The conflict in Ukraine has had a major impact on North Africa, with each country taking a different approach and ultimately choosing sides. The countries that chose active neutrality will probably benefit most from the post-conflict fallout, having maintained good relations with Moscow and Western capitals. The positions of the North African countries also prove that Moscow will have to review its diplomatic strategy in the region and adapt it according to the attitude of the regimes and their positioning during the conflict, Akram Kharief writes.
The crisis in Ukraine has affected the countries of North Africa in very different ways. Some have benefited, others have suffered, but all have been obliged, at one time or another, to position themselves vis-à-vis Russia.
On the diplomatic front, the only North African country not to vote for resolutions against Russia or condemning Moscow at the UN was Algeria. Morocco chose the strategy of the empty chair, deserting the assemblies during votes. Egypt and Tunisia systematically spoke out against Russia. But on the military front, Tunisia and Morocco, as major non-NATO allies, were quick to speak out in favor of Ukraine at the Ramstein summit on April 26, 2022.
This summit, organized by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to organize the collection of military aid for Ukraine, ended up involving the two North African countries in the conflict.
Following the summit, Tunisia sent two cargo planes carrying humanitarian aid, and Morocco pledged military aid to Ukraine.
Diplomatically, no North African country has made any mediation efforts or proposed any solutions, apart from Algeria, which, during President AbdelmadjidTebboune’s visit to Moscow in June, proposed a peace plan and an intermediary role in resolving the crisis. President Tebboune’s plan has not been revealed, but it includes sending emissaries to Kiev. Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf has travelled to Italy, Serbia and Germany to gather international support for the Algerian initiative. Algeria is also the only North African country to have reopened its embassy in Kiev in March 2023, after closing it at the start of the conflict, and has maintained courteous relations with Ukrainian diplomats present on its territory, not preventing their activities, apart from their attempts to recruit Algerians as volunteers to fight in the International Legion, which provoked a diplomatic crisis in March 2023.
The head of diplomacy of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, has cancelled two visits to Tunis and at least one to Rabat because of the lack of enthusiasm in these capitals for cooperation with Russia, yet Tunisia, in search of tourists, has rushed to open air routes between Tunis, Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
In May 2023, Ukrainian Foreign Minister DmytroKuleba chose Rabat as the starting point for his African tour. This first visit ended with Kiev’s recognition of the “Moroccan Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara”, which was seen as a declaration of conflict by Algeria.
In another symbol of the rapprochement between Kiev and Rabat, Morocco, which is preparing a bid to host the 2030 World Cup, along with Portugal and Spain, has agreed to allow Ukraine to join the bid.
In military terms, very few North Africans volunteered to join either camp. At most, a few dozen joined the International Ukrainian Legion, and some prisoners of North African origin benefited from release measures after enlisting in Wagner’s ranks. Morocco, for example, offered dozens of T-72BV tanks to the Kiev regime. These tanks were being modernized in the Czech Republic. There are also rumors of Rabat sending Tunguska air defense systems as military aid to Ukraine. Tunisia, for its part, sent two cargo planes the day after the Ramstein military summit. The two aircraft unloaded batches of humanitarian equipment at Poland’s Rzeszow airport, the logistics hub for NATO aid to the Ukrainian army.
Egypt came under a lot of pressure from Washington to help Ukraine. The Egyptian army has large stocks of Russian ammunition and the capacity to produce weapons and ammunition that NATO was desperate to pass on to the Ukrainian army, which was running out of ammunition. This pressure led to a report in the Pentagon’s leaks that Cairo was planning to produce 40,000 rockets for the Russian army. This information was never confirmed, and led to Egypt agreeing to transfer ammunition to Ukraine. Cairo receives $1.3 billion in military aid from Washington every year, equivalent to over 10% of its military budget. The Egyptian army’s arms purchases are also closely linked to the USA, and depend on American willingness to accept delivery.
Algeria, another country with large ammunition stocks, has been repeatedly asked and pressured by the West to supply arms to Ukraine, but has always refused military involvement in the conflict.
As for Libya, a divided country, it is the only North African country where elements of the private military company Wagner are present. It was not involved in the conflict in Ukraine, nor did it help either side of the conflict.
Finally, the conflict in Ukraine has had a harsh economic impact on the region. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat. It imports a total of 12 to 13 million tonnes a year. With a population of 105 million, growing at a rate of 1.9% per year, Egypt has become increasingly dependent on imports to meet its food needs. With over 80% of wheat imports coming from Ukraine and Russia, the rise in wheat prices has led to a 10% rise in the price of all food products in Egypt.
This situation has had a definite impact on people’s daily lives, and may explain Cairo’s rapprochement with the West.
Tunisia, which is experiencing an acute economic crisis, has also suffered the consequences of the conflict in Ukraine. On average, over the 2018-2021 period, Tunisia imported 93% of its consumption of soft wheat, 67% of barley and 40% of durum wheat. More than half of its grain imports depend on Russia and Ukraine. Rising fertilizer and energy prices have severely impacted the Tunisian economy, which was already in recession before the conflict. This hasn’t stopped Tunisia from doing business thanks to the crisis. A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that by 2022, the small North African country had become one of the world’s biggest exporters of naphtha, a petroleum product used in the chemical industry, without being a producer. The investigation revealed that Tunis was re-exporting naphtha from Russia to South Korea, which had imposed an embargo on Russia.
In Morocco, rising hydrocarbon prices have had the greatest impact on the country’s economy. With Algeria cutting off gas supplies to Spain and Morocco via the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline (GME) in November 2021, Rabat has had to turn to international markets to secure its energy supplies.
A report published in February by the World Bank forecasts an inflation rate of 8.3% in Morocco in December 2022, a figure that the international financial institution has linked to the Russian- Ukrainian conflict. The impact on agriculture has been significant, as the kingdom, Africa’s third-largest wheat importer, imports a quarter of its consumption from Russia and Ukraine.
Despite this complicated situation, Rabat has taken advantage of the situation to host numerous oil smuggling operations from Russia in its territorial waters. Up to 650,000 barrels of oil were reportedly traded off Morocco in 2023.
Apart from the rise in the world food market, Algeria has not really suffered economically from the conflict in Ukraine. As Africa’s second-largest wheat importer, Algeria is accustomed to buying French and Canadian wheat, and has therefore not suffered from the embargo on Russian wheat and the blocking of Ukrainian imports. Rising hydrocarbon prices have been a boon for the Algerian economy, which depends on oil and gas exports. The European gas crisis in 2022 meant that Algiers was wooed by the Americans and Europeans not to use the three gas pipelines linking it to Europe as a means of political pressure against the very fragile European countries. Numerous American and European delegations have visited Algiers to beg for the continuation of delivery contracts and to propose greater investment, particularly from Italy and the USA, in exploration in Algeria. The rapprochement between Algiers and Moscow following President Tebboune’s state visit to Moscow has resulted in a return to the Algerian market by Gazprom and Rosatom, who are promising major investment and cooperation projects in Algeria.
In conclusion, the conflict in Ukraine has had a major impact on North Africa, with each country taking a different approach and ultimately choosing sides. The countries that chose active neutrality will probably benefit most from the post-conflict fallout, having maintained good relations with Moscow and Western capitals. The positions of the North African countries also prove that Moscow will have to review its diplomatic strategy in the region and adapt it according to the attitude of the regimes and their positioning during the conflict.