The Abandoned Plateaus of Algeria: Economic Destitution in the northern Sahara

Following protests in Ouargla and Laghouat, Algerian authorities aimed to promote the economic integration of unemployed youth living in the Southern region (defined by the European Training Foundation as covering 10 provinces: Adrar, Laghouat, Tamanrasset, Biskra, Bechar, Ouargla, Illizi, Tindouf, Oued Souf, and Ghardaia). In common parlance, the idea of “north” and “south” in Algeria is more in adherence to a categorical removal from the coastal region than actual geographical distance from the Mediterranean, meaning the “South” begins at a very northern point, given the dry and arid environment of the Saharan Atlas and High Plateaus, as per the definition of desert. But it also has its linkage to the subdivision of French Algeria called the Southern Territories (1902-1957). They covered all of the Algerian Sahara and part of the highlands of northern Algeria that are semi-Saharan. The decree of August 14, 1905 provided the division of the Southern Territories four constituencies– Ain Sefra territory, that of Ghardaïa, that of the Oases (Ouargla as a chief town) and that of Touggourt. This lasted until 1947, a decade later the Sahara was divided into the Department of Saoura in the west (capital in Bechar) and the Department of Oases in the east (capital in Ouargla). 

Today, analyses of economic conditions and policies that affect the southern region often operate on a north versus south binary of which respective periphery definitions of thereof vary. As a result, the northern Algerian Sahara or Saharan Atlas is overlooked and the Extreme South in general is seen through a monolithic lens. Policymaking should be done in the breadth of local contextualization.

On June 8,  2011, several hundred protested in Hassi Messouad, home to the biggest oil field in the country. Six months later, protestors in Laghouat, also home to the Hassi R’mel oil field, denounced public housing corruption and hiring practices said to favor northerners. On March 14, 2013, 10,000 people took to the streets in Ouargla to protest against exclusion in the national labor market, the wilaya bearing the nation’s ultimate source of wealth and yet deprived of its riches. It would soon become the face of Southern grievances in Algeria. In January 2015, police arrested nine CNDDC (National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed) activists from Laghouat. All nine were known in Laghouat for their participation in protests against unemployment rates and overall conditions. The policies brought forth to mend this ongoing issue included obliging all firms to privilege unemployed youth in areas of the South, limit wage discrimination, improve the education system, remove all the constraints in the development of micro-enterprises, and implement inter-sectoral coordination at the local labor market.

Avoiding a Myopic Lens on Southern Conditions

Full-fleshed analysis should take consideration of provincial context rather than abiding by the simple rule that the further from Algiers, the worse life is, albeit this being true for hospital treatment and access to other facilities, given the abysmal state of local infrastructure in Saharan cities and remote villages, as well as the role of geopolitics in this convenient ruler method, seeing in one southwestern corner are the Polisario refugee camps in Tindouf, and in central-southern and southeastern corners, a proximity to the Sahel crisis, both insecure and closed borders, and the difficult experiences of nomads and refugees. These humanitarian and political crises happening along this deep southern axis add to the overall economic disenfranchisement. It remains crucial to provide detail to the respective realities of each region in order to fully understand the status of Southern Algeria vis à vis unemployment and local economies. The reason for this is illuminated when looking at certain studies conducted. The results of a vulnerability study demonstrated that based on overall unemployment, youth unemployment, women’s education, illiteracy, poverty as defined by the UNDP and population density (all data pulled from the Algerian National Office of Statistics, the United Nations Development Program, Algerian Center For Social Entrepreneurship, GADM, ESRI, and Wikimedia Commons), the wilayas of Chlef, Mostaghanem, Mascara, Tiaret and Djelfa– mostly located in the north of the country– had the highest levels of economic vulnerability as of 2016.

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Source: Tufts University. Cartography by Kristin A. Wagner

Considering inhabitants are concentrated in the north of the country, population density will affect the representation of relative economic conditions. There is also still a severe lack of data transparency for youth unemployment in Algeria. The same study identified hotspots for social enterprises, all of which are most likely tourism companies, as they are located in the wilayas of Bechar, Adrar, Ghardaia, Tamanghasset, and Illizi. Presumably these social enterprises are based in Taghit, Timimoun, Ghardaia, Tamanghasset/Ahaggar National Park, and Djanet/Tassili n’Ajjer National Park. Oued Souf has started to develop a tourism industry, but that leaves Tindouf, El Bayadh, Naama, Ouargla, Laghouat, and Djelfa, largely left to weaker markets.

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Source: Tufts University. Cartography by Kristin A. Wagner
Consequences of Failed Employment Policy in Southern Algeria

Despite claims of condemning failure to respect the policies proposed, they have not been fulfilled. Despite restrictions, illegal trade persists through the Algerian-Tunisian border by Oued Souf. A report entitled “Border Security Challenges in the Grand Maghreb” by Querine Hanlon and Matthew M. Herbert states,

“Some who defend smuggling claim that it provides a vital livelihood in an area swamped by unemployment. This is true but overlooks the reality that smuggling has a dampening effect on legal job creation and engenders a get-rich-quick mentality that in turn disincentivizes involvement with the formal sector even when jobs are available.” 

The business of smuggling is often passed down from father to son as a result of state neglect and this parallel economy is also long tolerated by law enforcement. The king product is gasoline, but there are also many other goods being trafficked. Smuggling has often been perceived as a safety valve that relieves economic pressure for inhabitants at the border. Smugglers even sometimes enhance security measures to keep the triple threat of drugs, weapons, and terrorists at bay. Times when there is real demand to secure Algerian frontiers, locals react harshly because it leads to impeding on this informal economy. There are great similarities of historic and economic marginalization between different borderland populations, making a north/south binary not always helpful. Of course, the different levels of crackdown make these structures heterogenous. There have been enormous change over the last decade (the fall of Ben Ali’s regime which has led to what people call the democratization of smuggling, increased terrorist activity in the south of Tunisia, different patterns of smuggling, oil prices determining political calculus) that make this region a unique case of its own.

There is a certain dance between smugglers and security forces, but the power imbalance tells us who the choreographer is. Many locals would prefer a formal job but believe there is no alternative for the time being, making for an uneven partnership. The borderland is a country of itself.

Employment policies are not being implemented, or when applied, have not given priority to locals, as we see consistently in the case for Ouargla where there is a long history of demanding change. Human Rights Watch reported on Houari Djelouli who “was arrested on April 8, 2013 in the city center of Ouargla when he was about to distribute CNDDC leaflets calling for a sit-in before the wilaya of Ouargla on April 11, 2013 in support of the right to work.” There has been promotion of Ouargli youth participating in the energy sector, yet demonstrations still take place where the nation’s petrol is extracted. 

According to Global Data Lab, the Eastern High Plateau region (defined as Setif, Batna, Khenchela, Oum El Bouaghi, Tebessa, and Bordj Bou Arreridj; otherwise known as the Aures excluding Bordj Bou Arreridj) has the worst–although very marginally– SHDI (0.72) as of 2018. Out of 7 distinctly defined regions, the South (Bechar, Tindouf, Adrar, Biskra, Ghardaia, Oued Souf, Ouargla, Tamanghasset, Illizi) ranks as the fourth worst in SHDI (0.75). 

On the other hand, the Eastern High Plateau has the highest IWI score (92.9) as of 2016, the lowest being the Central High Plateau (Laghouat, M’Sila, Djelfa) with a score of 88.3. 

The South has the second highest IWI score of 92.8.

The Blur of Public Perception

Intersectional analysis of economic conditions in Algeria also confronts the dissonance of public perception which distracts from real and pressing issues.

Many hold the impression that the Extreme South has not developed beyond the Stone Age, yet practically every household has a television (99.9%) as of 2016, while the northern Algerian Sahara (94.6%) holds the least amount of households with a television in the country.

There are shared frustrations across the country about incomplete infrastructure projects. An African Economic Outlook press release states, “…barely 60 per cent of the Bordj-Bou-Arreridj —M’Sila railway line (55 km), which was on the 1989 programme, has been built to date. The Aïn M’Lila — Oum El Bouaghi (68 km) line has met with the same fate, with an implementation rate of 56 per cent since 1989.”

A report called “Towards a strategy for the sustainable development of tourism in the Sahara in the context of poverty eradication” produced at UNESCO in 2003 states that the main threats of Saharan oases are,

“…climatic deterioration: the intensification of drought and its consequences on the availability of water, the discrepancy between demographic pressure and urbanization in relation to the capacity of ecosystems, maladjustment of oasis-based operators in regard to economic activities (tourism services, commercial circuits), modifications in lifestyles and consumption patterns to the detriment of local craft industries, the absence of any change in legislation on land, water and methods of exploitation, geographical isolation and remoteness, the absence of adequate attention being given to the specific nature of oasis conditions in public policies, particularly in the fields of research, agriculture, education and continuing education.”

Socioeconomic conditions have not changed much since the eve of independence, the routes of entry to the south are still only short antennas. A case study done on Djelfa regarding gas and electricity consumption states, “Since 1985 Algeria has founded the APRUE (Agence pour la Promotion et la Rationalisation dans l’Usage de l’Énergie) to elaborate methods and tools to rationalise the energy demand and consumption in all the Algerian economic sectors,” and as of 2016 the wilayas of Djelfa, Laghouat, and M’Sila hold the least amount of households with a refrigerator (90.7%). The wilaya of Djelfa alone has only 7 municipalities with 45.2% to 52.4% household appliance ownership, which is the highest percentage range for the province.

The National Plan for Regional Development (SNAT) defined various major challenges in the field of sustainable local development for the Upper Plateau region. A study done by ANIREF on the Central High Plateau states, “The region has significant human qualifications…especially the stock of qualified, specialized, disciplined and highly valued workforce.” In 2017, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal visited Djelfa and said social justice would lead to economic efficiency. Paying lip service to demonstrations has not been followed by real action. In 2007, many projects were set off to solve the isolation of the Aures, Bordj Bou Arreridj, and Djelfa, “by providing the necessary facilities for the citizens of these areas, through the expansion of the road network and extension of routes, in addition to expanding the network of drinking water, electricity, and gas” as recorded in a paper entitled “Sustainable Development in Algeria Through Development Programs (2001-2019).” As of 2016, the Extreme South holds the most households with a washing machine (80.9%) in the country. The least amount of households with one is in the Western High Plateau (Tiaret, Saida, Tissemsilt, Naama, El Bayadh) at 53.5%.

Divorcing the northern Algerian Sahara from the Extreme South in public discourse regarding Southern conditions results in an incomplete evaluation, detrimental to a collective understanding of local realities and degrees of urgency. Furthermore, policymaking does not create this division in regards to the development of Southern states. For example, a five-year program reported by the Algerian regime was established to accomplish the following objectives for both the Extreme South and northern Saharan states:

“Improve the training of teachers at the local level; enhance public health coverage; intensify the response to housing requests by supporting the self-construction of social and rural housing; improve the living conditions of the population; complete important municipal development programs; expand road, highway, and railway networks; have states of the South and High Plateaus benefit from the development and diversification of their economic capacities and increased employment offerings at the local level; strengthen the capacities of vocational training adapted to the requirements of the local economy, especially in the sectors of hydrocarbons, mines, and tourism; reclaim one million hectares across the Southern states and the High Plateaus and enhance irrigation with special attention given to the promotion of agricultural investments for the benefits of young people; have regions of the South and High Plateaus witness the completion of a significant number of industrial zones, the modernization of public industrial unites, the construction of hydrocarbon refining plants, the exploitation of iron fields and the intensification of quarrying.”

Public perception and policymaking are not always aligned, which is why the latter is done by experts. For example, it may be to the shock of many that the Extreme South has the greatest percentage of households with computers (31%) as of 2016, while the Western High Plateau has the least (21.5%). Policymaking based on fixed regional grouping for statistical purposes as done by the Global Data Lab can also pose a problem; El Bayadh and Bechar are probably very similar in their plights and positioning vis à vis centralization yet considered as separate geographical entities. Same for inhabitants of Laghouat and Ghardaia, or Khenchela and Biskra. A chapter of a peer-reviewed journal entry entitled “Water in Algerian Sahara: Environmental and Health Impact” illustrates this well, the Saoura region limited by El Bayadh in the North, Mauritania in the South, Adrar in the East, and Morocco in the West all experience droughts like in other parts of the Sahara and Sahel. The article states, “The catastrophic floodings like the Timimoun in 2000, Ghardaia in 2008, Bechar in 2008, and recently El Bayadh on October 2011, are causing the destruction of several infrastructures and the historical Mahboula Bridge.”

El Bayadh tends to be unspoken of in the scope of southern development and economic policy, but it was one of the wilayas whose governor was replaced prior to the March 14 demonstrations alongside Ouargla, Tindouf, Illizi, Tamanghasset, and Oued Souf. While many might not know it, the northern Algerian Sahara suffer from many of the same issues as the extreme south, and easier access to the coast does not alleviate all struggle. 

Reform and the Diaspora

Beyond forming labor unions and stitching a new constitution into the nation’s fabric during this transitional period, hoping to finally ensure accountability, paying attention to the diverse economic palette of the South is imperative for policymakers. The creation of both indirect and direct jobs can be done while privileging rural schemes and ethics.

Despite the South covering 87% of Algerian territory and only 9% of its population, it is inexcusably marginalized. 

There is a common trend for the provinces of Laghouat, Djelfa, and M’Sila, who also hold the least amount of households with electricity in the country (94.7%) as of 2016. They are often abandoned in discussion of southern development and development in general.

Moving away from oil and gas dependency and encouraging the development of the local private sector could prove to be effective, especially for residents of Saharan provinces whose lands are exploited. The addition of new routes in the 1920s that linked Algiers to Laghouat and Constantine to Biskra stimulated Saharan tourism which remains a driving force for financial stability. However, the industry can only be so saturated, and tourism is also known to take away from important economic outlets of self-sufficiency. The Business of Tourism: Place, Faith and History describes this well,

“In every locale where tourist trade evolved into a significant aspect of the economy, the commodification that eventually ensued of the place, its people, their history, and their culture affected Arabs and Berbers who, at first unwittingly, but then more intentionally, constituted the human scenery of tourism. Nowhere was this more evident than in desert communities such as Biskra, as local economies underwent dramatic restructuring with the advent of tourists than occurred in any larger cities, even those most frequented by foreign visitors. Prior to the popularization of the oasis as a tourist destination, its 7,000 or so Algerian residents depended for their livelihoods on agriculture, the caravan trade, and Biskra’s role as an administrative center.”

The diaspora could even play a significant role in revitalizing local economies. By paying local artisans correct wages and inspiring permanent residents to use their purchasing power for dying crafts, businesses loyal to heritage will thrive. 

Mzabis of Ghardaia have a long-standing trading tradition, once monopolizing retail and wholesale commerce; this activity in turn impelled and propped up a trade relationship with strongholds in major metropolitan areas and national capitals. 

Saharan populations being drawn increasingly into the capitalist world system began in the nineteenth century. Before expanding European industrial economy, Donald C. Holsinger says, “Saharan commerce had long been an important part of a larger economic network spanning the Mediterranean and Islamic worlds.” Holsinger says in his section entitled Migration and Trade in the Northern Algerian Sahara, “Trade links between Saharan oases and the Tell could not be interrupted for long without threatening the economic viability of the northern Saharan societies.” 

Economic dependence on natural resource depletion, corruption at state and local levels, and isolation of southern wilayas have made life more difficult.


By October 2018, the unemployment rate reached 12% and is higher among youth (29% as of April 2018). The South has expectedly the highest percentage of populations living in urban areas (71.8%), but urban economies have not been promoted based on their own potential strengths beyond the oilfields in certain districts. In 2011 it was recorded that 5.5% of the population, which is a very modest figure, was considered poor, with large regional variations and higher concentrations in the Sahara and Plateau regions. Unemployment is a major issue in the South and policies have not been actively implemented to a considerable degree. Rethinking appropriate measures must take into consideration the particularities of each wilaya. The Saharan Atlas, northern Algerian Sahara, and High Plateaus are often neglected in political and economic discourse. The voices of citizens in the Extreme South are stifled, their social presence invisible to many. The Algerian government has recently decided to introduce 10 new wilayas, all of them in the South (Bordj Badji Mokhtar, Ouled Djellal, El Menia, Touggourt, Djanet, Timimoun, Beni Abbes, In Salah, In Guezzam, and El M’Ghair). While this allows more effective policymaking, many questioned the announcement’s timing, as December 12 elections were approaching.

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