By Tariq Ibn Ziyad
Tariq ibn Ziyad, having landed in Spain and sent the Umayyad navy back to Tangier, told his troops: “Where will you flee? Behind you is the sea and before you, the enemy.” They had no option but to go forth and conquer the Iberian Peninsula. Such is the two shores’ proximity that, even in the 8th century, the narrow 13 km strait that separates Europe and Africa proved little obstacle.
Subsequently, the Gibraltar Strait has proved little barrier to centuries of conquest, exchange, trade and travel. Nevertheless, passage has improved little since antiquity. Despite eight shipping routes and 20 daily flights between Morocco and Spain, the two are not connected by road or train; though, as of this week, plans for a tunnel linking the two countries have been given a boost.
The governments of Spain and Morocco first investigated the feasibility of a tunnel linking Europe and Africa in 1979. These discussions were restarted in 2003 and, in more recent years, the UK government has studied plans for a tunnel linking Gibraltar to Tangier. The area, within which lie the territorial waters of three countries and through which half of global trade passes, is of course highly contentious, making talks on any mega-infrastructure undertaking incredibly delicate.
Amid a wider European economic slowdown, Spain has become Morocco’s largest trading partner, giving the Southern European country a unique advantage when it comes to exploring opportunities in the high-growth markets of the Global South. To that end, earlier this year, the Moroccan and Spanish governments resolved to relaunch the undersea railway tunnel project to commence in 2030. This was met with a funding package for a joint Spanish-Moroccan design and a planning committee.
This week, the Spanish government realized this commitment as it allocated €2.3 million ($2.5 million) for the study of what has been named the Europe-Africa Gibraltar Strait fixed link. Morocco’s high-speed rail line from Casablanca to Tangier (Africa’s first) has offered the appealing prospect of a connection with the southern end of Spain’s national high-speed train network. With the Moroccan line planned to extend further south to Marrakech, the prospects for a tunnel connecting the two have become more practicable. It is estimated that, within five years of its opening, such a tunnel would enable the annual passage of more than 13 million tons of goods, alongside 12.8 million passengers.
Following a hiatus, Rabat-Madrid ties have enjoyed a renaissance since Spain backed Morocco’s sovereignty on the Western Sahara question. Improved relations have seen increased cooperation on migration and security, with the political environment more conducive to cooperation on the tunnel. Though they have a complicated bilateral history, following last year’s new roadmap it would seem that both sides recognize the other’s importance, with more than 20 trade agreements having been signed since and over €800 million in credit lines having been guaranteed.
Rabat-Madrid ties have enjoyed a renaissance since Spain backed Morocco’s sovereignty on the Western Sahara question.
Relations in a new spirit of mutual respect are focused on economic interdependence, with Spain angling for increased trade with Morocco (its third-largest export market) and for its companies to be at the forefront of Rabat’s development plans. A joint FIFA World Cup bid for 2030 is the culmination of the cooperation of recent years.
However, natural fault lines may prove more prohibitive to the project than political ones. The planned route between the Punta Paloma and Tangier crosses the fault zone between the Eurasian and African tectonic plates. Whereas the limestone seabed allowed for the Channel Tunnel connecting France and the UK to be dug 115 meters below sea level, the Gibraltar Strait features both extremely hard rock and an unstable clay section. Though not an insurmountable problem, it would necessitate a 40 km-long tunnel at a depth of 300 meters. This would be preferable to a tunnel at the narrowest point, which would have to be dug at 900 meters below sea level given that intense underwater currents could put the project at risk.
Even when compared to similar projects undertaken in Scandinavia, tunneling under the Gibraltar Strait would present challenges “far beyond those of any other tunnel in the world,” according to the experts at Madrid’s Polytechnic University. In addition to the geological complexities, another issue affecting the project is what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of migrants who want to cross from North Africa into Europe. A tunnel connecting the two continents would require significant policing, especially given that Morocco is already used as a base for West African migrants hoping to reach Europe. In recent years, Rabat has sought to increase the cooperation of the EU on this issue, which it considers to be a largely thankless role in “policing Europe.” According to a Moroccan parliamentary report, more than 56,000 migrants were intercepted by Morocco in 2022.
Megaprojects have an ability to captivate through their capacity to impose human engineering and ingenuity over natural realities. The Europe-Africa Gibraltar Strait fixed link is no different. However, in an increasingly interconnected world, the proposed intercontinental connection will fast become a necessity. As Europe seeks high-growth markets elsewhere, Africa, which will be home to a quarter of the world’s population by 2050, is on its doorstep. Morocco’s growing development prospects reflect its favorable geographic location as a hub for a link between the two continents.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.