At the end of his term, President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in a tweet. In return, Trump asked Rabat to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, just as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had done earlier. Trump’s move is significant, adding much weight behind Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the territory. Now, as tensions in the disputed territory are running high, whether President Biden will continue Trump’s Moroccan policies will likely be an important factor in prospective resolutions.
Western Sahara: Historical Context and Colonial heritage
Most of Western Sahara today is under Moroccan control. Apart from the humanitarian issues, the matter of sovereignty over Western Sahara has become a major area of contention between Morocco and its neighbors and has made some inter-African relations difficult. The biggest diplomatic consequence is the related dispute with Algeria, which has openly supported the independence of Western Sahara.
North Africa’s economic, social, and political progress is being hampered by this old conflict. Not only are people suffering, but the crisis has kept the Maghreb Union hostage (Algeria and Morocco have limited to no diplomatic relations), compromising trade, prosperity, and security in the region.
But to truly understand the current situation, it’s important to put it into context, and it’s necessary to consider history before 1975.
As Anouar Majid argues, Morocco (with the Western Sahara) had been a sovereign state long before European colonization began. The Almoravid dynasty had Marrakech built in what is now known as the Western Sahara itself. Indeed, when the Spanish and the French included the region into their colonial designs, the Sultan in Marrakesh was praised in a region that extended from present-day Senegal to the Algerian Sahara. For centuries, the area of Western Sahara served as a trade route between Morocco and Mali that circumvented the Atlas mountain range.
The 45-year-old conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front – the movement of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – has its roots in the colonial history of Western Sahara.
The 45-year-old conflict between Morocco and the Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Polisario Front) – the movement of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – has its roots in the colonial history of Western Sahara. In the 19th century, Spain wanted to make up for its imperial losses in Latin America by expanding in Africa. Attracted by natural resources, Madrid began its penetration into Western Sahara in 1884-5. Fishing exploitation was one of the first objectives in this territory.
In 1920, Spain reached a border agreement with France (which controlled Algeria and to a lesser extent, Morocco) and in 1934 the effective occupation began after the signing of a submission by the native Saharawi tribes.
This territory became a de-facto Spanish province in 1958. Its inhabitants, both natives and settlers, enjoyed Spanish nationality, ID, and Spanish passport. It is estimated that 20,000 Spaniards lived in the Sahara until 1975. That year, the so-called Green March – a Moroccan civil convoy made up of 350,000 civilians –advanced towards the territory to force Spain to hand it over. As stipulated in the Madrid Agreements, sovereignty over Western Sahara was then handed to Morocco and Mauritania.
The newly formed Polisario Front, aided by Algeria and Libya, began fighting a 16-year war against the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania (until 1978) which ended in 1991 with a ceasefire and the deployment of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), a self-determination referendum planned since 1963.
To this day the United Nations considers the Madrid Agreements invalid. It argues that Spain could not transfer sovereignty to Morocco and Mauritania, and therefore the transfer of the administration does not alter Western Sahara’s status of being a territory pending decolonization. Therefore, the United Nations considers Spain the administering power, and holds that Madrid continues to have the obligation to guarantee the decolonization of the territory, even though Morocco has been exercising control over the territory.
At the beginning of the war, more than half of the population fled the territory to take refuge in Algeria, where today about 170,000 people still live in five camps near Tindouf. In negotiations over the territory, the Polisario Front proposed the use of the Spanish census carried out in 1974 but Morocco did not agree and stated that the list had been compromised. In 2000, the Baker Plan (devised by former US Secretary of State and special envoy James Baker) was discussed. It suggested giving all people living in Sahrawi territory the right to vote. But, the Polisario rejected the plan, considering it too favorable to Morocco. Indeed, the Moroccan government has populated its part of Western Sahara (the westernmost one, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean), by granting subsidies and tax breaks.
After the departure of Spain and the long confrontation that lasted until 1991, a ceasefire came into effect and a demilitarized zone controlled by UN peacekeepers was defined.
After the departure of Spain from the territory and the long confrontation that lasted until 1991, a ceasefire came into effect and a demilitarized zone controlled by UN peacekeepers was defined. Morocco currently proposes autonomy under its sovereignty while the Polisario Front fights for a self-determination referendum foreseen by the 1991 agreement, but which has never been carried out.
Since then, the situation has been in a stalemate until Trump made that dramatic announcement. But, even if Washington – under the Trump administration – recognized Rabat’s dominion over Western Sahara in recent months, the United Nations has not.
The Impact of the US
A more formal solution will have to engage the most directly affected parties: Morocco, the Polisario, Spain, France, and Algeria. Most of Western Sahara itself is desert. Over the years, Morocco has been strengthening its control of the territory and, after the recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara by the United States, it comes out a little stronger in this conflict. Nevertheless, opponents of Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara have urged President Biden to reverse it.
Algiers, in particular, wants to undermine the agreement. Algerian parliamentary groups have sent a letter to the new American President, Joe Biden, urging him to cancel Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. Furthermore, in Washington, some two dozen senators from both major parties asked President Biden to reverse Trump’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, describing the move as “illegitimate.”
However, allowing Morocco to have sole authority over Western Sahara might prove the best way to end the suffering of the population living in the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria while promoting reconciliation, encouraging the UN itself towards this definitive solution, and achieving permanent peace and stability. The alternative would be one that could only perpetuate the deadlock. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Biden will reverse Trump’s policy.
Indeed, in February, Biden indicated that he had no intention of revoking the recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. On February 22, State Department spokesperson Ned Price welcomed the tripartite agreement according to which the United States recognized Moroccan territorial integrity, even as it supports the UN’s efforts to monitor the ceasefire.
In its approval of Trump’s stance, the Biden administration has signaled that so far, the Algerian lobby in Washington, which intensified its attempts to pressure American decision makers to reverse it, has failed. Thus, the Polisario has failed to gather support at the official level beyond Algeria. Morocco has secured support from France and Spain, building strong diplomatic and trade alliances. Even the UN’s MINURSO mission – first established in 1991 for organizing a self-determination referendum – has expended far greater effort in ensuring a ceasefire than in fulfilling its stated mandate; and therefore it has supported Rabat indirectly.
The effect on the conflict has been to push it under the radar, which may explain why last November, the Polisario decided to block the Guerguerat highway, which links Western Sahara with Mauritania. It needed to draw attention to an increasingly “forgotten” dispute. The Moroccan army broke up the protest, using gunfire, but without injuries. In the end, the Polisario’s moves merely accelerated Morocco’s sovereign ambitions. Its fighters abandoned the blockaded area, allowing the Moroccan forces to enter a heretofore neutral zone, extending its authority to the Mauritanian border. Despite MINURSO’s protests to the handling of the situation, not even the African Union – the only one that formally recognizes the Polisario – condemned Rabat. And this was before Trump issued his decree in the matter.
Where Things Stand
Lately, even Algeria’s backing of the Polisario has come into question. Algiers has been experiencing significant social and political change. The temporary President, Abdelmajid Tebboune, has been weakened by illness and renewed popular protests since his returned from a long absence in Germany for medical care. The de-facto leader, the Chief of Staff, General Said Chengriha, has said little over the matter even though he is known to be a fervent Polisario supporter. The problem is that Algeria has only two options in the Polisario matter, regardless of how badly it wants access to the Atlantic Ocean through its southwestern border. One involves adapting to the new status-quo, which implies accepting Morocco’s diplomatic victories. The other would be to wage a war against Morocco.
Both Rabat and Algiers have been arming themselves to the teeth in recent years.
Both Rabat and Algiers have been arming themselves to the teeth in recent years, the former with weapons from the United States and the latter with arms from Moscow. But, while war may help distract Algerians from their economic and political woes, it would do the weak, if reforming, government little good. The memories of the 1990s’ civil war are fresh, as is the fallout of the demise of the Qadhafi government in Libya – a fallout that is not limited to the Sahara but reaches deep into the Sahel. Thus, while not entirely beyond the realm of possibility, a Moroccan-Algerian war remains unlikely.
As for Morocco, the American recognition of Morocco’s authority in Western Sahara might generate criticism for its link to diplomatic relations with Israel – with the Palestinian cause stagnating in disaster. But that is an internal matter. Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which chairs the government coalition, has always rejected normalization with Israel until a resolution of the Palestinian cause is achieved. Yet, Moroccan nationalism, rooted in its own history and the monarchy, ensured that even the head of government and Secretary General of the PJD, Saadedín el Othmani, celebrated Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
Ultimately, while President Biden looks to maintain the Trump administration’s stance on the Western Sahara issue, it can be argued that a long-lasting resolution effort will need to consider the best interests of all parties, to better prevent tensions from rising any further.