One of the sparks for the political unrest that has erupted across North Africa was frustration over the lack of jobs and the rising price of food. So any new governments ushered in by the wave of popular protests won’t have a very long honeymoon. They will immediately face a huge challenge to create jobs for this frustrated population, and to do that, not only do these countries need change within, they need to work much more closely with each other.
Until now, North Africa has focused on doing business with the EU and countries even further away. Despite their cultural similarities and geographical proximity, these regional neighbours do virtually no business with each other. The last estimate, by the World Bank, said trade within the countries of the Maghreb amounted to less than 3 per cent of their trade.
“Lack of integration is stopping these countries growing,” says Eavan O’Halloran at the World Bank’s office in the Moroccan capital Rabat. “They are losing out by not trading with each other.”
The World Bank also calculates that all countries could increase their national earnings by trading as bloc with other regions, not just as individual countries.
Having concentrated for decades on their historic connections to Europe by sea and air, most of the decent roads in this part of the world run north-south from the hinterland to the coast. All roads lead to Europe, effectively. Only recently has there been a focus on building better roads running east-west.
Across the region, labourers have been working night and day to build what’s been dubbed the Maghreb Motorway – a modern, multi-lane highway that would run from Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, up through Morocco and along the southern coast of the Mediterranean to Cairo.
This superhighway – being built through mountainous regions and rural areas, in some parts by Japanese and Chinese construction companies – was supposed to be finished this year.
Many stretches have been completed inside each country but they are still a long way off forming a seamless strip along which container lorries, agricultural products and tourists can cruise smoothly along the southern shores of the Mediterranean. This is in part due to bad relations between some of these countries. A dispute between Morocco and Algeria, which have the two largest populations in the region, means their shared border has been closed since 1994 and there is no sign of it opening any time soon.
Political change might be on its way for several North African nations but prosperity is still a very long way down the road.