Diplomatic contact between London and Algiers used to be sparse, but a pressing security, trade and energy agenda is bringing the countries closer together
David Cameron’s flying visit to Algeria is not only the first by a British prime minister since the country won its independence from France in 1962 but also a milestone in a once-chilly relationship that has warmed up considerably in recent years.
Cameron’s talks with his counterpart, Abdelmalek Sellal, will focus on security cooperation against jihadi groups in the wake of the hostage crisis in the Sahara, but there are significant economic interests at stake too. Bilateral UK trade with Algeria increased 96% in 2011, and Algeria supplies 5% of the UK’s gas needs.
On Algerian matters, Britain used to play second fiddle to France, the colonial power for 130 years. In the 1990s, when the country was engulfed in a bloody civil war that cost 150,000 lives, it was Paris that dictated EU policy on the crisis. Britain’s embassy in Algiers was a high-risk posting surrounded by armed guards as diplomats struggled to make sense of what was and remains an extremely opaque political system.
The Queen paid a state visit in 1980 but otherwise the relationship between the two countries was sluggish. (King George VI had visited in 1943 after the country’s liberation from the Vichy regime; Harold Macmillan served as the British minister in Algiers at the time.)
Slowly improving relations were marked by a return state visit to Britain by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in 2006. By then, in the context of the post 9/11 “war on terror”, there was intensifying bilateral cooperation over security issues, with several high-profile terrorist cases involving Algerians in the UK.
British investment is deemed important enough to have warranted the appointment last November of a special UK trade envoy for Algeria – Lord Risby, who is travelling with Cameron – and the creation of a dedicated British-Algerian business council in 2010, when trade in goods between the two countries was worth over £1bn. Algeria’s economic fundamentals are strong and there are plans for significant government spending over the next five years on infrastructure projects.
Bilateral political dialogue has also intensifed in recent years and a defence agreement was signed in 2009. William Hague visited Algeria in 2011.
UK Trade and Investment, which advises British business, describes Algeria as politically stable despite doubts over the succession to Bouteflika. “Historical and cultural factors meant that it did not experience large-scale social unrest as many of its neighbours did,” says UKTI’s overview of the country. “Algeria’s violent civil war of the 1990s still marks the population and means that Arab-spring style unrest is very unlikely.”
But Claire Spencer, a Maghreb expert at Chatham House, says: “The British don’t have a good track record of understanding the internal dynamics of Algerian politics. There’s certainly no UK criticism of the lack of political reform. That’s very different from what the British say about Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. The argument is that it’s not in their interest to start berating the Algerians. It is similar to the way they have looked at the Gulf, where there is the same tension between commercial interests and concern about human rights.”