El Dorado for Western Security Companies
The ten people who were victims of an attack on a bus to the east of Algiers on 21 September can count themselves lucky to have escaped with no more than a fright and a few minor injuries. The attack was aimed at the technicians and engineers of the French construction company Razel. Two French employees, an Italian, six Algerians, the driver, and five policemen who were travelling with them as an escort were injured.
In September of this year alone, 100 people have been killed in such attacks, 33 of whom have died since the start of the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan.
On 6 September, a suicide bomber attempted to assassinate President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the eastern Algerian city of Batna. Although the attacker was apprehended before the president arrived, he managed to detonate the explosives he was carrying with him, killing 22 and injuring over 200.
On 8 September, another suicide bomber blew himself up in a naval barracks in Dellys in north-east Algeria, taking 34 people with him.
Al-Zawahiri's terrorist messages on the Internet
The organisation al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has claimed responsibility for the most recent attacks. This group, which is estimated to have approximately 400-500 underground fighters in Algeria and is the last armed group of Islamists in the country, caused a stir in recent weeks by announcing that it intends to extend its activities.
On 20 September, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the "number two" in al-Qaeda's international chain of command, called on al-Qaeda followers to support the north African branch of the organisation. Speaking in a video recording made available on the Internet, al-Zawahiri said that the group "should liberate the Maghreb from the French and the Spanish who are present in the former colonies of northern Africa."
He went on to say that the time had come to reawaken the golden era of the Arab presence on the Iberian peninsula (al-Andalus) that followed the conquests of the early years of Islam.
For their part, the French refuse point blank to react to these threats by restricting their economic activities in Algeria. One of the reasons they give is that the security situation in Algeria is much less dramatic than it was during the civil war of the 1990s.
Lucrative business in a booming Algeria
Objectively speaking, this is indeed the case. After all, say many French executives when asked to explain why they insist on staying in Algeria, if the companies turned on their heels and left the country, they would be playing into the hands of the terrorists. What they neglect to say out loud is that the new Algerian market is just too lucrative to abandon to other players.
From the construction business (Suez, Alstom, Vinci), the food industry (Danone, Bell, Castel), and the automotive industry (Peugeot, Renault, Michelin) to service providers (including, among others, the banks BNP and Société Générale), tourist companies (Accord), and even supermarket chains (Carrefour), some 580 French companies are currently operating in all sectors of the Algerian economy.
For the first time ever, French financial institutions such as Cetelem, which has been operating in Algeria since March 2006, are offering Algerian consumers direct loans. Within the space of a year, Cetelem gave over 30,000 loans for purchase in instalments to the tune of about € 100 million.
In 2003, the French cosmetics giant Yves Rocher opened its first shop in the centre of Algiers. It now has 14 more peppered around the country in Algeria's major cities.
In January 2006, Carrefour opened its first supermarket in Algiers. But it doesn't end there: even the fast food chain Quick, the Franco-Belgian equivalent to McDonalds, opened its first take-away restaurant in Algiers in March of this year within a stone's throw of the imposing statue of the anti-colonial war hero, Emir Abd al-Qadir. Quick hopes to open 19 more by the year 2012.
The economic scuffle for market shares
The French will certainly not turn their back on a free-market El Dorado such as this, which was made possible by the end of state socialist control over Algeria's economy, the increase in the price of crude oil that has injected cash into the Algerian market, and the improved security situation - especially as the competition is beginning to make its presence felt.
With a trade volume of over € 12 billion, the USA is currently Algeria's most important trading partner. Despite the fact that the pharmaceutical industry, the banking sector, and the IT business must all hold a certain charm for the Americans, their presence has to date been focussed on the oil sector (Anadarko, Halliburton, and Bechtel). At present, approximately 70 American companies are operating in Algeria.
Private security and protection companies are another new and flourishing field of business. Although the situation is similar to that in occupied Iraq, it has not yet reached the extent of the privatisation of violence and the trade in purchasable security in that country.
Algeria currently counts approximately 60 security companies. However, it is quite possible that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will inadvertently help this sector to flourish in the future.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan