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Algeria's Unfortunate Oil Boom PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Saturday, 08 April 2006 04:19
Algeria's Unfortunate Oil Boom

Agence Global
- Patrick Seale - The visit to Algiers on April 9-10 by France's Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy is a pointer to France's concern not to be out-distanced in the Maghreb by rival powers such as the United States and Russia.


Algeria's Growing Importance Attracts Rival Powers

Patrick Seale

Agence Global
April 8, 2006

Copyright ? 2006 Patrick Seale, distributed by Agence Global
[republished at PEJ News with permission of AG]

Patrick Seale notes the growing interest in Algeria, and the reason for that interest and visits to Algiers by Donald Rumsfeld and others from the United States in February, Russia's Putin in March, and this week's visit by France's Foreign Minister Philipe Douste-Blazy.


To France's discomfort, the U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in Algeria in February, hot on the heels of visits by FBI director Robert S. Mueller and the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, General Charles F. Wald.

In turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew in to Algiers in March for a brief but highly significant visit. In the old days of the Soviet Union, Moscow was Algeria's strategic partner. Putin is now attempting to regain influence in the Middle East -- in Iran, in the Arab-Israeli theatre of conflict -- and also in North Africa. He is clearly concerned that Algeria has abandoned non-alignment and is moving into America's security orbit, by participating, for example, in NATO military exercises.

These high-level visits show that the world is paying a great deal more attention to Algeria these days for four main reasons:

First, Algeria has large quantities of oil and gas, located within easy reach of European markets. Just this month, an Italian company, Edison, announced a major gas discovery, which followed the announcement last November by Total, the French oil company, of a gas discovery some 500 kilometres south of the super-giant field of Hassi R'Mel.

Secondly, high prices for oil and gas have made Algeria prosperous. It has a substantial trade surplus and record foreign exchange reserves, estimated at some $50bn. It can now afford to develop the infrastructure of its poorly-equipped country, to raise living standards (over 20% of the population live under the poverty line) and to create jobs for its vast army of unemployed youths.

France is Algeria's leading supplier with a market share of 22.7%, Its exports totalled 4.23bn euros in 2004. But French direct investment in Algeria is modest at between $200m and $300m. About 100 French companies operate in Algeria employing nearly 6,000 people. There is ample opportunity for growth. In other words, Algeria offers good possibilities for foreign investors in a wide variety of different fields.

Thirdly, anxious to play a bigger role in sub-Saharan Africa, and engaged in a long-running dispute with Morocco over the Western Sahara, Algeria wants to modenise its armed services. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow was its main arms supplier, with the result that Algeria ran up considerable debts.

Vladimir Putin's lightning one-day visit was long enough for him to cancel $4.7bn of Algeria's debt and sell weapons for between $3bn and $7.5bn, according to various estimates. One Russian official described the deals already agreed as "the biggest military contract signed by post-Soviet Russia." They include a contract for the delivery to Algeria this year of a first consignment of forty T-90S Russian tanks.

A fourth reason for the attention which the United States, in particular, is now paying Algeria has to do with President George W. Bush's "global war on terror." The Americans fear that Al-Qaida might establish bases in countries such as Mauretania, Mali, Chad and Niger, which are not strongly governed or policed. In 2002, the Pentagon launched a so-called Pan-Sahel Initiative to strengthen these countries' defences. In 2004, the project was expanded to Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Senegal, and re-named the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative.

As FBI director Robert Mueller explained to his Algerian hosts earlier this year, the United States wants a rapid sharing of terrorist information. The United States is, in effect, seeking a close military relationship with the Maghreb to fight what it considers Islamic extremism and terror.

American pressure may have persuaded Algeria to stop the further release of political prisoners after some 2,700 had been freed under the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation. Indeed, three prominent prisoners released last month have been rearrested.

They include Abdelmajid Dahoumane, who was on a U.S. wanted list before his arrest in Algeria in 2001. He was released last month -- but is now back in jail, as are Adel Boumezbar and Mohamed Benyamina.

France's President Jacques Chirac paid a state visit to Algeria on 2-4 March 2003, the first by a French president since Algeria's independence in 1962. He made a joint appeal with President Abd al-Aziz Boutiflika known as the Algiers Declaration, calling for deeper political and economic ties. Chirac returned to Algeria on 15 April 2004, when the idea was launched of a Franco-Algerian Friendship Treaty to consecrate the "special partnership" between the two countries.

The Treaty has not yet been signed but Chirac remains committed to it. He wants to encourage President Bouteflika to end his quarrel with Morocco, and to cooperate with France on such matters as migration, human rights and security in the Mediterranean. Foreign Minister Douste-Blazy's mission this week will be to strengthen bilateral ties as a step towards the Friendship Treaty.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

Copyright ? 2006 Patrick Seale, distributed by Agence Global
Released: 08 April 2006
Word Count: 815
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation and The American Prospect, as well as expert commentary by William Beeman, Richard Bulliet, Juan Cole, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Last Updated on Saturday, 08 April 2006 04:19

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