Ahmed Ataf took the reins of Algerian diplomacy in mid-March following the surprise resignation of veteran Ramtane Lamamra, the architect of the bilateral rupture with Morocco in August 2021. The new Foreign Minister, appointed as part of a sweeping ministerial reshuffle that affected 11 out of 30 portfolios, was tasked with strengthening Algeria's position in the Arab world. "We are undergoing major transformations that force us to adapt," he acknowledged minutes after taking up his post.
To this end, Ataf launched a round of diplomatic contacts with his counterparts in Tunisia, Nabil Ammar, Mauritania, Mohamed Salem Ould Marzouk, the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Egypt, Sameh Shoukry, Saudi Arabia, Faisal bin Farhan, Jordan, Ayman Safadi, Sudan, Ali Sadiq Ali, and Libya, Najla Mangoush. This diplomatic hyperactivity highlights the new minister's priority: strengthening relations with Arab countries.
But there are other dossiers on the table to which Ataf will have to pay attention. The bitter rivalry with Morocco and the diplomatic rift with Spain over the Western Sahara dispute, the stalled reconciliation process with France and instability in the Sahel are some of them. Tebboune was looking for a solvent profile to replace Lamamra's premature departure, an experienced diplomat with the capacity to reorganise the Ministry. One of the names was his.
Ataf is an old acquaintance. A graduate of the National School of Administration (ENA), a factory for senior state officials, he first held the Foreign Ministry portfolio between 1996 and 1999, under the presidency of General Liamine Zéroual. He had previously served as ambassador to the former Yugoslavia, the United Kingdom and India, among other places. He was later Deputy Foreign Minister, in charge of the Maghreb and African Affairs portfolios, a post in which he admitted to having drafted a report recommending that the then President Zéroual close the border with Morocco - as happened in 1995 - and is therefore perceived as fiercely anti-Moroccan.
Ataf's return to the foreign ministry two decades later will not alter the direction Algeria's foreign policy has taken in recent years, which has been shaped since El Mouradia and always in the hands of the president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and to a lesser extent the army chief of staff, Saïd Chengriha. But he promises to fill some of the gaps left by his predecessor in terms of Algeria's presence in the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world.
Ataf has been particularly critical in the past of Algeria's traditional stance towards the US. The new Foreign Minister senses that moving Algeria away from the US orbit and instead validating Russia's influence has helped Morocco gain leverage in Washington, which resulted in the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara formalised by the Trump Administration and later maintained by Biden.
استقبل الأمين العام لوزارة الشؤون الخارجية والجالية الوطنية بالخارج، السيّد عمار بلاني، سفيرة الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية بالجزائر السيدة إليزابيث مور أوبين. pic.twitter.com/elJumDZXh3— وزارة الشؤون الخارجية| MFA-Algeria (@Algeria_MFA) March 24, 2023
The US has got the message. State Department Under Secretary Wendy Sherman called the newly appointed Ataf on Tuesday to congratulate him on his appointment. The two discussed "efforts to promote stability in the region, including support for UN Secretary General Staffan de Mistura's personal envoy to promote a lasting and dignified political solution to the conflict in Western Sahara", the State Department statement said.
A few days earlier, the number two in the Algerian Foreign Ministry, Ammar Blani, who was forced to act as interim minister after the disappearance of the resigned Lamamra, had received a visit from the US ambassador in Algiers, Elisabeth Moore Aubin.