices; oil prices were booming as a result of the Iranian revolution and Nabi was delighted to show how clever he was. Until then a time-lag of six-to-nine months between the rise in the price of oil and that of gas characterised most contracts, now it was reduced to three-to-six months. Of course, what goes up faster also comes down faster, and when the price of oil started its precipitous decline soon afterwards, this forced the Italian company ENI and Sonatrach (and many of their peers across the world) to renegotiate contracts. Even the Italians felt they were paying too little for the gas they were buying from Algeria.
In the three years which followed Nabi’s appointment I found it ever more difficult to see senior officials. Nabi was not best pleased when I mentioned in the Financial Times the delays (albeit of a few days in spring 1981) in Algerian gas deliveries to France. I suggested to the Algerian ambassador in London that the paper would be happy to publish a letter from the minister correcting any mistakes I might have made: “Algerian ministers do not write to newspapers” he told me. “Well, Algeria became a state in 1962 and the FT has existed since 1888”, I retorted.
By June 1981, when Opec was due to meet in Algiers, Belkacem Nabi was in full swing. I travelled to Algiers a week ahead of the meeting, and found the doors of senior officials closed. I turned to Maitre Marie Claude Radziewsky, one of Algers's leading business lawyers, to help me. This very elegant and influential lady, hostess of coveted parties in the elegant Moorish house she lived in Chemin Macklay in the El Biar district, had defended FLN “terrorists” in Paris in the late 1950s and settled in Algiers in the mid-1960s. She invited me to escort her to a glittering party given by Yacef Saadi in his house overlooking the British residence in the Mustafa Supérieur district, on the hills overlooking the bay of Algiers.
Yacef was famous as the pimp who in 1956 organised the battle of Algiers against General Massu’s paratroopers - an episode which became the prototype of modern urban guerrilla warfare, and was later made into a remarkable film by Gilles Pontecorvo. He played his old role in the film, which was being shot when Boumedienne seized power from the country’s first president. The tanks that night were not mere film decoys, they were for real – Algiers has this cloak-and-dagger feel about it, where reality and fiction blend in strange ways. Yacef warmly greeted Marie Claude (whom he knew well) and me (it was our first meeting). He introduced to us his star guest, Nabi, who was quite nonplussed and started insulting me, saying I did not know how hard the fight to liberate Algeria had been. “You are an enemy of Algeria,” he angrily told me, as the Italian ambassador tried to reason with him. An engineer with Sonatrach and a friend, who witnessed the scene, then asked Nabi. “How can he be with the name he bears? He is a Kabyle Berber”. In an attempt to mollify Nabi, I asked this friend’s wife if she would dance with me. An orchestra of women dressed in black was playing chaabi, a popular form of Algerian-Arab music; the great and the good of Algiers were dancing the night away; whisky was flowing; the stars were shining brightly. For the first time in my life I dared do an Arab dance in public. The minister, who had by then had too much to drink, left in a fit of pique.
Worse was to happen next day when the formal opening ceremony took place at the Hotel Aurassi which commands impressive views of the bay of Algiers. As I stood with the FT’s middle-east editor, Richard Johns, at the entrance of the hotel lobby in a great crush of journalists and security guards, Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi energy minister entered with his Algerian counterpart. Richard introduced me to Yamani and I attempted to do the same with Richard vis-à-vis Nabi, who showily turned his face in the opposite direction. That afternoon the phone rang in our hotel room: it was the Saudi minister. Yamani said to Richard, “Your north Africa correspondent must be a fine man because Belkacem Nabi does not like him”, before putting down the phone. Later that afternoon as I was standing outside the chamber where Opec ministers were meeting, the door opened and the minister of one of the Gulf emirates rushed out. I reported this to Richard but the glint in his eye told me another story. “Oh...he needs to fuck a young man every few hours. This is of no interest as far as crude oil prices are concerned”. The next morning, the director-general of Sonatrach, Youcef Yousfi - today Algeria’s minister of energy - came up to me in the Aurassi lobby and said: “M Ghilès, you really must mend your relations with the minister.” We were formally reconciled later that day in the lobby of the Aurassi.
It took the intervention of senior members of the FLN such as Boualem Bessaiah and the secretary-general of Algeria's foreign-affairs ministry, Smail Hamdani, to settle the matter. The incident which brought Boussena into the picture was a meeting I had with Nabi in September 1982. I had flown to Algiers, assured by the new Algerian ambassador in London, Redha Malek, that I would be able to write a major piece on gas for the FT. After waiting a week for an audience, I finally got through to his secretary who assured me the minister did not know I was in Algiers - his PR man had not kept him informed. Ten minutes later, an official car rushed me down to the ministry, up ten floors and into Nabi’s office, where he proceeded grossly to insult two of his advisers for not telling him I was in Algiers. “How can we be friends?” he inquired after dismissing his officials. I replied: “The only difficulty I have is that we share one thing, minister. We both have a Jewish mother but you are ashamed of yours while I am proud of mine.” This was hardly the correct thing to say but there were times in Algiers when, faced with the obduracy of senior officials, one just had to let off steam. The minister looked at me, unable to respond, and called for Sadek Boussena. I never saw Belkacem Nabi again.
Algeria's bitter legacy
The early 1980s also saw a much greater readiness among the Algerian leadership to discuss energy issues, after the president set up the Conseil Supérieur de l’Energie. This brought together the key ministries involved in shaping energy policy: foreign affairs, trade, finance, energy and Sonatrach. Policy debates discarded the hitherto conspiratorial atmosphere, and the two schools of thought started arguing key strategic issues in a more rational fashion.
In 1982, however, Belkacem Nabi had reason to feel good. In November 1991, Algeria had played a major role in the release of fifty-two American diplomatic hostages who had been seized on 4 November 1979 and held in Tehran for 444 days. Seghir Mostefai, the governor of the central bank, and Redha Malek, were part of the team under foreign minister Mohammed Benhyahia which brokered a deal between Tehran and Washington to resolve one of the most fraught diplomatic crises of modern times. Working with colleagues at the Financial Times, such as the banking correspondent Michael Lafferty and the former Iran correspondent Andrew Whitley, we had been able to locate where revolutionary Iran had relocated the country’s assets after many Iranian funds were frozen in New York banks following the seizure of the hostages. Now, over two years on, relations between the US and Algeria were getting warmer.
A few years later Mohammed Benhyahia was killed when his aeroplane was shot down, most probably on the orders of Saddam Hussein, as he was flying between Baghdad and Tehran in an effort to broker an end to the Iraq-Iran war. In any case, hubris was never far from success, as Algeria turned down Queen Elizabeth II's invitation to President Chadli in 1987 to make a state visit to the United Kingdom (the king of Morocco seized the opportunity and came instead). In 1985, Chadli had paid a state visit to Washington, the first of its kind since Algeria had become independent, and the US agreed to sell defensive weapons to this arch-defender of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). I entered the White House for the only time in my life on the Algerian list of journalists, as the Americans could not get me security clearance in time (even though I was already in the country as a guest of USAID.)
The dinner Chadli Bendjedid hosted for George Bush was memorable, as all the Washington grandees came to pay their respects to the man who had saved the US hostages four years before. As I saluted the Algerian president, whom I had met a year earlier, he displayed surprise and asked me what I was doing there. “Escorting a lovely lady,” I told him, a remark which made the young Algerian, Rachid Ghozali, who followed me in the line, giggle uncontrollably. “Emshi” ("move along"), Chadli said to me with a broad smile.
Unfortunately for Algeria, the country’s leaders were unable to build on that successful visit and as they squabbled, violent riots erupted in October 1988. These were at first met with fierce repression but then opened the floodgates of “democracy”, which soon turned chaotic. The legacy of Algeria’s failed attempt to open up a one-party state-run economy has been bitter: years of civil strife in the 1990s, 150,000 dead, many disappeared, torture returning of a grand scale and 600,000 people escaping abroad. This bitter legacy helps to explain why Algerian people did not immediately follow in the footsteps of Tunisia and Egypt in 2011-12. The lessons of those years in Algeria have yet to be learned by other countries of the region.
Chadli Bendjedi's change
Chadli Benjedid had many faults. He was not always a hard worker, allowed his family to enrich themselves, and did not support the group of reformers under Mouloud Hamrouche as much as he might have. But he did genuinely wish to unshackle his people and give them more freedom. On some issues too, he showed foresight and courage. It always saddened me to hear well-educated members of the country’s elite argue he was unfit to govern Algeria because he could not speak good French; after all, he had left school at 14 and worked as a docker in the port of Annaba while many in the elite were attending university courses in Algiers, France or the US. He was military governor of Oran for many years before becoming head of state, and would have the local prisons checked every few weeks to try and avoid gross miscarriages of justice. Even his private life was public: local people would salute his very blonde "official mistress" as she drove her car around town, a welcome change to the hypocritical puritanisme de facade of Boumedienne’s circle.
After much argument, Chadli succeeded in convincing his peers in Algeria in 1984 to reopen diplomatic relations with Morocco before the thorny issue of the Western Sahara had been solved. The former Spanish colony had been overrun by Moroccan troops in November 1975 during the so called "green march", as Morocco’s astute ruler King Hassan II seized the opportunity offered by General Franco’s dying weeks and the paralysis of Spain’s decision-making which these had induced. The bold move succeeded in reconciling the Alaoui dynasty with the Moroccan people, but the price has been heavy: thirty-eight years later, an expensive regional arms race, no United Nations-sanctioned solution, and the incapacity of Algeria and Morocco to weigh decisively in restoring order across an increasingly troubled Sahel region. It is a very negative legacy indeed.
Nonetheless, the rapprochement between the two countries was sealed by the agreement reached in 1990 to build a gas pipeline from Algeria to Spain and Portugal across Moroccan territory. The Iberian market was growing. Italy's Saipem company had built the first underwater gas pipeline in the world across the strait of Sicily, inaugurated in 1983; this has carried Algeria gas to Italy without a hitch ever since. By the mid-1980s, Saipem had mastered the technology which was to allow it to lay a pipeline on the much deeper strait of Gibraltar, where currents are much stronger than between Italy and Sicily.
Chadli Bendjedid took senior members of the Algerian government to Rabat in 1990 for a solemn signing in the royal palace in the presence of King Hassan, who insisted the Algerian ministers should stay three extra days to get to know their Moroccan counterparts. Sadek Boussena knew his Moroccan counterpart, Mohammed Fetah, well. That ceremony came a few months after the agreement to set up a Maghreb Arab Union, reached in November 1989 in Marrakech (the signatories were Algeria, Libya, Mauretania, Morocco and Tunisia). These convinced observers that the region was finally burying its past conflicts and looking to the future. They were to be bitterly disillusioned, though the Pedro Durell pipeline - which brings gas to Iberia across Morocco - bears testimony to the capacity to lead shown by the two men who presided over the destinies of Algeria and Morocco in those days. Boussena, ever the diplomat, was also able to convince Portugal that gas supplies from a pipeline crossing the territory of an ancient adversary, Spain, would never be at risk.
As it negotiated with Algeria, Morocco made two mistakes - a result most probably of its negotiators' lack of sophistication compared with their Spanish and Algerian counterparts. They insisted on royalties equivalent to 7% of the throughput of gas, as against 5.5% for Tunisia; the Spanish meanwhile refused to allow Algeria to participate in the capital of the underwater sector of the pipeline, something Italy’s ENI had suggested in the agreement to build the Algeria-Italy pipeline in the late 1970s. Morocco also agreed to buy $1bn-worth of gas over and above the amounts allowed by the royalties when the pipeline opened for business. It reneged on its promise. The pipeline was completed, however, and its very existence has demonstrated the virtues of economic cooperation between two countries which have turned their back on one another for the past generation and continue to do so.
In the mid- and late 1980s, some senior Algerians voiced fears that Morocco might halt the flow of Algerian gas. By the early 2000s some Moroccans were indulging in the same scare tactics which led the Algerians to refuse point-blank to sell more gas to Morocco when the later requested so in 2005. By 2010, Algeria had relented and more gas is now going to feed Morocco’s increasing thirst for more clean energy.
The test of cooperation
For more than a generation, north Africa has been gripped by any number of fears. Morocco argues that it cannot possibly allow its energy supplies to depend on its eastern neighbour, which would, in terms of Algeria’s resources and proximity, be the obvious supplier. Algeria for its part is fearful that its neighbours, Morocco and (to a lesser degree) Tunisia, are interested only in expanding their export markets and acting as predators of its growing oil-and-gas wealth. Such reciprocal economic fears feed on unsolved political issues and on one another; they also play on the internal characteristics of regimes which have become skilled at using the "fear of the other" in order to delay any serious evolution towards more democratic forms of government and a more equitable sharing of national wealth. Governance has improved at a rate which is much slower than witnessed in other countries, notably in Asia. Such fears have also been encouraged from abroad as the region has been caught up in the broader swirl of international affairs.
Throughout much of the 1970s, Algeria’s support for the PLO was looked upon unfavourably in Europe and the United States. Algeria's purchase of weapons from the former Soviet Union meant that France was happy to arm Morocco and Libya as a means of putting pressure on her former colony. Today, the high price of oil and gas, and the knowledge that Algeria has abundant reserves of both, has put the country back in the driving-seat in north Africa: it can act as a facilitator or a spoiler on many fronts. Algeria has been a reliable exporter of gas to its eastern neighbour, the US and Europe for forty-five years.
All three countries in the Maghreb have used the heightened fear of Islamist terrorism to further their own internal agendas and ensure the west turn a blind eye to their lack of respect for greater freedom of speech and more transparency in economic matters: in other words for the due process of law. The abrupt changes in Tunisia and Libya in 2010-12 have made north African countries, even more than in their recent past, pawns in a broader game they do not control, and which today includes all the major powers. Each country has built a nation-state, on the European model, whereas in the mid-20th century there existed a deep feeling of regional solidarity. The latter was symbolised by the Appel de Tangier for the unity of the Maghreb, signed in April 1958 by the leading politicians of the day.
By contrast, the absence of any long-term political vision of what north Africa might be has encouraged a flight of capital, of educated and less educated people, who cannot hope to find good investment opportunities and jobs in economies which are growing too slowly. Today, as radical Islamist movements or cells spawn across the Sahel countries, take control of northern Mali and spread terrorism in northern Nigeria, and as cocaine flows from Latin America into Europe via the narco-state of Guinea-Bissau and north Africa, it is urgent to rethink the geostrategic grid of the Maghreb.
Algeria and Morocco are the only two states in north-west Africa which boast an army, security forces and a foreign policy. Might it not be time to work together? Might it not be time for Europe and the US to reshape their policies to avoid the appearance of a miniature Afghanistan in the Sahel? Europe in particular should be mindful of the suction effect that crises in its "near abroad" can have on the centre. What happened in the Balkans could happen elsewhere: the Maghreb and the Sahel is the vulnerable southern neighbour of Europe and the western Mediterranean.
North Africa, a world role?
Europe's geopolitical orientation is placed further in question as the balance of power in the world shifts towards Asia. Europe itself is having to confront the choice of whether to fall apart or integrate more closely, and the challenge of taking into account the views of countries which a generation ago it could afford, economically or politically, to ignore. The United States is faced with the same problem. Accepting that three centuries of hegemony are coming to an end is not easy.
At the same time, winds of change are blowing across the Arab world, not least north Africa, with consequences which are unpredictable. If western Mediterranean countries were able to take an unsentimental approach, new industries and many new jobs could be created which would add value to production in the Maghreb, while European technology could be seriously transferred south. The "Barcelona process" always lacked the critical mass of investment needed to allow any serious economic take-off, and the vaunted corporate upgrading (mise à niveau) never really materialised. The European Union’s "neighbourhood policy" can be described as at best a “cache misère politique”. Most countries have continued to favour their traditional bilateral relations with European countries at the expense of their horizontal north African ones. Beyond gas pipelines, investment in certain energy and mineral sectors, notably phosphates and renewable energy, offer win-win opportunities for all involved: north African and European companies, but also American, Chinese and Indian firms, both private and state-run.
Among those who in the 2000s was interested in exploring what economic consequences might result from greater economic cooperation in the region is Mostefa Terrab. After acquiring his qualifications at MIT, Terrab has accumulated highly relevant experience: with multinational Bechtel (arguably the best connected company, politically, in the world) and the Cabinet Royal in Rabat, in privatising Morocco’s GSM in 1999 (one of the most successful operations of its kind), in a stint at the World Bank, and since 2006 modernising Morocco's state Office Chérifien des Phosphates.
Private-sector companies in the Maghreb increasingly speak the same language, but at a political level there is no will to move forward. The challenge of adding two points of growth annually to the regional economy and building a dream for the younger generation will not be met while key issues of security and internationally recognised frontiers remain unsettled, and as long as Algerian leaders fear that their neighbours simply want to profit from their oil-and-gas wealth. A new generation of private entrepreneurs and state company managers is emerging in the Maghreb: they have a keener understanding of what is at stake than most civil servants and diplomats, not to mention political leaders in western Mediterranean countries. Many are the (willing?) prisoners of stereotyped ways of thinking which hinder progress towards a better world.
The discovery of commercial quantities of oil in Algeria in the 1950s had the unfortunate result of prolonging the fight for independence by two years at least. Algeria was also the testing-ground for France’s new nuclear weapons. The last stage of the war of independence, from 1960-62, witnessed savage infighting among different groups: factions of Algerian nationalists, supporters of General de Gaulle and diehards of Algérie Française, Algerian nationalists and the French. The war brought down the Fourth Republic in Paris, saw widespread torture and the use of napalm, sullied the reputation of the French army (whose fighting spirit and morale had been broken at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, by the Vietcong). Those years allowed the powerful Armée de Libération Nationale to consolidate its grip on power against the much weakened FLN fighters in Algeria, and paved the way for it to take power against the civilian FLN leadership in summer 1962.
Those years also trained a number of brilliant French and Anglo-Saxon reporters who went on to become the best of their generation: Jean Daniel and Jean Lacouture in France, John Cooley, a stalwart of ABC and the Boston Globe, in the US. These reporters and many others witnessed the battle of Algiers, emblematic of modern urban guerrilla warfare in that western power overwhelmed its enemy militarily but lost the political battle. Jean-Paul Jessé, who became the European Union ambassador to Algiers in 1987-90, was a soldier in Algeria in 1957; he was was court-martialled - and ended up on the front cover of the newly launched weekly l’Express - because he protested against his countrymen’s use of torture on FLN prisoners. As I was to discover later, Algeria’s fight for independence spawned a web of friendships between Algerians and those in the west and the Maghreb who had helped them which would last for a lifetime.
My years at Oxford (1969-72) and beyond were enriched by mentors who helped me build the intellectual foundations of what was to be a much deeper understanding of my own country, France, and its complicated relations with the complex and complexed nature of those obdurate, passionate yet far-sighted people, the Algerians. Chief among them were Wilfrid Knapp, my thesis supervisor at St Catherine’s College, and his wife Pat, and two other prominent academics: Vincent Wright, a specialist of France and a man of unparalleled intellectual generosity, and Richard Cobb, that iconoclastic specialist of revolutionary France. They also offered me an understanding of international politics and economics which has served me well. Oil has been the nexus of 20th-century international relations. It allows an understanding of what the "deep state" really means, beyond headline articles and glossy self-contained theories of international relations. Links of Realpolitik exist which are not visible to the naked eye and are hard to break. Algeria and north Africa generally, exemplify this truth without parallel.
Get our weekly email