Skip to main content

Algeria: 60th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Solloway.)

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Algeria, I feel privileged to have the honour of sponsoring this debate to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of ties between the United Kingdom and the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria. The past 60 years since Algeria’s independence have been marked by close and cordial ties between our two countries, which, although very different on the surface, are in fact bound together by common history and shared objectives. As chair of the all-party group, I have engaged with Algerian businesses, British companies in Algeria, trade groups, the British ambassador in Algeria and, frequently, the two Algerian ambassadors in London. As a result, I have built close ties with the country, although—alas—I have not yet visited.

Throughout my time working on Algeria, I have chosen to characterise Anglo-Algerian relations as being composed of four main pillars of mutual co-operation and interest: energy, trade, security and culture, which encompasses history, tourism and heritage. Algeria aligns with a number of diverse issues that are of great relevance to me. Hon. Members will be aware that energy, business and history have long been my interests, alongside promoting British expertise in those areas globally. The UK’s position as a finance hub, a tech hub, a home to world-class universities and a leader in many economic sectors puts us in a unique position to share our technologies and expertise with Algeria and help it to unlock its huge potential. Our recent presidency of COP26 and our green-tech capabilities will enable us to help Algeria to pursue its energy transformation.

Why is now the perfect time for a debate on British-Algerian relations? As the title of the debate indicates, 60 years of warm diplomatic ties are worth celebrating, but there is more to it than that.

I thank my hon. Friend for calling this important debate. Last month, I had the pleasant privilege of visiting Algeria in my role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief and chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance—the first such visit of the alliance. I was genuinely pleased at the welcome that I received at meetings in the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Interior, both of which confirmed that they were willing to continue such dialogue, to which I look forward. Does he agree that it is important to continue such conversations wherever opportunities are made available?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and I am glad that she had such a successful and fruitful visit to Algeria. I hope that one day in the not-too-distant future, I, too, will visit that beautiful country. I completely agree that now more than ever, there is a huge appetite on both sides for a deeper and closer relationship, catalysed by Britain’s post-Brexit freedom to trade with whomever we wish, and by Algeria’s concerted effort to put its colonial legacy in the past once and for all and to control its own destiny and relevance to the UK.

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward the debate. Although it is important to provide high levels of support to British nationals in Algeria and to maintain good relations with the Algerian Government, there are—I say this respectfully—ongoing concerns about the treatment of minority religions in Algeria, one of which is Christianity, as I know he understands well. Christians are vulnerable to prosecution for blasphemy and there has been a systematic closing of 13 Protestant churches. Does he therefore agree that to maintain our diplomatic relations, the Algerian Government need to make religious persecution a priority and allow people to practise their faith in freedom and peace? Let us welcome the good things, but do more.

It is an honour to be intervened on by the hon. Gentleman. This is my seventh or eighth Adjournment debate and he has never intervened in one, so it is a pleasure to be intervened on today. On his point about Christianity and the freedom of religion, it is important that everyone can practise their religion wherever and whenever they choose. In fact, I had a conversation with the previous Algerian ambassador to London about that very matter not long ago. I will touch on Christianity later in my speech.

It is important to recognise that we cannot understand Algeria or become its close partner without looking at its history and how it was formed as a country. Many Britons may be aware of Algeria only as a north African Arab nation with a recent French influence. That is undoubtedly true, but it boasts a heritage dating back thousands of years. In antiquity, it was the home of the famed Numidians, who were succeeded by the great Phoenicians, who founded nearby Carthage, as we all know. After a slow decline marked by the Punic wars among other things, Algeria fell under the control of the Romans after they defeated the Numidian king, Jugurtha.

In my potted history of the great country of Algeria, I will emphasise its great Roman heritage, which formed Algeria as the country that it is today. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar annexed Algeria to the Roman empire and the regional capital was chosen to be Cherchell. Emperor Trajan’s strategy of reinforcing Rome’s Algerian territories resulted in the great fortress at Lambaesis and the development of towns such as Timgad and Djémila. Timgad is upheld as a marvel of Roman town planning, with a beautifully preserved UNESCO world heritage site often described as Africa’s Pompeii. The city was a home for retired soldiers, with the inscription in the forum reading “Lavare, Venari, Ludere”, translated as “Hunting, bathing and playing”, which surely sums up the good life for everyone, especially those who had given service to the empire.

As a result of Roman development, Algeria was regarded as a particularly productive part of the empire, becoming a main provider of agricultural surpluses to other distant territories. Later, Emperor Caracalla represented why the Roman model was so successful: he was of Punic and Arab ancestry, with few actual ties to Rome, yet he was thoroughly Roman in citizenship, attitude and way of life.

At this juncture, Christianity enters the picture. The Christian faith has a long history in Algeria, and was present there long before Islam. By the 4th century, many Algerian Christians followed Donatism, a local church steeped in the ethnic and social values of the region and more popular in the inland, poorer towns. It was so named after its leader, the local Berber bishop, Donatus. St Augustine, the Berber Bishop of Hippo Regius, wrote a treatise against the Donatists. St Augustine’s legacy can still be seen today at Annaba.

Augustine’s importance as a Church father cannot be underestimated, given his huge impact on foundational Christian doctrine and theology, particularly in his seminal text “The City of God”, a philosophical treatise vindicating Christianity in the face of the sacking of Rome by the pagan Visigoths. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece of western culture, yet it is absolutely fascinating to me that Augustine is clearly a son of Algeria. So Algeria, even back in Roman times, helped shape the face of western Europe.

Obviously, St Augustine is not the only famous Roman name to be associated with Algeria. Constantine the Great gave his name to the city of Constantine, which exists today under the same name as Algeria’s third biggest city. It is one of the biggest cities in the world and known as the city of hanging bridges. Emperor Constantine reportedly said that it was the only place in the world where man is higher than an eagle.

Other Members will know that my historical muse is Justinian the Great, and I always find that in debates in Parliament there can never be enough Justinian. Justinian’s story itself is inextricably linked with Algeria, because in 533 AD Justinian sought to restore Roman control over all its territories and sent the general Belisarius from Constantinople to north Africa with 16,000 men. Within a year, the victorious Belisarius had destroyed the Vandal kingdom and restored Roman rule, using this as a launchpad to reconquer Italy and much of the western Roman empire. Justinian’s reconquest of the Roman west is clearly one of the greatest achievements of any empire, and this campaign was conducted by one of the most brilliant generals in history. It is incredible, once again, that Algeria was central to this seminal episode in history, and all that began in north Africa.

Algeria has had a diverse and varied list of rulers, however. The Arabs arrived in the mid-7th century, bringing Islam and Arabic to Algeria. The Arabs were without a doubt the most impactful of all of Algeria’s invaders, very much forming the character of the country as it is today. This Islamic cultural presence was continued by the Ottomans, who ruled Algeria from 1516 to the French arrival in 1830.

The 130-year period of French rule had a profound influence on Algeria, which can still be seen today in language, customs and ties. The traumatic events of Algeria’s war of independence live long, even now, in the memory of Algerians, and 1 million pieds-noirs fled to France amid the turmoil and horrors perpetrated by various groups on all sides, such as the OAS. The Évian accords in 1962 granted Algeria its independence, but meant that the French Republic shrunk greatly in area, population and importance.

Algeria then, unfortunately, fell victim to a repeat of the violence and brutality of the war of independence in the Algerian civil war of 1991 to 2002, in which the Algerian Government fought Islamist rebel groups. A hard-won victory by the Algerian Government has left ongoing insurgency fears in the country and an interventionist state security apparatus.

However, Algeria is looking to fashion modern, equal relationships that will be both mutually beneficial and respectful. Accordingly, the United Kingdom has only ever had positive relations with Algeria. Britain has been nothing but friendly to Algeria throughout history, building links based on friendship and equality, particularly in the past 60 years of Algerian independence. There is ample evidence of Anglo-Algerian harmony down the years. Official relations between Algeria and the United Kingdom date back to John Tipton’s appointment as first British consul in Algiers in 1580.

The 1682 treaty of peace and trade heralded a prosperous relationship built on commerce, and the British enjoyed privileged treatment in Algiers compared with other foreigners. After the French invasion of Algeria, the British consul served as intermediary in negotiations between the French and the Ottoman Algerian ruler, and in 1833 this very Parliament here in Westminster rejected the French claim to occupy Algeria—it was always on Algeria’s side. A number of British Army officers expressed admiration for Algerian resistance to French occupation, and Colonel James Scott even joined Algerian hero Emir Abdelkader. British travellers from the time published accounts praising Algeria as a good place to settle due to its climate and people. They were joined by visits from high-ranking British dignitaries, including King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, who made a private visit to Algiers in 1905.

After Algeria’s independence in 1962, relations between Algeria and the United Kingdom became deeper and stronger. The UK was Algeria’s first client to import liquefied natural gas in 1964, and British companies were crucial in supplying equipment, machinery, and technological expertise for Algeria’s industrial expansion. Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Algeria in October 1980 on a historic visit, where she was received by the President and visited the Roman ruins at Tipaza. Likewise, in 2006 President Bouteflika made the first visit by an Algerian head of state to the UK since independence. In 2013, David Cameron was the first, although I hope not the last, British Prime Minister to visit Algeria.

Algeria and the United Kingdom share not only a deep history but impressive cultural ties. For example, the UK has been the second most popular destination, after France, for Algerian students wishing to go to university, and efforts are being made to expand that pathway father. British universities have also had successful study abroad exchange programmes with Algerian universities. Algeria has provided some of the world's best footballers to play in the English league, namely Riyad Mahrez and Saïd Benrahma. The books “The Praetorians” and “The Centurions” by Jean Lartéguy, which focus on Algeria, have proved hugely popular in translation in the Anglophone world. The film, “The Battle of Algiers” was critically acclaimed and ranked as one of the best films of all time, including in Britain. That shows the cultural impact Algeria is having. Even more excitingly, the ambassador has told me that preparations are well under way for an Anglo-Algerian film focusing on the life of Algerian hero, Emir Abdelkader, which I hope will introduce that most important historical figure to an Anglophone audience.

Against that encouraging backdrop, what is the future of British-Algerian relations? Currently, a consultation mechanism exists in the UK-Algeria joint committee on bilateral relations, which was established in 2006 to provide an appropriate framework for discussing political, economic, educational and cultural relations, and international issues of common interest. Furthermore, a strategic partnership in the area of security was launched in 2013.

Britain and Algeria go back a very long time and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The United Nations recognises the Polisario Front as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and Algeria has a long history of supporting the Sahrawi people and the Polisario Front. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in placing on record our recognition of the work of Algeria when it comes to the issue of the Western Sahara and the Polisario Front?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have a great link with Algeria. Obviously it is not up to Britain to decide who Algeria has diplomatic relations with, or not, but it is clear that in any process we must have lots of dialogue and talk to all sides.

Let me return to the four pillars of co-operation that I referred to at the beginning of my speech. Energy is currently by far and away the greatest area of British-Algerian co-operation. Several British companies are investing in Algeria in the energy field, and are considered among the most important foreign investors, including BP. Oil and gas are a critical part of Britain’s transition to net zero, and fossil fuel companies have a huge role to play in research and innovation for renewables. In the wake of Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, it is more important than ever that we have a reliable supplier of energy and, with my renewables background, I see a mutual opportunity for Britain and Algeria in the green energy space.

Algeria will need to pivot towards renewables over the coming decades. Promising steps have already been taken in harnessing the solar power potential of the vast Sahara desert. I believe that there is a central role for the export of British skills, technology and expertise in renewable energy to Algeria, particularly in solar panels, wind turbines and hydrogen. We must seize that opportunity for the benefit of UK plc.

Simultaneously, Algeria will reap the rewards of its natural geographic advantage—it is the biggest country in Africa, with lots of space and sun—to ensure that its energy industry and wider economy is just as prosperous with renewables as it is with fossil fuels. In the build-up to COP26 in Glasgow, I was pleased to see the now Foreign Secretary visit Algiers in March 2020 and sign a declaration of intent of co-operation in the field of environmental protection, sustainable development and renewable energies.

There was a story in the press over the weekend about green energy in relation to Morocco, with the possibility of some of it being exported to the United Kingdom using a channel under the sea. Does the hon. Gentleman know about that? Is there a possibility of Algeria and Morocco doing a deal with the United Kingdom?

I thank the hon. Member for intervening again in my debate; it is always a privilege to hear from him. That sounds like an interesting idea. As I said, in our post-Brexit world, we need to explore all options, especially when it comes to the decarbonisation of our energy fields.

Britain and British energy companies must work with Algeria to implement the Algerian renewable energy strategy, an investment of US $100 billion by 2030 that will result in the country producing a third of all its domestic energy from renewable sources. There is definitely room for more to be done beyond energy, however, with rich opportunities to deepen ties in agriculture, infrastructure, pharmaceutical, mining and rare earths, cyber and digital. The aforementioned 2020 declaration of intent of co-operation established an investment taskforce to allow businesses to continue operating freely after the end of the UK’s transition period with the EU, and committed to co-operating across a range of areas including political, economic, security and cultural relations.

It is hugely important that we have focused on education, too. That has led to an agreement for the first British school to open in Algeria and for the promotion of the English language. Likewise, I hope that many more high-skilled and talented Algerian students will come to study in British universities.

Security co-operation is critical in an ever more dangerous world, There are three elements to the partnership. The first is, of course, counter-terrorism, with Britain and Algeria continuing to fight Islamic terror wherever it may spring up. The second element is regional stability as Algeria acts as a vital bulwark against chaos in neighbouring Libya and across the Maghreb as well as in the Sahel to the south and the wider middle east. Similarly, a peaceful resolution to the deadlock in the Western Sahara requires Algeria’s leadership and collegiality. The third element is in stemming the flow of illegal migration and human trafficking to Europe’s shores. With small boats crossing the channel on a daily basis, Algeria has an important role to play in disrupting trafficking networks in north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east.

Finally, and as I have spoken about at great length, there is great scope for increasing exchange in tourism, culture, history and heritage issues. Algeria boasts some of the richest history and the most impressive sights. I would like to see lots of Britons visiting Algeria in the manner that they happily and regularly visit neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, especially for the ancient sites.

As I draw to a close, I reiterate that I firmly believe that the region is a vital new frontier for Britain as we leave the EU and look to build stronger, exciting new trade partnerships around the world. Algeria is the largest country in Africa by area, and it is highly developed, with a young, dynamic, educated populace. It stands at the gateway to Africa: a continent launching the Africa free trade zone and upgrading a road from Algiers to Lagos. Algeria is enjoying substantial GDP growth and provides free healthcare and education to its citizens, including free higher education.

Algeria is diversifying its economy by prioritising entrepreneurship, start-ups and renewable energy. I particularly welcome the new incentives being introduced and the new frameworks being set up by the Algerian Government to encourage foreign investment. Algeria is also looking for modern, equal relationships and wishes to build alliances in Europe to navigate a way forward through a volatile petrochemicals market. It also desires to lift opportunities for the Algerian people to new heights.

Of course, there are challenges, just as there are in any relationship, but on the 60th anniversary of the establishment of ties between the United Kingdom and Algeria, the future has never looked brighter for our relationship on all fronts, and the hunger for a deeper and closer partnership from both sides is impossible to ignore. Thus, I ask the Minister to bear Algeria in mind as the United Kingdom uses its new, exciting status as a sovereign trading nation, because I am certain that a good friend and ally is on our doorstep, waiting to welcome a successful British-Algerian future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) on securing this debate and I commend him for his very considered words on the history between the UK and Algeria. I recognise the work he does as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Algeria. In his speech, he talked about masterpieces of culture. I congratulate him and reflect on his masterpiece of a speech, which was incredibly well crafted, going back some distance in history further than I will attempt to do today—I will stick to the last 60 years.

The UK has been a firm friend to the people of Algeria since it gained independence in 1962, and remains so. As with all friendships, our countries have shared successes and difficult times, but the strength of our diplomatic relationship has held true. Most recently, we appreciated the solidarity shown by Algerian Prime Minister Benabderrahmane in attending the state funeral of Her late Majesty the Queen.

It has been 60 years since Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and President Ben Bella exchanged messages, establishing diplomatic relations between the UK and the newly independent Algeria. Prime Minister Macmillan shared hopes of reconstruction there, following a long and difficult struggle for independence. That hope came to fruition just two years later, when British and Algerian business entered into a joint venture on energy. The UK purchased Algeria’s very first delivery of liquefied natural gas and assisted in building a key pipeline. We were impressed by Algeria’s economic and social development during the 1970s. We also appreciated its strength of purpose on diplomatic issues during the 1980s, when Algeria’s mediation was sought by many in the region and beyond in the resolution of disputes and conflicts. As my hon. Friend noted, Her Majesty the Queen visited Algeria in 1980, where she was received by the then President Bendjedid and visited victims of the Chlef earthquake in hospital.

As we all know, the 1990s was a challenging decade for Algeria, but it emerged from that period. Oil prices rose and a new President came to power. Our relations with Algeria entered into a period of reinvigorated engagement at the turn of the millennium, in particular on security issues, with the UK recognising Algeria’s counter-terrorism experience and expertise. When we left the European Union, Algeria welcomed the opportunity to deepen our trade relationship and today our countries co-operate on a range of projects. Algeria is one of the key players in Africa and the international community, a respected and trusted security partner and a committed multilateralist.

As we mark six decades of diplomatic relations between our countries, we want to further strengthen and deepen our co-operation and relationship. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister with responsibility for north Africa and the middle east, visited Algeria in June, where he met counterparts and discussed the importance of our partnership on education, trade and climate, in particular. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary looks forward to hosting Foreign Minister Lamamra for the next edition of our strategic dialogue. We hope to soon agree dates for the dialogue to take place early next year.

On security, Algeria plays an important role in the region. We welcome and look forward to strengthening our co-operation across shared interests, including defence, counter-terrorism and migration, and tackling the global challenges of human trafficking and organised crime.

On trade, we launched our developing countries trading scheme earlier this year, from which Algerian exporters can directly benefit, and we welcome Algeria’s new investment law aimed at improving the business environment for international partnerships. We hope to take forward our shared commitment for a UK-Algeria trade taskforce to further strengthen trade and investment ties. We also stand ready to share the UK’s expertise on finance, including reforms, infrastructure and green finance.

Human rights are a clear priority for the UK. We welcome Algeria’s interest in assuming a role on the United Nations Human Rights Council, and we hope to work constructively in that area. For example, during a recent visit that my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) made to Algeria as the Prime Minister’s hard-working special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, we welcomed the constructive dialogue about ensuring the rights of religious minorities to practise their beliefs. Like her, I look forward to continuing that important dialogue, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) urged in his contribution to this important debate.

The UK has much to offer on energy and renewable technology. We want to supercharge our partnership with Algeria, which has great potential for solar energy in particular.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley says, education is a growing part of our relationship and helps us to build links, particularly between young people. We were delighted when President Tebboune announced in July that English would be taught from primary school onwards. We are proud that the UK is a popular destination for young Algerians to pursue higher education overseas. It is clear that sharing a language will bring our countries closer and enhance our cultural and business links.

Algeria is clearly a land of potential for its people, for its partners and for the world. Not only is it the largest and most developed country in Africa, but it has huge political and diplomatic capital in Africa, Asia, Latin America and beyond, as well as playing a key role in multilateral institutions. For all those reasons, we look forward to continuing to build on our historic relationship with the Algerian Government and people, working together to realise an even brighter and better future for the next 60 years and beyond.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.