Fighting broke out between Morocco and separatists last month in controversial Western Sahara, an area claimed by Morocco. The sparsely populated region borders Algeria to the east, Mauritania to the east and south, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Morocco to the north.
First, Morocco launched a military operation in a United Nations-controlled buffer zone in a village called Guerguerat. The soldiers removed a camp of 60 peaceful protesters blocking traffic between the Morocco-controlled side of Western Sahara and Mauritania. Then the Algeria-backed Polisario Front for Independence declared an end to the 1991 armistice with Morocco and promised a full resumption of fighting. Although the United Nations and the international community on both sides have called for restraint and the maintenance of the ceasefire, the Polisario Front declared on November 15 that it was mobilizing “thousands of volunteers” to join its fighters.
An exchange of fire between the two sides has since been reported. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that the United States would officially recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in order to normalize Morocco’s relations with Israel, through decades of UN-led mediation and US diplomatic efforts to settle the regional dispute. This change in US policy further increases the likelihood of a resumption of large-scale fighting and exacerbates growing regional instability in North Africa.
Much is at stake in the Western Sahara conflict. Aside from the threat of fighting between Morocco and the independence forces, there is potential (though unlikely) for direct military clashes between Morocco and Algeria, two of the largest and best-equipped militaries in Africa. In addition, given the strategic position of Western Sahara on the Atlantic coast and its natural resources, many other regional and global actors have economic and political interests in the outcome of the conflict. In other words, if the conflict intensifies, Western Sahara will not be the only price at stake.
The Western Sahara conflict is more than four decades old and results from a dispute over the territory that arose after the withdrawal of the Spanish colonial rulers in 1975. The Moroccan monarchy organized a mass gathering of nearly 350,000 Moroccans in the region known as the Green March. Participants claimed they would recapture sovereign Moroccan territory. In a short time, war broke out between neighboring Morocco and Mauritania, as well as the Algerian-backed Sahrawi independence movement, later known as the Polisario Front. Fighting halted following a United Nations-brokered ceasefire in 1991, and plans were made to hold a self-determination referendum for the Saharawis, the indigenous peoples of Western Sahara. However, such a referendum is due to disagreement over the issues the referendum would address (would full independence be an option?) And who would be allowed to vote (would Moroccans who moved to Western Sahara after 1975 be eligible?).
In the meantime, Morocco has been able to assert its actual control of around 75 percent of the disputed country and has invested heavily there over the past decades. The kingdom offers tax breaks and high salaries for civil servants there. While Morocco may have agreed to the 1991 UN ceasefire agreement to hold a referendum, the Kingdom has changed its position in practice. It has rejected any referendum that would include full independence as an option. Instead, it has proposed an autonomy plan for the region. Many of the country’s western allies welcomed the move, although it directly undermines the United Nations’ promise of self-determination for the Sahrawi people.
And so the conflict remains unsolved, thousands of refugees are stranded outside the region and tensions are steadily increasing. Political negotiations started again last year, but they too stalled.
One reason for the blockade is that Western Sahara is strategically located on the Atlantic coast and has an enormous wealth of natural resources, including phosphate and shale gas. Since phosphates are an important and finite component of artificial fertilizers, they are a central resource in global food production. The region is also believed to have significant offshore oil and gas reserves. However, due to the unresolved conflict, these waters are officially closed to exploration.
Morocco retains control of most of the disputed country and aims to make it a major economic and investment center. The kingdom has plans to build a $ 1 billion port in the coastal city of Dakhla in Western Sahara. In January 2020, the Moroccan parliament passed two bills expanding the country’s territorial waters and creating an exclusive economic zone that includes waters along the disputed Western Sahara. This angered Spain, which controls the waters around the neighboring Canary Islands, and the Polisario Front, which opposes any exploitation of resources by Morocco off the coast of Western Sahara.
But Morocco has every reason to move forward. She has witnessed a significant economy-driven foreign policy shift towards sub-Saharan Africa, especially since rejoining the African Union after a 33-year hiatus. It aims to become a member of the Economic Community of West African States and is investing in ambitious projects such as a trans-African Morocco-Nigeria gas pipeline, a project that could help reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. All of this is part of the North African Kingdom’s ambitions to become an economic hub between Europe and Africa. The disputed territory of Western Sahara is an integral part of this puzzle.
The conflict does not only affect regional rivals Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco. Other regional and global powers are closely following the dispute. Morocco’s most important trade and investment partners include European countries, the United States, the Arab states on the Persian Gulf and, increasingly, China. All the Gulf States have expressed their solidarity and support for the position of Morocco in a rare symbol of unity. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have gone a step further and set up consulates in the disputed area. Groups like the UAE’s Dubai Port World are likely to see significant investment opportunities in the port of Dakhla, as well as the fruits of better connectivity between European and African markets through Moroccan infrastructure projects.
China sees the North West African hub as an important partner for the expansion of its flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Morocco has embarked on major infrastructure projects, such as a high-speed train connecting the financial center of Casablanca with Tangier, a city less than 10 miles from Europe and the largest port in the Mediterranean and Africa by capacity. The Moroccan King Mohammed VI. Has also publicly called for railways to be expanded south towards Marrakech and Agadir and even further into the disputed Western Sahara area to connect the cities of Laayoune and the coastal port city of Dakhla. Chinese and French companies are already competing to build the Marrakech-Agadir railway line.
Mohamed VI Tangier Tech City is expected to receive $ 1 billion from China’s Haite Group and will host more than 200 Chinese companies. Chinese companies as well as European, Japanese and American companies are also leaning towards Morocco’s growing automotive industry. Over the years there has even been talk of building an underwater transport tunnel between Morocco and Spain.
Russia is also trying to expand its influence into North Africa. Moscow has teamed up with both Morocco and the Polisario Front and supports a UN solution to the conflict. Although Russia has historically had closer ties with Algeria, a function of the Cold War era alliance system, and providing most of Algeria’s weapons, Russia is also increasingly interested in Morocco and the coasts of Western Sahara, as well as energy exploration. Last month, Morocco and Russia signed a new marine fisheries cooperation agreement that will allow 10 Russian trawlers to fish in Moroccan waters. This replaces a similar agreement from 2016 (and the eighth agreement since 1992). Sources such as Western Sahara Resource Watch say this deal primarily involves waters off the coast of Western Sahara, in violation of international law.
In 2019 the European Parliament approved a four-year partnership agreement on sustainable fisheries between the European Union and Morocco. This agreement explicitly includes Western Sahara waters, which violates rulings of the European Court of Justice. However, France and Spain are two of Morocco’s main economic partners and are keen to find a solution to the conflict and remove many of the diplomatic blockades that stand in the way of the full exploitation of Western Sahara’s waters and resources. Morocco is a valuable economic partner and an important defense ally. It plays an important role in the regional fight against terrorism and in managing migratory flows between Africa and Europe, which are Europe’s top priority.
The United States has traditionally acted as a mediator in the Western Sahara dispute, expressing its support for Morocco’s autonomy plan, as it represents a realistic compromise “that could satisfy the aspirations of Western Sahara”. The Trump administration, led by then National Security Advisor John Bolton, stepped up diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in late 2018 and helped organize the first direct talks in six years between Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania. After two rounds of talks in Geneva, however, the UN envoy resigned, allegedly under pressure from Morocco and France in the Security Council. Morocco was concerned about these talks because Bolton, a well-known proponent of Sahrawi self-determination, was involved. After the resignation, negotiations came to a standstill again.
Trump’s decision in the eleventh hour to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara just weeks after resumption of hostilities sparked another foreign policy fire that the Biden government must put out in January. No matter how you turn it, Trump’s decision was a win for Morocco – and it will be difficult to go back. The Biden government will not want to risk the Morocco-Israel normalization, which is now directly linked to the US recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. As much as the new administration promises to restore human rights to US foreign policy, Sahrawi self-determination is unlikely to be seen as a high priority. Morocco’s autonomy plan, for which the United States and its European allies expressed support before Trump’s decision, is presented as the only realistic path. Given the geopolitical and regional realities surrounding Western Sahara, Morocco is likely to find its way. But it is important to remember that the Sahrawis and their supporters will not give in without a fight.