Officially, Emir Hamad’s visit to Algiers on January 7, 2013 was to conduct an evaluation of the bilateral cooperation and to sign partnership agreements between the two countries. This visit was struck in a cordial tone between the heads of state, even though real tensions exist between the two countries following two years of frosty relations due to differences regarding the Arab Spring. In this respect, the recent rapprochement between the two states could suggest some shift in the foreign policy of Qatar and Algeria, the first from the perspective of its failed strategy in Syria, the second because of its isolation in the region after the Libyan revolution. Moreover, these two countries could capitalize on their relative stability during the Arab Spring and enjoy the convergence of their economies in a rapidly changing energy environment.
Ambivalent relations before the Arab Spring
The two 'brother' states have a long-standing yet ambivalent relationship. The Emir Hamad is known to have long admired the Algerian struggle for their liberation, as well as the country’s diplomatic ambitions on the international scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, Qatar has long been considered one of Algeria’s main Arab allies, and before the Arab Spring the Damascus-Doha-Algiers alliance was a powerful counterweight to the Riyadh-Cairo axis. Moreover, within the Arab League, Algeria and Qatar often found themselves similarly placed on major issues such as Palestine. Economic relations between the two countries are also good, and the emirate is home to a wide diaspora of Algerians who work in many sectors. In addition, the current head of the Algerian State, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, knows the Gulf States very well since he spent part of his exile there in the 1980s. Beyond these factors, relations between Algeria and Qatar have obviously been largely dominated by energy interests, including the security of their common interests within OPEC.
However, Algeria is wary of Gulf monarchies as it considers them too closely aligned with Morocco to be trusted, especially after the invitation made by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Morocco and Jordan to join them in 2011. In addition, other factors have made political relations between the two countries difficult, such as Al-Jazeera. Indeed, the office of the news network in the Algerian capital was closed in 20046. Then, following the bombings in Algiers on 11 April 2007 and the attacks of 11 December 2007 – when Al-Jazeera released a survey on "opportunity or not" of this attacks – the relations between the two countries again became strained. Recently, Algiers found the coverage of the parliamentary election of May 2012 to also be very negative (nevertheless, Al-Jazeera is widely watched in Algeria).
Strained sequence of the Arab Spring
The new context in place since 2011 in North Africa and the Sahel following the outbreak of the Arab Spring has created difficult situations for the Algerian regime, and Qatar's involvement in certain regional issues has complicated relations between the two states. For instance, the fact that Doha has played an important role in the overthrow of the regime of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya separated the two countries that had very different interests. Indeed, the Algerian government had initially supported the UN action to protect Libyan citizens against threats of Colonel Gaddafi. However when NATO took control of the action, Algeria was more reserved. For Algiers an intervention because of the 'responsibility to protect' would have marked a dangerous precedent in the region. Moreover, Algiers feared that regional balances would change greatly with this intervention, which was subsequently confirmed, particularly in the Sahel. Finally, Algeria feared that the new Libyan regime sought to join the pro-Morocco axis, thus weakening its regional domination. The Qatari intervention in Libya was thus seen as undesirable by Algiers, ending up in opposite diplomatic positions being taken by the two countries. Thus in 2011, Algeria waited several months before recognizing the National Transitional Council, while Qatar was the first Arab country to do so.
In addition, the emirate also played an important role in the events in Syria, the former ally of Algeria. Again, the position of Qatar is not consistent with the interests of Algeria, a country that wants to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In this case, the diplomatic opposition between the two states was very clear, particularly in the committee in charge of the Syrian case in the Arab League. Finally, Algeria is wary of the regional activism of Qatar and its support for some Islamist movements in North Africa. For example, in 2011 the emirate provided financial and diplomatic support to the Ennahda party in Tunisia. To Algiers in fact, Qatari support for Islamist groups involves the kind of risk of destabilizing the country experienced in the 1990s. In this context, Algiers is concerned about the growing role of Qatar along with the fact that a part of the Algerian opposition is in exile, including networks of former ISF members, like Abassi Madani who lives in the emirate. Doha is for instance home to the television channel "Al Maghribia" created by the son of Abassi Madini and highly critical vis-à-vis the Algerian authorities. In that context, the visit by the emir of Qatar in January 2013 suggests that Algiers wants the peninsula to refocus its relationship with Algeria in terms of economic cooperation.
Economic relations which are expanding amid new energy situation
The visit of the Emir of Qatar to Algiers in January 2013 was sanctioned by the signing of seven partnership agreements in the fields of energy, mining and industry. Algeria and Qatar also want to create a common fund for the realization of joint projects abroad25 and they signed a cooperation agreement for oil and gas. These major agreements were signed while political relations between the two states were strained, but economic convergence factors do indeed exist: with the impact of the discovery and exploitation of several deposits of shale gas in the world, the global energy landscape has changed dramatically. This is partly what motivates these two gas producing countries to actively pursue the diversification of their economies. And while Qatar appears to be developing a comprehensive economic strategy to diversify its assets, Algeria wants to attract more foreign investment.
Qatar sees Algeria as an emerging country with a large market, many economic opportunities, and political stability, especially compared to other Arab countries. Convergence of interests around gas production also exists between the two states, and in this new energy landscape, facing existing global competition - Russia and Iran - or emerging - the United States - it is important to create alliances. In addition, Algeria remains a major strategic player in the region: the country has the largest defense budget in the African continent, is a recognized expertise in the fight against terrorism and a founding member of several forums that fight against terrorism, both regionally and globally.
So firstly, economic rapprochement between the two states could thus be seen as a way for Qatar to try to put pressure on Algeria to change its position vis-à-vis some conflicts, especially in Syria. Plus, the intensification of economic cooperation - which is very advantageous to both – might be a way to achieve a deepening of political relations, in the context of a possible evolution of regional diplomacy on the part of the two countries.
The Syrian deadlock issue can indeed encourage Qatar to refocus on mediations, peaceful resolution of conflict, while Algeria could soften its positions - as it has done with Mali – and its diplomatic paradigms. Indeed, after two years of cold relations and in the moment when the geopolitical area of North Africa and the Sahel has undergone profound political upheavals in which Qatar was involved, there is an opportunity for the two countries to normalize their relations: the war in Mali somewhat weakened Qatar while Algeria, which opened its airspace and suffered a terrorist attack, came out rather reinforced from this episode. In that context, using their economic leverage remains a very interesting method for this rapprochement, particularly because both States must develop and diversify their economies and will benefit from a favourable but changing gas context.
Algiers feared that foreign intervention in Libya raises the Kabyle and Tuareg identity claims in the country, but also weakens Libya and promotes in the region refugee movements, weapons proliferation, and Tuareg fighters returning to their countries of origin