Mediterranean Dialogue
Portugal and the Maghreb: Two old acquaintances

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Portugal's markedly Atlanticist vocation, together with its colonial past in Lusophone Africa[1], has led it to be perceived as an irrelevant actor in the North of the continent, specifically in the Maghreb countries, although it is true that the Portuguese overseas empire would not be understood without its first North African conquest: Ceuta, in 1415.

According to its 2003 'Strategic Concept for National Defence' - which is currently being revised and updated for the new year 2023 - North Africa, along with the Middle East, is considered an essential region for the European Union's external projection, without identifying any repercussions for Portuguese national security. Nevertheless, the Portuguese Foreign Ministry considers the Maghreb a priority region for its foreign policy, in political, economic and security terms. In this sense, bilateral relations with these countries are truly prosperous, with 'economic-business' relations standing out, as the Ministry itself points out. Proof of this is that despite this marked presence associated with its colonial past (12 embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa, an observer member of ECOWAS[2], diplomatic representations in key African countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as in the border countries of its former colonies, namely Senegal, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and of course in the PALOPs), Portugal maintains diplomatic missions in four of the five North African countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt, with the exception of Libya.

The AICEP (Agência para o Investimento e Comércio Externo de Portugal) seeks to establish competitive businesses for the Portuguese economy and, in the case of the North African countries, considers them to be relevant partners in the area, where there are also clashes between neighbours (Morocco and Algeria; Morocco and Spain), in which Portugal manages to remain on the sidelines. Thus, the Maghreb is seen as an important region in terms of the Portuguese Republic's economic affairs. Thus, Portugal's policy towards the region is based on two pillars: on the one hand, Portugal's role in multilateral forums (UN, EU) in relation to the Maghreb countries; and, on the other, its close and growing bilateral relations, especially in the economic sphere, among which Morocco, Algeria and Egypt stand out.


Porto, Portugal.

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Morocco is the Western Maghreb country with which Portugal has the strongest relations, sealed in the "Treaty of Friendship, Goodwill and Cooperation", signed in Rabat in 1994, which came into force in 2011, and which has allowed Morocco to become the leading trading partner in the Arab world and in Africa, with the presence of more than 200 Portuguese companies in the Alawite country. In addition, Moroccan exports to Portugal have also experienced a significant increase of almost 25% between 2020 and 2021. These excellent economic relations were sealed with the Morocco-Portugal Economic Council, launched in October 2021, which adds to the more than 20 bilateral agreements in force since 1978 on various matters of interest to both states.

On the other hand, the relationship with Algeria stands out, specifically with regard to the energy market and, more specifically, the energy security of the Iberian market through the Medgaz[3]. In this regard, Portugal, together with Italy, has taken advantage of the current geopolitical situation to try to strengthen energy ties with Algeria.

Relations with Egypt are also important, as it is one of the most important economic and demographic centres (with more than 105 million inhabitants) in the region, making it a centre of attraction for Portuguese economic interests in the energy, health, infrastructure, transport and agriculture sectors, as well as in the tourism sector.

Another country with which Portugal has tried to strengthen its trade relations through various bilateral agreements is Tunisia, which is seen as a less economically relevant actor, given its geographical remoteness, as well as its smaller population and economic impact.


Rabat, Morocco

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As for Libya, there was a before and after in relations between the two countries as a result of the end of the Gaddafi regime. In the 1990s, Libya was one of the countries with the highest oil production, while Lisbon currently has no diplomatic mission in the country, which, on the other hand, is immersed in a process of reconstruction with great instability.

In short, Portugal has become one of the preferred European actors for the Maghreb countries, insofar as it has no pending territorial claims, colonial traumas or compromised national interests, which places it in a privileged position compared to other European countries. Portugal has also been able to take advantage of the window of opportunity that has opened up in recent months and has even considered reaching the level of a strategic partnership between the two countries. In the same vein, Portugal is in an advantageous position with Algeria, one of the key countries at a delicate time for the global energy environment, following the conflict in Ukraine.

Portugal's good economic performance in the Maghreb is expected to continue in the future, due to its non-existent political problems with the countries in the region, its virtuous exercise of economic diplomacy, and its capacity for economic recovery (both from the 2008 and COVID-19 crises). Portugal will continue to strengthen bilateral relations and the development of Maghreb countries in international fora.

[1] African Portuguese-speaking Countries (PALOP): Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Sao Tome and Principe, as well as Equatorial Guinea, which adopted Portuguese as an official language in 2007.

[2] Economic Community of West African States.

[3] Medgaz: gas pipeline from Oran to Almeria, with an annual capacity of 8 billion cubic metres and inaugurated in 2011.