Algeria in Yemen: Combatant or Mediator?

by Giorgio Cafiero

Unsettled by years of expanded and consolidated Iranian influence across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and its regional allies launched a war in Yemen last March to crush a Zaidi Houthi rebellion. Yet for the Saudis and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, humiliating setbacks and unforeseen blowback have defined their past 19 months of fighting in Yemen.

The Houthis have recently fired missiles directly into the kingdom. The Saudi-led coalition destroyed one only 40 miles from Mecca. These attacks, plus incursions by the Houthis into southern Saudi Arabia, have underscored how it was far easier for the Arab Gulf states to start this military campaign than it has been to end the Houthi rebellion and restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The war has also been costly from an economic standpoint with the Saudis spending $6 billion a month in Yemen, accelerating the depletion of the kingdom’s coffers as low oil prices have pressured Riyadh to implement austerity measures.

Within this context, the GCC has reportedly turned to Algeria for help in Yemen. Last month, Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s deputy ministers for defense contacted their Algerian counterpart to request that Algiers deploy a “peacekeeping operation” in Yemen. An Algerian diplomat said that his government responded that it would “consider the proposal, but for the time being, the general feeling is one of refusal.” Although rather dismissive of the possibility of Algeria’s armed forces engaging in military operations in Yemen, the country’s foreign affairs minister, Ramtane Lamamra, stated that Algiers could perhaps “provide logistical support.”

As a large and gas- and oil-rich Arab state with a well-trained and experienced military, Algeria may appear at least on paper to be an ideal country to help Riyadh and Doha achieve their goals in Yemen. Yet having failed to bring Algeria on board last March, the Arab Gulf monarchies will have a hard time convincing the North African country to join their coalition in Yemen.

Three Reasons for Algerian Reluctance

A key pillar of Algeria’s approach to international affairs, rooted in the North African country’s struggle for independence from French rule, is non-intervention in the affairs of foreign countries. This has often distinguished Algiers from other Arab states and at times placed it at odds with the West. Last March, Algiers’ decision to sit out the U.S.-backed war in Yemen was only one example of Algeria breaking ranks with Arab states and their Western allies during times of international crises.

In 2013, Algeria was reluctant to back France’s military campaign (“Operation Serval”) in northern Mali, instead opting to secure its own borders while offering its services as a mediator between the country’s warring factions. During the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, Algiers opposed the NATO/GCC intervention in Libya during the anti-Qaddafi revolution, having unsuccessfully sought to have the African Union negotiate a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. Despite staunchly opposing Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Algeria supported Baghdad in the first Gulf War when a diverse group of Arab states backed the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait the following year. In Algerian thinking, the ongoing Yemeni crisis is one for the country’s own people to resolve, not other Arab states. Shortly after the Saudis launched their campaign in Yemen, Lamamra said that “restoration of stability and security in Yemen would only be possible through commitment to national dialogue.”

Additionally, since mid-2014, falling oil prices have harmed the North African country’s economic health, forcing the government to run a trade deficit and reduce state subsidies. Memories of the 1986-1988 economic crisis—and the fallout from deadly riots in the capital and other urban centers that preceded the country’s civil war in the 1990s—are firmly cemented in Algerians’ collective memory, generating grave concerns about the government’s ability to deal with economic, social, political, and security challenges moving forward. The OPEC member is more focused on its own domestic stability as risks of disenchantment within its own population sharpen with austerity measures making life more difficult for the average Algerian, which leaves foreign affairs, including Yemen, less of a priority.

Moreover, as Algeria finds itself in a greater financial squeeze in this era of cheap oil, it has little appetite for investing in a war in southwestern Arabia. Certainly, securing the free flow of trade through the Bab-el-Mandab is of importance to the region’s gas- and oil-rich states. Yet other regional threats such as turmoil in Libya, Mali, and Niger are prompting officials in Algiers to address these security crises across the Maghreb and Sahel regions, which they fear could negatively affect Algeria’s transition to the post-Abdulaziz Bouteflika era. Indeed, although Algeria has stood out as a beacon of stability since the country’s “black decade” of the 1990s ended, the January 2013 In Amenas gas plant attack underscored its vulnerability to extremists who have gained influence in failed/failing states bordering Algeria and developed sophisticated transnational networks operating across porous borders separating some of the world’s most impoverished and waterless countries.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, Algeria’s partnership with Iran is deepening. This variable likely led Algiers to refrain from committing to the Saudi-led war in Yemen last year given the conflict’s geopolitical and geosectarian undertones and its role in the grander Saudi-Iranian competition for regional hegemony.

Iran’s Best Friend in the Maghreb

From 1979 to 1991, Algerian-Iranian relations were quite positive. The North African country’s leadership welcomed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power. Ideologically, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which was largely shaped by a resistance to U.S. interference in the Middle East, appealed to Algeria’s post-independence regime, which supported socialist, anti-imperialist, and revolutionary movements throughout the Cold War from Cuba, Palestine, and Nicaragua to the Congo, Vietnam, and Western Sahara.

In January 1981, Algeria famously helped to ensure the release of American diplomats held hostage in Iran, resulting in the Algiers Accords. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Algeria stayed neutral and offered to mediate a settlement. During the 1990s, however, the Algiers-Tehran relationship suffered once Algerian officials suspected that the Islamic Republic sponsored the brutal wave of Salafist-jihadist terrorism that plagued the North African country throughout that decade. This led to the severance of diplomatic relations from 1992 to 2000.

However, since Algeria and Iran reestablished ties 16 years ago the two countries have worked to enhance their partnership. When Iran’s then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Algeria in 2007 he declared that “Iran is determined to remove all obstacles” to strengthening the Algiers-Tehran relationship. The following year, bilateral trade doubled, reaching $50 million, and both governments announced intentions to develop a $300 million joint cement plant in Algeria. In 2009, Algiers and Tehran officials discussed extending cooperation into the banking sector and increasing mutual investment. In May, ministries from both countries met to talk about deepening their cooperation in a variety of sectors including agriculture, automobiles, construction, energy, and petrochemicals before signing 15 agreements to do so. Iran Daily reported that Tehran’s trade Minister declared that there are “no restrictions on cooperation between Iranian and Algerian companies.”

This growing bilateral relationship has geopolitical as well as economic dimensions. In recent years, the Algerians have highlighted their breaking ranks with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states on key issues pertaining to Tehran. Ultimately, Algeria’s relative independence from the GCC’s geopolitical orbit largely stems from the country’s unique history and natural resource wealth. As an OPEC member, which is Africa’s third largest crude oil producer and exporter, and the continent’s top natural gas producer and exporter, Algeria has successfully resisted financial pressure from the Arab Gulf monarchies. In contrast to poorer African states, which have recently come to the Saudis for economic assistance, and in turn agreed to align with Riyadh vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic, Algeria has not been under such economic pressure to follow suit. Similar to Qaddafi’s Libya, which historically refused to toe the Arab Gulf states’ line and maintained overall decent ties with Tehran despite some friction, this same dynamic has at times led to a degree of tension between Algiers and its fellow Sunni Arab states.

For example, during the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in 2012, which Saudi Arabia hosted, only Algeria and Iran opposed the exclusion of Syria. Algeria was the only Sunni Arab state which opted out of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, which Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in December to unite Muslim states against the expansion of Iranian/Shi’ite influence and the rise of Sunni Islamist extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Even though Algeria has collaborated with other Sunni Arab states to counter IS, the North African country refuses to join the Saudi-led bandwagon against Iran.

This year, when Algeria’s minister of industry and mines visited the Iranian capital he “welcomed” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which unsettled Sunni Arab states in the Gulf, as well as Israel, whose leaders feared the geopolitical implications of Iran’s reentry into the global economy and the partial thaw in Washington-Tehran relations. Ten months ago, Algeria broke ranks with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as well as other Sunni Muslim nations in Africa (Comoros, Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan) by maintaining diplomatic relations with Iran following the ransacking of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad in response to the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on January 1.

In the case of Syria, where an Iranian-backed regime has been fighting its Saudi- and Qatari-backed Sunni Islamist enemies for five years, the leadership in Algiers views the conflict through a unique lens. Much like Egypt, Libya, and Syria, Algeria has a history of imprisoning, killing, and torturing members of Islamist factions. Fearful of Salafist-jihadists similar to those who spilled blood across Algeria during the 1990s, Algeria had no interest in backing Riyadh and Doha’s efforts to topple Syria’s staunchly secular Ba’athist order. Today, Algeria, which has virtually no Shi’ite citizens but does enjoy positive relations with Tehran, perceives a far graver threat from Sunni Islamist extremists than from Iran and its Shi’ite/Alawite/Zaidi allies in the Arab world. That Algeria, in contrast to most Sunni Arab states, has not designated Lebanese Hezbollah a terrorist organization further underscores this point.

A Diplomatic Bridge?

Although highly unlikely to join the military campaign against Houthi rebels, Algiers could prove useful as a potential mediator between the GCC and Iran, not only vis-à-vis Yemen but also in other parts of the region. As long as tensions rise between Riyadh and Tehran, they will not likely change course in Yemen, or in Iraq and Syria. The continuation of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s dangerous proxy wars in these countries will enable extremist forces to continue exploiting and filling power vacuums.

As Algeria, the GCC, and Iran all fear the common threat of IS and other extremists, it might best suit Saudi and Qatari national interests to approach Algeria differently. Rather than seeking Algerian boots and tanks on the ground in Yemen, these Arab Gulf governments could consider exploring Algiers’ potential to act as a regional mediator. In January, just after the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic spat erupted, Algeria’s foreign ministry issued the following statement: “Algeria urges the political leadership of both countries to exercise restraint to avoid further deterioration of the situation which would have serious negative consequences at both the bilateral and regional level in a very sensitive geopolitical and security context.”

As an Arab League member in good-standing and a partner of Iran, Algeria could use its “neutrality” in the Saudi-Iranian geo-sectarian rivalry to help Riyadh and Tehran begin a necessary dialogue aimed at cooling tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and finding solutions to regional crises. Algeria is highly unlikely to engage militarily in a bloody and seemingly endless quagmire plaguing the Arabian Peninsula’s southwestern corner. Therefore, the Saudis and Qataris would be better served by treating Algiers as a diplomatic bridge between the GCC and the Islamic Republic.

Photo: Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri in Tehran

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.