Algeria's Poorly Oiled Machine

Storing pallets of vegetable oil in your garage might earn you some strange looks; in Algeria, it can land you in prison.

In January, police in Algeria carried out a series of raids and arrested six men for illegally stockpiling cooking oil in a garage.

The crackdown on oil hoarding comes as Algeria is experiencing a shortage of basic foodstuffs. Long queues of oil-seeking Algerians have descended into riots, and some have taken to Facebook to desperately ask for leads on used cooking oil.

As supply chains around the world break down, Algeria is not the only country struggling with food shortages. But Algeria faces a unique challenge: the country’s constitution mandates that the government regulate markets and protect consumers’ economic rights. Politicians have insisted on maintaining strict price controls.

Instead, the Algerian government has attacked “speculators” whom it accuses of stockpiling cooking oil in hopes of a future price increase. Last year, parliament passed a spate of laws to crack down on supposed speculation. The laws’ provisions range from banning the sale of cooking oil to minors, to mandating life sentences for speculators. Since October 2021, the government has arrested 257 violators.

State media has called merchants who raise the price of cooking oil “bloodsuckers,” but grocers in Algeria say they’re merely scapegoats for failed government policy.

By law, the Algerian government sets the price of oil and then pays producers a subsidy. This means that cooking oil manufacturers sell oil at a loss and then await government reimbursement. But multiple producers claim that the government hasn’t paid them, and at least one is now on the verge of bankruptcy. Rather than sell at a loss, Algeria’s largest food producers have resorted to selling their Algerian-produced wares abroad, exacerbating shortages.

With Ramadan just over a month away, the Algerian government is under immense pressure to resolve the country’s food shortages. The raids on garages seem set to continue.

This article is part of the series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

William McChesney

Middle East Program Intern