Meaningful1 security cooperation and the formation of a viable security architecture among the countries of the Maghreb2 have proven elusive ever since these states obtained independence in the mid 20th century. At first glance, conditions would appear ripe for such a structure. The citizens and regimes of these states are linked by the commonalities of history, religion, language, culture and kinship ties that straddle borders.3 Each of the Maghreb countries went through a difficult and often violent experience of decolonization that saw varying levels of contact and cooperation among the military and political leaders of independence movements. Geographically, the position of these states along the Mediterranean rim between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa would appear to give them an impetus to forge a common economic and security approach towards their neighbours in the north and the south. They are all similarly exposed to transnational challenges like terrorism, illicit trafficking and irregular migration as well as fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war, climate change and shifting patterns in the global demand for hydrocarbons.
Yet attempts to establish even the barest outlines of an inclusive, security dialogue modelled on the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) or a layered Track II-type process like ASEAN have proven nonstarters or have been limited to toothless ‘talking shops’. Any steps towards these models in the future should account for the factors that have inhibited progress in the past, albeit recognizing that these failures often stem from excessive ambition, the neglect of sequencing and incrementalism, damaging interventionism from outside the Maghreb, and the lack of political will within Maghreb regimes, rather than immutable structural obstacles.4 Future dialogues should address these deficiencies and be compartmentalized into three interrelated but not mutually dependent tracks: (i) a concerted diplomatic push by Algeria and Morocco, with outside mediation, to resolve the Western Sahara issue; (ii) a unified Maghreb approach to stabilize and unify Libya’s political, security and financial institutions; and (iii) a separate basket of less contentious, confidence-building dialogues on transnational issues like climate, health, maritime security and migration, which naturally lend themselves to inclusion and linkage with other sub-regional cooperative forums, in the Gulf and in sub-Saharan Africa.
Why regional security dialogues have failed so far
A host of political, geographic and economic factors have torpedoed past attempts at security dialogues and structures in the Maghreb. To begin with, formal, lateral economic integration among states in the region, which would serve as a foundation on which to build security processes, has been lacking. The Maghreb has long exhibited the lowest levels of intra-regional trade in the world, with the free movement of goods hindered by logistical difficulties, tariff barriers and border controls – even as its borderlands have historically been marked by a high degree of state-regulated informal economic exchange.5
Relatedly, Maghrebi countries have cooperated politically and economically. They acquired security agreements with Western powers rather than with each other; the European Union (EU) has been particularly active in establishing partnership agreements in order to promote free market economics and ensure political stability. Similarly, European states and multilateral organizations like the EU and NATO, the US, Russia and Middle Eastern ‘middle powers’ like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have increasingly shaped the security affairs of the region through arms sales, cooperative agreements on border controls, exercises and direct military intervention, particularly in Libya.6 More recently, another form of intervention occurred with the Trump Administration’s recognition of Morocco’s position in the Western Sahara dispute in return for Rabat’s endorsement of the Abraham Accords. The policy, which has continued under US President Joe Biden, has however emboldened and hardened Rabat’s stance, obstructing the path to a lasting compromise.7 Taken in sum, these varying forms of interference by great and regional powers beyond the Maghreb have inhibited any delegation of multilateral confidence-building and security cooperation to the Maghreb states themselves.8
Overall, the biggest barriers to the formation of a regional security architecture are endogenous: high levels of suspicion, hostility and rivalry among regimes, stemming from ideological and political differences and, especially, the long-festering territorial dispute between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara, which has prevented either of these powerful players from taking on a more constructive role in the security affairs of the region.9 The collapse of the regime of Muammar Qadhafi in the wake of the 2011 NATO-led military intervention in Libya and the dissolution of the country into feuding power centres, especially after 2014, has prevented this oil-rich state from playing any substantive role as a partner in regional security dialogues or forums. It has also acted as a magnet for competitive intervention and diplomacy by outside powers, including Maghreb states.
Finally, no country in the Maghreb appears willing or ready to adopt the role of regional hegemon to lead the integration process and bear the costs of maintaining the grouping. Algeria has historically possessed considerable hard power, prioritized defence, and has significant natural resources. But it has still been unable to translate these traits into effective regional leadership due to its stagnating political system and inability to impose its own security agenda on the region.10 Alternatively, Morocco could harness its growing soft power (particularly its religious and cultural diplomacy) to play a more prominent regional role, but its attempts at leadership are often blocked by Algeria.11 Still, Rabat could take the lead in organizing a Maghreb-wide dialogue on ‘soft’ issues like the environment and climate, given its advanced technical policies in these areas. It is also more apt to participate in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) or other sub-regional forum on such topics, given its previous involvement in various accords and frameworks outside the Maghreb.12
Learning from past attempts at security dialogues and architectures
Building upon the shared experiences of its anti-colonial leaders in the mid 20th century, the Maghreb’s first experiment at integration was the establishment of the Conseil Permanent Consultatif du Maghreb (CPCM). This included Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia and aimed to coordinate trade, developments and relations with the European Economic Community.13 Some mergers and unions occurred in the 1980s, including the 1983 Treaty of Fraternity and Concord between Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania, and the 1984 Oujda Treaty between Morocco and Libya. But viewed as a whole, these structures ultimately served as competing alliances intended to offset or balance the power of a stronger state (namely, Algeria or Morocco), rather than foster genuine dialogue and cooperative security structures.14 Most importantly, in 1989 the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) was established with Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia as members. The aim was to strengthen all forms of ties among member states for the sake of regional stability, policy coordination and the gradual introduction of the free circulation of goods and services.15
The AMU, however, has been effectively defunct since 1996. In light of this failure, Libya proposed the CEN-SAD in 1998, which included security cooperation and extended membership to more than 20 states. In 2003, CEN-SAD established a mechanism for conflict resolution, and in 2004, member states signed another agreement for security cooperation, even holding joint military exercises. In practice, conflict resolution efforts mainly came from individual member states rather than from the organization as a whole.16 In 2007, the North Africa Regional Capability (NARC) was established as a regional initiative under the African Union, with the objective of filling the regional vacuum that resulted from the dysfunctionality of the AMU. The NARC was slow to start operations due to stalling among its members.17 Given this lack of Maghrebi security cooperation, North African countries have joined or participated in other security arrangements not necessarily exclusive to North Africa: Algeria, for example, established the joint military staff committee CEMOC in 2010 with Mali, Niger and Mauritania as its neighbours, and tasked the committee with improving military, security and intelligence cooperation.18 Some Maghreb countries, moreover, also joined the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership led by the US.19 Meanwhile, Europe and the US established separate bilateral agreements with Maghreb countries while at the same time calling for the regional integration of North Africa.20
The 2011 uprisings and their aftermath brought a cascade of security challenges to the Maghreb, though existing structures proved unable to address them. Both the AMU and CEN-SAD had vague and unclear positions on the uprisings, reflecting ideological differences of individual states and their varying levels of exposure to the unrest. The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya was by far the most polarizing topic, with Algeria strongly opposed to it and the other states recognizing the National Transitional Council only months after it was formed.21 Further complicating the establishment of a common security vision for the Maghreb have been the post-Arab Spring ideological and regional rivalries, epitomized by the 2013 coup in Egypt by Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government and the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. Though Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria officially stayed neutral, two feuding Gulf states – the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Qatar – increasingly intervened in the region’s domestic affairs, most notably in Libya, but also in Tunisia and Mauritania.22 The importance of ideational threat perception and regime type in determining regional security cooperation preferences was underscored most starkly in the 2014 invitation from the GCC for Morocco join the security body, which, at the time, was presented less as a forum of Arabian peninsula states and more as a ‘club of Arab monarchies’ (an invitation was also extended to Jordan).23 The recent softening of these ideological rivalries and the flurry of state visits and high-level contacts among formerly quarrelling regimes in the Middle East is grounds for guarded optimism about a knock-on effect in the Maghreb.
Incrementalism and compartmentalization: Pathways to successful cooperation
The multitude of crises affecting the Maghreb since the 2011 uprisings – climate change, migration and displacement, and the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, to name but a few – present new opportunities for revisiting a regional security architecture that addresses both longstanding sources of tension and new and emerging challenges. Countries have called for renewed security cooperation and a revitalization of both the AMU and CEN-SAD – with King Muhammed VI of Morocco calling for a ‘new Maghreb order’ for the post-Arab Spring era. So far, however, all gestures have been verbal.24 And, in recent years, bilateral relations among Maghreb states have deteriorated sharply, between Algiers and Rabat but also between Algiers and Tunis, exacerbated by the latter’s worsening financial crisis.25 Still, if Maghreb countries are serious about resolving their differences and lowering tensions, they should focus on three related but not mutually dependent security dialogue tracks.
First, they need to resolve or at least soften Moroccan-Algerian enmity, focusing on a diplomatic resolution of the Western Sahara issue – although, as noted above, the Washington-led folding of Morocco into the Abraham Accords, which supporters inside the US and in the region are transforming into a competitive alliance against Iran,26 has had severe negative effects on resolving the Western Saharan conflict. Amid this diplomatic gridlock and the paralysis caused by obstinate elites in Rabat and Algiers, however, there may be benefit in harnessing of the oft-overlooked ties between the two countries’ families, youth populations and civic actors as a parallel Track II-type dialogue.27
Second, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia need to adopt a supportive, coordinated and non-partisan role in unifying Libya’s political, security and financial institutions, with transparency and accountability in the latter being a key priority. Tunisia had for years adopted a stance on Libya that interlocutors described as “equidistant”, allowing Libyans from all sides to use its territory for dialogues and medical care and, until the recent crackdown by President Kais Saied, offering a model of constitutionalism and coexistence with Islamists that, however flawed and tenuous, many Libyans still looked up to.28 Similarly, Morocco has repeatedly hosted talks among Libyan politicians and armed groups, on its own and on behalf of the United Nations – with the 2015 Skhirat Agreement being the most notable example of the latter. However, at times these meetings seem more intended to outdo Algeria, which has hosted Libyan dialogues of its own, than to effect a lasting resolution of Libya’s crisis, and in recent years both countries have unhelpfully competed for influence among rival Libyan factions and elites29.
Thirdly, Maghreb states should prioritize technical, scientific and working-level dialogues and confidence-building mechanisms on shared challenges like climate and environmental issues, health, labour and migration, and maritime security.30 Here, governments should avoid trying to do too much, all at once. The 1989 Marrakesh Treaty, for example, which outlined the main objectives of the AMU, was too sweeping and too ambitious, lumping economic integration with defence coordination without any consideration of a roadmap or steps to get there. In focusing on more long-term, less politically charged issues like building climate adaptation and resilience, maritime security, and regulating migration and expatriate labour, this new direction in Maghreb security dialogues could benefit from coordination with similar processes under way in the Gulf, which are at a more advanced level.31
Outside powers can play a supportive role in shaping the conditions for greater regional integration. Most critically, the US and European states need to adopt a more unified in Western Sahara diplomacy and refrain from divisive unilateralism on the Libya conflict (the countervailing positions of the French and Italians being one of the most egregious examples).32 Similarly, Western states should avoid grafting the distorting lens of ‘great power rivalry’ onto the Maghreb’s multidimensional security challenges. Washington in particular, via the US Africa Command, has prioritized countering Chinese and Russian military influence, especially in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine. But an increase in American arms sales and other US security assistance to Maghreb states in an effort to deny access to Beijing and/or Moscow could hinder the maturation of a robust, inclusive and locally owned security dialogue.33
This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.
 The author is grateful for the assistance of Carnegie Endowment Gaither Fellow Ninar Fawal in preparing this paper.
 Defined hereafter as Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
 Layachi, A. (2016), ‘Region-building in North Africa’, in Levine, D. H. and Nagar, D. (eds) (2016), Region-building in Africa: Political and economic challenges, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 247.
 On the lack of political will as an inhibitive factor, see Kolster, J., Matondo-Fundani, N. and Santi, E. (2012), ‘Regional Integration in North Africa’, in Santi, E., Ben Romdhae, S. and Shaw, W. (eds) (2012), Unlocking North Africa’s Potential through Regional Integration: Challenges and Opportunities, Tunis-Belvedere: African Development Bank Group, p. 20, https://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Project-and-Operations/Unlocking%20North%20Africa%20RI%20ENG%20FINAL.pdf.
 International Monetary Fund (2019), ‘Economic Integration in the Maghreb An Untapped Source of Growth,’ Policy Paper, p. 14, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/Departmental-Papers-Policy-Papers/Issues/2019/02/08/Economic-Integration-in-the-Maghreb-An-Untapped-Source-of-Growth-4627314. On informal borderland trade among Maghreb states and state regulation, see Gallien, M. (2020), ‘Informal Institutions and the Regulation of Smuggling in North Africa’, Perspectives on Politics, 18(2), pp. 492–508, doi:10.1017/S1537592719001026
 On international involvement in Libya, see Wehrey, F. (2020), ‘This War is Out of Our Hands: The Internationalization of Libya’s Post-2011 Conflicts: From Proxies to Boots on the Ground’, New America, 14 September 2020, https://www.newamerica.org/international-security/reports/this-war-is-out-of-our-hands/
 For a compelling discussion of the damaging impacts of the Trump Administration’s shift from decades of US neutrality on Western Sahara, see Armstrong, H. R. (2022), ‘North Africa’s Frozen Conflict’, Foreign Affairs, 12 May 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/morocco/2022-05-12/north-africas-frozen-conflict
 Tawfik, R. (2018), ‘North Africa: Can Common Security Challenges Promote Regional Integration?’ in Adeniran, A. and Ikuteyijo, L. (eds) (2018), Africa Now! Emerging Issues and Alternative Perspectives, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 294.
 Lounnas, D. and Messari, N. (2018), ‘Algeria-Morocco Relations and their Impact on the Maghrebi Regional System’, MENARA Working Papers 20, p. 3, https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/menara_wp_20.pdf.
 Boukhars, A. (2019), ‘Reassessing the power of regional security providers: the case of Algeria and Morocco,’ Middle Eastern Studies, 55(2), p. 255, https://doi.org/10.1080/00263206.2018.1538968.
 Ibid., p. 254.
 Shafi, N. (2019), ‘Can fighting climate change bring the Arab world closer together?’, World Economic Forum, 1 April 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/to-fight-climate-change-the-arab-world-needs-to-come-together/
 Layachi (2016), ‘Region-building in North Africa’, p. 247.
 Zoubir, Y. (2012), ‘Tipping the Balance Towards Intra-Maghreb Unity in Light of the Arab Spring’, The International Spectator, 47(3), p. 85, doi:10.1080/03932729.2012.700024
 Tawfik (2018), ‘North Africa: Can Common Security Challenges Promote Regional Integration?’, p. 301.
 Ibid., pp. 304–305.
 Ibid., pp. 303–304.
 Cline, L. E. (2016), ‘African Regional Intelligence Cooperation: Problems and Prospects’, International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence, 29(3), pp. 447–469, doi: 10.1080/08850607.2016.1148479
 Zoubir (2012), ‘Tipping the Balance Towards Intra-Maghreb Unity in Light of the Arab Spring’, p. 88.
 Tawfik (2018), ‘North Africa: Can Common Security Challenges Promote Regional Integration?’, p. 310.
 Malka, H. (2018), ‘Maghreb Neutrality: Maghreb-Gulf Arab Ties Since the GCC Split’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11 June 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/maghreb-neutrality-maghreb-gulf-arab-ties-gcc-split-0
 Boukhars, A. (2011), ‘Does Morocco Have a Place in the GCC?’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sada Journal, 25 May 2011, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/44181
 Tawfik (2018), ‘North Africa: Can Common Security Challenges Promote Regional Integration?’, p. 312.
 Bobin, F. (2022), ‘L’ombre portée de l’Algérie sur une Tunisie fragilisée’ [The shadow cast by Algeria on a weakened Tunisia], Le Monde, 15 September 2022, https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2022/09/15/l-ombre-portee-de-l-algerie-sur-une-tunisie-fragilisee_6141735_3212.html
 Nahmias, O. (2022), ‘US bill brings together Abraham Accords signatories against Iran’, The Jerusalem Post, 10 June 2022, https://www.jpost.com/international/article-709093
 For an overview of the roots of bilateral rivalry as well as potential sources of commonality and conflict resolution, see Rachidi, I. (2022), ‘Morocco and Algeria: A Long Rivalry,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Sada Journal, 3 May 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/87055
 Author interviews with activists, parliamentarians and local leaders in western Libya and with Tunisian officials in Tunis, 2013–2019.
 Abouzzohour, Y. (2020), ‘Libya’s Tangier Talks: Why is Morocco Getting Involved?’, Brookings Institution, 3 December 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/libyas-tangier-talks-why-is-morocco-getting-involved/
 Shafi (2019), ‘Can fighting climate change bring the Arab world closer together?’
 See Wehrey, F. and Sokolsky, R. (2015), ‘Imagining a New Security Order in the Persian Gulf’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 14 October 2015, https://carnegieendowment.org/2015/10/14/imagining-new-security-order-in-persian-gulf-pub-61618
 Fasanotti, F. S. and Fishman, B. (2018), ‘How France and Italy’s Rivalry Is Hurting Libya and How the Palermo Conference Can Help’, Foreign Affairs, 31 October 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/france/2018-10-31/how-france-and-italys-rivalry-hurting-libya
 For an overview of US responses to shifts in the Russian arms sales posture in the Maghreb and across the Middle East, and how China may seek to exploit this new landscape, see US House of Representatives, Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Counterterrorism (2022), ‘The Impact of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine in the Middle East and North Africa,’ 18 May 2022, https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/2022/5/the-impact-of-russia-s-invasion-of-ukraine-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa