Spanish Government Reaps Whirlwind After Antagonizing Its Biggest Natural Gas Supplier

Alienating your most important natural gas provider (in Spain’s case: Algeria) is a bad idea even at the best of times. And right now, with the world facing its biggest energy crisis in at least half a century, these are not the best of times.

Yet this is exactly what Pedro Sánchez’s government has done by calling an abrupt end to Spain’s decades-long position of neutrality over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until 1975. Until ten days ago, Spain, in line with the United Nations, had called for the Saharawi people to determine their own future through a referendum. But all that changed when the King of Morocco Mohammed VI read out on live TV a letter from Sánchez describing Rabat’s plan for sovereignty over Western Sahara as offering “the most serious, realistic and credible” way of resolving the conflict.

As I warned at the time, this subtle but significant policy change risks torpedoing Spain’s commercial relations with its biggest provider of natural gas, Algeria, a staunch defender of the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.

It didn’t take long for the blowback to begin. First, Algiers recalled its ambassador to Spain. Then it announced that it would refuse the return of African migrants intercepted at sea on their way to the Spanish coast. It has also cancelled some flights from Algeria to Spain while increasing the number of air connections with other European countries.

At home, Sánchez has faced virtually unanimous opposition to his unilateral decision to back Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, including among his own coalition partners who were not even forewarned about let alone consulted on the decision. The mood was best summed up by Basque Nationalist Party spokesman Aitor Esteban at last week’s Foreign Affairs Committee: “When you go to Rabat, remember that you do not have the backing of this Parliament.”

Another blow came earlier this week when Algiers sat down for talks with the government of the European country most likely to supplant Spain as Algeria’s number-one gas customer: Italy. On Monday an event was held at the Algerian Embassy in Rome whose attendees included Luigi Di Maio, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and Chakib Kaid, secretary general of the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Unsurprisingly, the main topic under discussion was energy. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine Italy procured roughly half of its natural gas from Russia. With that supply now in danger, “Italy views Algeria as a key strategic partner in all respects,” Di Maio said, adding that Rome is angling for “a 360-degree strategic partnership to intensify political dialogue, further strengthen economic and energy cooperation, and to work together for the stability of the Mediterranean.”

As Arab News reports, Algeria is already Italy’s second-largest supplier of gas after Russia:

Gas imports are piped from the Hassi R’Mel field, the largest natural gas field in Africa, through Tunisia to Sicily via the TransMed pipeline.

Italian energy companies Eni, Enel and Edison have long-term contracts with Algeria, which last year shipped about 21 billion cubic meters of gas to Italy, about 20 percent of the country’s gas imports.

Reversal of Roles

“Spain should not be surprised by what is beginning to happen,” Yahia Zoubir, an analyst of Algerian origin closely connected to the Algerian establishment told the Spanish daily El Independiente. “Algeria is going to look for a new partner in Europe, which will be Italy. They will focus on the oil pipeline that goes from Algeria to Italy. In the medium and long term, Italy will replace Spain as the main route of gas supply to Europe.”

Chakib Kaid said that “Algeria will review all agreements with Spain, in all fields”, though he ruled out immediate consequences in the sale of oil and gas. Kaid also confirmed that Madrid did not inform Algiers of its policy reversal toward Western Sahara; they only learnt of it through a press release from the Moroccan Royal Palace.

Italy has a clear interest in reducing its energy dependence on Russia, which until recently provided almost half of the natural gas it consumes. Unlike Spain, Italy has not changed its posture vis a vis Western Sahara. In a statement provided to the Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid Italian President Sergio Mattarella reiterated Italy’s “support for Algeria’s role (in resolving the Western Sahara dispute) and its commitment within the UN framework with Western Sahara.”

The Transmed, a 2,475km-long natural gas pipeline completed in 1983 to transport natural gas from Algeria to Italy via Tunisia and Sicily, has the capacity to deliver 30.2bcm/y (billion cubic metres per annum) of natural gas. That is roughly equivalent to the combined capacity of the two pipelines connecting Algeria with Spain, the larger of which, the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (MGE) which passes through Morocco into Spain, has been closed since November 1, 2021.

First Mover

While the Italians were charming the Algerians in Rome, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was sitting down with his Moroccan counterpart Naser Bourita on the other side of Mediterranean. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. was the first major Western government to break with protocol and recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. To seal the deal, all Morocco had to do was recognize the state of Israel, becoming the second Arab country in North Africa — after Egypt — to do so.

That was during the final months of the Trump Presidency. Since then France, Germany and now Spain have all followed suit, backing the Moroccan plan for Western Sahara, much to the frustration of the Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, and its backers in Algiers…

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