Western Sahara – the forgotten conflict

There are three things that cannot be questioned in the Kingdom of Morocco. The King, Islam and the affiliation of Western Sahara to Morocco. Although the United Nations continues to call for a democratic referendum on the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which, by the way, was promised by Morocco in a peace treaty, facts have been created in recent months. The most recent example is that the United States has recognized Moroccan authority over Western Sahara. This makes the USA the first major power to officially back the Moroccan kingdom in this conflict. 

Western Sahara, Moroccan Sahara and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic?

Western Sahara refers to the entire territory highlighted on the map and was occupied by Spain until 1975. After the withdrawal of the Spanish troops, Morocco, under King Hassan II, declared its claim to the whole territory as part of the Kingdom of Morocco. By means of the “Green March” Moroccan soldiers but also civilians occupied large parts of Western Sahara. The Sahrawi independence fighters (Polisario) retreated into the red marked areas and proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. Until this day the green area is controlled and de facto ruled by Morocco which has referred to the entire territory as Moroccan Sahara ever since 1975. 

Constant dripping wears away the stone 

As late as 1985, SADR was admitted to the African Union (AU) and thus recognized as a sovereign state. How and why was Morocco able to assert its claim in only 35 years against the will of the UN, the AU and the EU? And what does this development say about the major security situation in North Africa and the Middle East? 

Morocco has been very disciplined in pursuing its “Moroccan Sahara” plan – diplomatically, economically, and militarily. The Moroccan government has deliberately not given any economic gifts to Western Sahara and its Arab population: it has almost entirely suspended trade as well as economic aid. The kingdom also made life difficult for Western Sahara on the military level: although there has been a ceasefire for the last 30 years, the Sahrawi Liberation Front “Polisario” was constantly kept on its toes, so that the latter had no funds at all to make urgently needed investments in infrastructure. 

However, Morocco’s diplomatic strategy deserves a special mention. Since Western Sahara was admitted to the AU in 1985, Morocco has subordinated all of its foreign policy moves to the goal of gaining recognized authority over the country. To this end, the kingdom even temporarily withdrew from the AU (it became a member again in 2017). In its treaties with the European Union and Spain, Morocco has also always been careful not to have to make any concessions regarding the Sahara issue. The North African state has thus succeeded in making the conflict disappear almost completely from the international scene, which has allowed the country to pursue its own interests in the area undisturbed. For a few years now, Morocco has been relying on another diplomatic tool: over the past year, various larger and smaller African and Arab states have opened consulates to Morocco on Western Sahara territory in the occupied cities of al-Dakhla and Laayoune. Undoubtedly, these consulates serve more as symbolic political statements than to perform consular functions. 

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

The recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan territory by the United States has advanced Morocco’s claim. But the price for this is high because in return Morocco is normalizing relations with the real archenemy of the Arab states: Israel. The next few years will show whether Moroccans really approve of this move because hostility toward Israel is deeply rooted in some parts of the population. Traditionally, the Moroccan king chairs the Al-Quds Committee, which aims to monitor the situation of the holy sites and coordinate activities to liberate Jerusalem. Many Moroccans will wonder if greater recognition of the Moroccan Sahara is really worth a rapprochement with Israel. On the other hand, Morocco has a different relationship with Jews than most Arab states since King Mohammed V and his unbending support for his Jewish subjects during the Vichy regime.

This deal, which Trump’s Middle East adviser Jared Kushner spearheaded, is also interesting in terms of its geopolitical significance. The Trump administration declared Iran its No. 1 enemy and has spent the past four years trying to isolate the Persian state politically. In cooperation with Saudi Arabia, it achieved the normalization of Israel’s relations to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Morocco. Israel and the Arab states mentioned above have one thing in common: Iran as the biggest enemy in the region. In return, the Arab states accept that an Arab-speaking population (the Sahrawi) will be incapacitated. It is almost the same states – mainly monarchies like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan – who already aligned with Morocco at the very beginning of the Western Sahara conflict.

However, Morocco has taken advantage of the geopolitical sabre rattling in the Middle East to advance its own interests in Western Sahara. A referendum on the independence of this area will almost certainly not take place anymore.

  • “Marocco normalisiert Beziehungen mit Israel”, NZZ, 12th December 2020.
  • “Marocco wants compromise, not war, in Western Sahara”, Foreing Policy, 12th January 2021.
  • “Pour Robert Malley, le deal Maroc-USA-Israël n’a pas de sense, tandis que Biden compte soutenir les Accords d’Abraham, le Desk, 25th January 2021.