Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Geopolitics / Algeria, the dangerous Emirati liaisons

17 mins read

Despite what the army might tell us about its neutrality, the army remains the main protagonist in the current crisis. Some of its key figures, around Gaïd Salah, have engaged in a struggle within and around its periphery against any competing military legitimacy. Because it is the true and only power. This explains the arrest of Commander Bouregaa, General Benhadid and Ali Ghediri.

At a time when the army claims to fight corruption and defend the country’s national security, what can the army tell us about its questionable ties with a hostile nation like the Emirates.

Algeria, the dangerous Emirati liaisons.

Algeria is certainly not Sudan. But since the same wind of freedom has risen, the two countries are projected on convergent trajectories. They’re going through the same areas of turbulence. And are stumbling on the same pitfall: the refusal of a democratic transition by the military. What the Sudanese military has just withdrawn by force of arms (their commitment to a period of transition led by independent personalities) is what the Algerian military leadership has refused to concede from the beginning. Both want to reduce change to the presidential election alone, the soonest possible and with the same system of power. The two military powers essentially converge on one thing: to keep control so that nothing changes.

The axis Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Emirates – with the support of the Western powers and Russia – has become an enforcer of the conservative order in the Arab world and acts to impose an authoritarian restoration; this axis is today the main obstacle to any democratization in this region. Its influence is exercised from within the targeted countries’ governments where it operates through local relays, most often and preferentially military relays, as was done with El-Sisi in Egypt, Haftar in Libya and today with the Sudanese warlords who didn’t hesitate shooting their own people. What could happen in Algeria?

Post-Bouteflika Algeria: a reorientation under Saudi-Emirati pressure?

The Saudi power and the axis it animates made the management of the Algerian and Sudanese democratic movements one of its priorities and the uncompromising strategy of full repression as the answer, expressed publicly by Mohammed Bin Salman, is the one that finally prevailed in this axis. The bloody crackdown by the Sudanese military, just after the return of its leaders from the UAE and Saudi Arabia where they had received a substantial $ 3 billion aid, confirms the Saudi strategy of repressing democratic movements, its implementation through local relays and the existence in the military of these local relays receptive to its pressures. A serious question arises for Algeria: Who are the local relays in the case of Algeria and to what extent have they been compromised? 

The question is all the more legitimate if one puts in parallel on the one hand the unfolding progressive hardening of the repression of the demonstrations in Algeria, a hardening announced in fact from the beginning by the Chief of Staff after hastily returning from a visit to the Emirates, and on the other the break of balance of the Algerian foreign policy in the gulf in favour of Saudi Arabia. 

While Algeria was careful not to embark on Saudi Arabia’s crusade against Iran, with whom it maintained cordial relations and numerous cooperation projects, it knelt on May 30 at the conference of the Arab League, in which the disputed head of government represented a final text, drafted by Saudi Arabia, in the tones of war against Iran. 

This shift is all the more significant as even in the time of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, very close yet to the Emiratis to whom he was indebted for a golden exile, the balances between the different power poles and an inert diplomacy inherited from the liberation war, had prevented any alignment with the Saudis. Is this the outward sign of the beginnings of an internal recomposition on the Emirati authoritarian model?

The Emirati influence in Algeria, little known to the general public and managed opaquely by the circles of power – because of the dubious accommodations it contains – is one of the most important and effective external influences. This influence was favoured by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who offered the Emirati a broader penetration into the Algerian power centers, where they built up strong relays. It is exercised even within the state’s mechanisms and strategic sectors such as the army.

The Emirates, hand on the Algerian armament

The Emirates, a small confetti country producing no technology, have managed, against all logic, to become the obligatory suppliers for the Algerian army of weapons among the most sophisticated and the most expensive, miraculously competing with the major industrial and military countries. They have not only become one of the main suppliers of the Algerian army, but they supply it with weapons that they do not produce and that Algeria could have just acquired at source, weapons that are denominated in the name of fictitious Emirati companies. 

The Emirates thus easily capture huge undue dividends at the expense of the Algerian treasury. Beyond the dividends, they generate above all, artificially, a technological, political and military dependence maintained by their corruptive strike force, a dependence that comes with its dangers for the autonomy of the country.

Thus, in 2012, the Algerian army acquired two Meko corvettes manufactured by the German group Thyssen Krupp, specifically its TKMS (Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems) navy subsidiary for the sum of 2.2 billion euros. Except that the acquisition was not made directly from the German group but on paper from the UAE Abu Dhabi MAR company which simply brokered the deal and invoiced the sale without putting so much as a bolt on the vessels. 

The sale was negotiated by Angela Merkel in person with Bouteflika during her visit to Algeria on July 16 and 17, 2008. It took two years, as it usually happens, to become an option. And it is at this moment that Abu Dhabi MAR, created ex-nihilo, will negotiate its entry into the capital of Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems and negotiate a joint venture on the segment of military surface ships (i.e corvettes). This joint venture is satisfied with selling in the Arab market alone, leaving everything else to Thyssen Krupp. 

The argument for the Germans to join the joint venture? The guarantee of the sale of the two corvettes to Algeria. A smashing, stinging and stumbling entrance, that did not cost Abu Dhabi MAR a penny: the 2.2 billion euros of this sale and all the commissions that likely came with it were the courtesy of the Algerian taxpayer who did not have a say in the matter. 

This single sale represents double the total turnover of TKMS in 2009, which was 1.2 billion. From a legal point of view, such a financial transaction is treated as “insider trading“. For this, it required complicity at the highest level of the state and the military hierarchy. But things will not stop there and will give way to even larger sums. At the same time as the corvettes, Angela Merkel had negotiated, in the same trip, the construction of factories for the manufacture of military defence equipment and vehicles for the army and the police, and a contract for the training of Algerian officers and the provision of electronic equipment for border guards for 10 billion euros.

Except that here too, miraculously, once things advanced between Algerians and Germans, the Emiratis are introduced into the operation. All the service providers are exclusively big German brands (Mercedes-Benz, Daimler, Deutz AG and MTU Friedrichshafen) but to carry out these projects including factories in Tiaret, Rouïba, Ain Smara and Khroubs, the Ministry of Defense, at the time managed by Ahmed Gaid-Salah, considered it useful to ‘to insert in the loop’ the Emirati fund “Aabar Investments” through three companies with mixed capital. 

In Khenchela, for the gun manufacturing plant and for the construction of an armored vehicle named ‘Nimr’ for the transport of troops, it is the Emirati investment fund “Tawazun Holding” which was made an integral part of the buying process.

Two sides of the same coin: Emirates as heads, France as tails. Israel in the background.

What was the usefulness for Algeria of linking its fate – and in particular the fate of its army and its armament – to a country that has no technological input and more often than not plays a troubling and destabilizing regional role contrary to Algerian interests as we see in Libya but also in Tunisia and Morocco? These associations with the Emiratis were made at a time when Algeria was overflowing with capital and anyway, as for the corvettes, there was not really any capital contribution from the Emiratis but an anticipation on their future earnings.

The only usefulness of this introduction of the Emiratis would be to cover-up a system of commissions and retro-commissions that would not have been feasible with the German companies directly, these being constrained by a very stringent legislation on corruption and the award of public contracts. 

The Emirates, which became the safe haven for Algerian oligarchs, offers the adequate services for covering such practices and the anonymity required to cash in retro-commissions. The benefit thus conceded to the Emiratis is fabulous. The price of the two corvettes is a sum well above the total current GDP of a country like the Central African Republic and the equivalent of half of the GDP of Algeria in 1970. 

Moreover this extraordinary sum intrigues while the new frigates, suitable for multi-missions, cost at least half as much. As for the sum for all contracts, 10 billion euros, or 5 times more, it represents the equivalent of the annual budget of the Algerian army and makes Algeria officially the first export customer of the German armaments industry.

This diversification geared towards Germany could have been an opportunity of modernization and consolidation of the independence of the Algerian army. Except that it not only links the fate of the Algerian army to a country which, from Yemen to Libya, multiplies its destabilizing adventurous interferences, but the Emirates are only a frontage of other powers, in this case, from France. 

Who is hiding behind UAE’s Abu Dhabi MAR? First the joint-venture’s boss Iskander Safa is a Frenchman. Iskander Safa is part of this French elite of Lebanese origin who became the new bridgeheads of the “Françafrique” and what might be also called “Françarabie“. From Ziad Takieddine to Imad Lahoud, it is often they who put their hands in the grease where France can’t officially be seen doing.

Above all, Iskander is the French boss of the French group ‘Les Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie’ (CMN) specialized … in war ships! And as a fictitious competitor of Abu Dhabi MAR, the two are actually gathered in the same powerful holding ‘Privinvest’ and hence made Abu Dhabi MAR an Arab mask convenient to the “natives“. 

But more than that, Iskander is also known publicly for his special ties with Israel and especially the role of his companies in outsourcing the Israeli submarine fleet. For these reasons, Iskander Safa is perceived with suspicion in Lebanon where the president, Christian Aoun, calls him an Israeli agent and considers him a threat to Lebanese security. In contrast, Algeria entrusts him with its security.

The paradox is that this Emirati influence, through its local relays like the news outlet Echorouk, uses the argument of “Arab identity” as a barrier to French influence! It is true that on the Algerian politico-media scene the invective of France has become the convenient and cartoonish patriotic mask to cover for the predation, while those who insult France loudly for the gallery, are those who use it and serve it the most. 

Amar Saidani, secretary general of the FLN, barks on a weekly basis against France but owns a luxury apartment (for which the funding has never been explained) and benefits from a residence permit in Paris, the Minister of Mujahideen (independence war heroes) Cherif Abbes directly insulted the French president and then ended with a golden retirement plan in Lyon, Abdelaziz Bouteflika insulting France and going the same week to get treated at a military hospital in France; these essentially lowered the patriotic speech to a vulgar screen of smoke to better loot the country.

Now the question is: what’s hiding behind the anti-Berber speech of the army’s chief?

A contribution by Ali Bensaad, professor at the French Institute of Geopolitics of Paris.