x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Closed border spurs smuggling

The sealed frontier, which is the focus of increasing tension between Morocco and Algeria, is a safe route for contraband goods.

Smuggled petrol from Algeria is sold in a side street of Beni Drar, Morocco, near the border.
Smuggled petrol from Algeria is sold in a side street of Beni Drar, Morocco, near the border.

Beni Drar, morocco // There is not a petrol station in sight but Boumaama, a trucker, is happily filling his tank. "Moroccan petrol is just too expensive," said Boumaama, who spends most days hauling merchandise around Morocco and did not want to give his surname. "I couldn't do my work without smuggled Algerian fuel." A few kilometres from the muddy backstreet where Boumaama's lorry is parked, a flood of contraband petrol pours into Morocco from Algeria across a closed frontier that is the focus of increasing tension between the two countries. This month, Morocco's King Mohamed VI reiterated calls for Algeria to open the border it closed in 1994 after Morocco accused Algerian security services of involvement in a bombing in Marrakech and slapped visa requirements on Algerians. Algerian leaders rebuffed the appeal and the country's media have reported that the government is installing more troops and guard posts along the border. The closing has helped prevent the formation of a proposed North African trading bloc and complicates the nascent Mediterranean Union, a community for economic co-operation launched by France in July. Morocco seeks an open border to allow licit trade to flourish, while US and European leaders see it as key towards thawing relations between two countries they want co-operating against terrorism. However, Algeria has said that opening the border must be part of broader agreements that include a solution to the Western Sahara conflict, which has pitted Morocco against the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed independence movement, since Morocco took control of the former Spanish colony in 1975. Morocco proposes a measure of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty for Western Sahara, while Polisario wants a referendum that includes independence as an option. In theory, the border remains tightly sealed in a political deep freeze. But every day cars laden with contraband goods defiantly ply the dirt tracks circumventing the blocked motorways. Traders based in Oujda, a city near the border in north-eastern Morocco, export leather goods, fruit and vegetables and mobile phones, said Hicham Baraka, a local human rights activist. From Algeria come clothing, electronics and knock-off prescription medicines that people use to get high. But the big money is in cut-rate petrol from Algeria, a major oil and gas producer. At about five Moroccan dirhams (UAE Dh2) a litre, Algerian petrol easily undercuts the average Moroccan pump price in Oujda of 11, Moroccan dirhams a litre. "No one can deny that smuggling exists and the border is too long for us to prevent it," said Rachid Slisli, the director of Oujda's chamber of commerce. It is unclear how much money smuggling brings in, Mr Slisli said, "but it's one of the most important things in the local economy". Around the border town of Beni Drar, Algerian petrol provides work for Moroccans who have missed out on recent economic growth in the country. With fines of up to 1,000 Moroccan dirhams per litre smuggled, it is a risky but thriving business, Mr Baraka said. After dark, the no-man's land along the border is alive with cars and vans hurtling down the back roads, their number plates removed and their seats crammed with bottles of petrol. Daylight reveals the rusting hulks of vehicles abandoned by their drivers as police close in. Further inside Morocco, men stand by the wayside, ostensibly selling prickly pears. But a quick nod to passing motorists signals a cache of petrol buried among the pine trees nearby. Much of the contraband ends up in Beni Drar. Down the side streets, boys and young men frantically unload the fuel arriving in the battered cars from the frontier and sell it to truckers, such as Boumaama. Their hands are black and shiny with grease, dirt and diesel. "This petrol is our bread," said Taoufiq, 23, as he hoisted a pair of blue plastic jerrycans from the boot of a grey Renault and tipped their contents into a funnel feeding Boumaama's petrol tank. He, too, did not want to give his surname. Recently, the government has tried to boost development in the region, expanding the University of Oujda and breaking ground on new motorways and an international airport slated for completion in 2010, said Mr Slisli. The idea is to capitalise on a spurt of economic growth in the country, driven by booming tourism and phosphate industries. "But not enough jobs have been created, so people still engage in smuggling," Mr Slisli said. Unemployment in Oujda mirrors the national rate of about 14 per cent in the cities. In the long run, real growth demands an open border, he said. "That won't just benefit Morocco, it's a regional necessity." In Beni Drar, Taoufiq finished topping up Boumaama's tank. The fuel overflowed, splashing pink on to the earth. Taoufiq hastily slammed the valve shut, then leaned against the lorry to rest. "This was never my plan," he said. "But what else could I do?" jthorne@thenational.ae