US woos gas-rich Algeria as West scrambles for non-Russian energy

Antony Blinken’s visit marks the first by a US secretary of state for eight years as America looks to boost natural gas supplies

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and other senior officials. Reuters
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Algeria on Wednesday as Washington makes a geopolitical play in the North African nation to try to secure more energy supplies following Russia’s war in Ukraine.

It will be the first visit by a US secretary of state to the country since 2014.

Mr Blinken did not meet his Algerian counterpart Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra at the UN General Assembly last year.

Any diplomatic cold front has evidently dissipated following Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, with Algiers thrust into the spotlight by recent European and US visits, including this month by Mr Blinken’s deputy Wendy Sherman.

Algeria has vast gas resources and is the EU's third-largest gas provider behind Russia and Norway.

According to S&P Global Platts Analytics, Algeria benefits from pipelines across the Mediterranean Sea to Spain and Italy, and has a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal that helped it export about 34 billion cubic metres of gas to the EU in 2021.

Now, the US and EU are looking for Algeria to increase its spare production, and the government has shown willingness to do so even if the amount does not come close to filling in Russian imports of 130 billion cubic metres in 2021.

Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Algeria and a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, said Mr Blinken’s trip to Algeria so soon after his deputy visited sends a clear signal.

“It is no accident that the US diplomatic traffic to Algiers has picked up after Ukraine, the Algerians may not be the biggest [gas] suppliers but they’re important especially to Italy and Spain,” Mr Ford told The National.

But beyond Algeria’s willingness to increase its LNG capacity and discuss potential energy investments with US delegations, there are limitations on its co-operation with Washington, said Mr Ford.

The Biden administration has maintained former president Donald Trump's policy on the disputed Sahara region, where Washington recognises the legitimacy Morocco's claim to sovereignty over most of the area, "a policy that is 100 per cent against the Algerian position," Mr Ford said.

"I'm sure Wendy [Sherman] heard about it,” he noted.

Mr Trump introduced that policy a month before leaving office in December 2020. In return, Morocco agreed to normalise relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords. The Biden administration has shown no interest in reversing the decision.

Algeria has also shied away from taking a position on Russia’s war, and has abstained at the UN from condemning Moscow.

“The Algerians are proudly non-aligned,” Mr Ford said, stressing that despite a strong defence relationship with Moscow, Algeria is in the driver’s seat when it comes to pursuing their interests with US and Europe.

The US is also watching closely as China woos Algeria.

“China has recently developed greater relations with Algeria, prompting Washington to actively attempt to rebuild its own relations with Algeria for strategic reasons,” Mohammed Soliman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute said.

With sanctions aiming at Russia, the expert said Algiers will find more investment and commercial interests with US and Europe.

“Unlike Qatar, Algeria's closeness to Europe makes it a more realistic choice,” Mr Soliman told The National.

The void created by sanctions on Russia gives Washington a rare opportunity.

“US leading diplomats are aware of this fact and the fact that China under the Belt and Road Initiative would also be interested in filling the void if the US does not,” he said.

Mr Blinken is scheduled to meet Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Mr Lamamra and other senior officials.

Updated: March 29, 2022, 4:29 PM