OUJDA: Until three months ago, petrol smuggling literally drove Morocco’s neglected eastern region, where the subsidised liquid smuggled in from Algeria fuelled the local economy.
But in June, Algiers took drastic measures to curtail the illegal trade, clamping down on traffic across its border with Morocco, which has officially been closed since 1994.
“Since the Algerians shut the border my car hasn’t budged,” one Moroccan resident of the area told AFP.
The unofficial cross-border movement of people and goods has long been a feature of daily life here, with members of the same families living either side of the divide and much money to be made from contraband.
Algiers beefed up its border controls in a bid to stem the haemorrhaging of cheap Algerian fuel, through which the state was losing $1.3 billion a year, according to energy ministry figures.
Before the clampdown, some 600,000 cars were estimated to be running on Algerian fuel smuggled into neighbouring countries, notably Morocco.
It remains unclear what prompted the move by Algiers, although it coincided with an outburst of particularly hostile rhetoric from senior officials in both countries.
In energy-rich Algeria, petrol and diesel cost as little as 23 dinars (0.23 euros) and 13.4 dinars (0.13 euros) a litre respectively.
By contrast, its western neighbour and regional arch-rival imports virtually all its energy needs, with motorists paying more than one euro for a litre of petrol.
So the Algiers move had serious implications for the Oriental region of Morocco, as it is known, with its population of more than two million.
“My car carried up to one tonne of diesel, two or three times a week. Today it’s good for nothing,” complained one man in his 30s, sipping tea near the Zouj-Bghal border post.
Since acceding to the throne in 1999, King Mohamed VI has sought to promote development in the remote region, launching projects from factories to infrastructure, including a motorway connecting Oujda to the capital Rabat, 520 kilometres (320 miles) away.