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Italy is building ties with Algeria, and could bring it closer to the West

A perception of isolation within Algiers could push it to deepen relations with Russia and China, hindering relations with the West
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune welcomes Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Algiers on 23 January 2023 (Algerian Presidency/Reuters) 

The new Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, visited Algiers last month to bolster bilateral relations, marking her first trip to North Africa since taking office last year. The trip underscores Algeria’s importance in the eyes of Italy. 

Meloni met Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and the two countries signed agreements in the fields of energy, space activities and economic cooperation. Yet, while these deals are extremely important, the key value of this visit is tied to geopolitics, with Algeria seen as a fundamental element in Italy’s strategy for the wider Mediterranean region. 

Italy's increasing focus on Algeria could also help the stability of the Algiers-EU relationship, along with transatlantic interests

Rome’s increasing interest in Algeria is neither temporary nor linked to a specific political party. Rather, it is part of a systemic geopolitical vision, shared across the Italian political spectrum and institutional structure. In this view, Algeria is a pillar of regional stability and a crucial actor in the Mediterranean region, Italy’s primary area of geo-strategic concern. 

While the Russia-Ukraine war and Italy’s need to reduce its dependency on Russian energy supplies might have accelerated this trend, the geopolitical dynamics were already in action. While energy is a highly relevant dossier, Italy’s interest is not limited to this sector, as its relationship with Algeria heads towards a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Italy views Algeria as a crucial actor in the Maghreb and Sahel regions - one whose influence can benefit a number of other countries considered fundamental to Rome’s geopolitical calculations, such as Libya and Tunisia. In Libya, Italy and Algeria are both committed to preserving its unity, supporting the UN-backed government and preventing the country’s west from falling into chaos.

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In Tunisia, Algeria’s security and economic cooperation helped it to navigate years of crisis, and Algeria remains among the only countries with any capacity to influence President Kais Saied

Shifting approach?

Algeria is also seen as a stabiliser in the Sahel. Its counter-terrorism expertise, as well as its knowledge of regional countries and leaders, puts Algeria in a unique position. While it has historically been reluctant to intervene militarily in this space, it has intervened diplomatically, as shown by the 2015 Algiers accords in Mali

But there are some signals that this approach may change. The new constitution clearly states that the president can send “army units abroad” after winning the approval of two-thirds of parliament, and Algerian troops can participate in peacekeeping missions abroad. Moreover, a recent increase in military spending suggests that Algeria aims to strengthen its capacity and is probably willing to take on more responsibilities. 

Algerian military chief Said Chengriha (C) and French Armed Forces Minister Sebastien Lecornu (R) are pictured in Paris on 24 January 2023 (AFP)
Algerian military chief Said Chengriha (C) and French Armed Forces Minister Sebastien Lecornu (R) are pictured in Paris on 24 January 2023 (AFP)

Italy’s increasing focus on Algeria could also help the stability of the Algiers-EU relationship, along with transatlantic interests. Algeria has historically feared foreign meddling; when Morocco in 2020 joined the so-called Abraham Accords, the accompanying geopolitical shifts put pressure on Algeria’s elites and created anxiety. While the Israel normalisation deals could have positive diplomatic outcomes, they have sidelined Palestinians - a situation over which Tebboune has been highly critical

By strengthening ties with Algeria, Italy thus serves not only its own interests, but also potentially those of the EU and US. As shown by Algeria’s recent disputes with Spain (which recently ended five decades of neutrality on the Western Sahara issue) and France (where relations have been haunted by their colonial past), and the fact that Morocco now enjoys even greater relevance in the eyes of the Americans after joining the Abraham Accords, there is a risk of sending the message to Algeria that it is increasingly isolated.

In the case of France, both sides appear to be trying to mend ties, as shown this month by the first visit of Algeria’s army chief to Paris in 17 years - but the situation remains complicated.

Risky perception

A perception of mounting isolation would run the risk that Algeria could attempt to deepen its relations with actors such as Russia, China and Iran. Already, relations between Algiers and Moscow are multifaceted and nuanced. While they share significant historical ties, this does not mean their agendas always necessarily align. 

Russia and Algeria have deep connections in the defence sector because of the legacy of the Cold War - making this relationship somewhat similar to the one that India enjoys with Russia - while western nations have historically been less willing to sell weapons to Algeria. 

Western Sahara: Algeria and Spain’s dangerous row
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It should be remembered that Algeria sees external countries as potential partners, but remains far more cautious in considering them friends or allies. This approach applies to Moscow as well. Algeria is open to collaborating with whoever respects its sovereignty and independence, and rejects foreign meddling. The notion that Algeria bends to Russian pressure - as suggested by Spain amid their recent bilateral row - is simply wrong.

Thus, Italy has a mission not only for itself, but also for Europe and the transatlantic partnership: avoiding a perception of isolation within Algiers, which could push it to deepen ties with rival countries. This delicate mission requires that the relationship with Algeria is seen not only through an energy and migration lens, but as a more comprehensive partnership involving other sectors, especially defence. 

This is precisely what Italy is doing, and its relationship with Algeria is now becoming crucial - not only for the two countries themselves, but for the broader region and world.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Dario Cristiani is Senior Resident Fellow, German Marshall Fund in Washington D.C. working on Italian foreign policy, the Mediterranean, and global politics. He received his Ph.D. in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London in 2015.
Karim Mezran is Director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council focusing on the processes of change in North Africa. Dr. Mezran holds a Ph.D. in international relations from SAIS at Johns Hopkins University
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