The diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain hit unprecedented levels in May, subsequent to Spain’s reception of the POLISARIO leader Brahim Ghali for hospitalization under a fake Algerian identity. Enraged and disappointed, Morocco recalled its Ambassador to Madrid and cut all ties with Spain. Now, confidential negotiations are underway to rebuild trust and respect between the neighboring countries.
Moroccan-Spanish relations have long been subject to abrupt fluctuations and serious crises that have repeatedly put the countries on the verge of military confrontation. In 2002, for example, a bloodless war erupted between the two states when a Moroccan navy fleet entered the uninhabited islet of Perejil, in an act against smugglers. Without the US brokering a deal under which neither Morocco nor Spain would thereafter occupy the uninhabited rock, the two nations would have come head-to-head in a military clash.
The threats looming on the horizon of Moroccan-Spanish cooperation are age-old and complicated. The lack of trust between the “Followers of the Cross” (the Spaniards) and those of “the Crescent” (the Moors) have fermented ever since the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, and then throughout the Reconquista wars up until modern times. The indelible psychological scars of the traumatic invasion of Iberia by the Moors can still be felt in the collective imagination of the Spaniards. In a 2014 survey conducted in Spain by the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, 14.8 percent of the respondents pointed to Morocco as the power that threatens their national security the most.
Spain’s colonial history in Morocco is a stumbling block on the way of sustainable peace between the two countries.
On the other hand, Spain’s colonial history in Morocco – occupying Ceuta, Melilla, Sidi Ifni, Tarfaya, the Moroccan Sahara, as well as the islands of Chafarinas, Alhucemas, de Velez, de la Gomera, and Perejil – is also a stumbling block on the way of sustainable peace between the two countries. In fact, even after Morocco’s independence in 1956 and its recovery of Tarfaya (1958), Sidi Ifni (1969), and the Sahara (1975), Spain still uncompromisingly holds onto the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and many uninhabited islets along the Mediterranean coastline of Morocco. The anachronism of Ceuta and Melilla – being African and Moroccan by geography, yet under Spanish colonialism for centuries – is unmistakable, but Spain has always considered them undisputedly Spanish.
Adding to the fray is the fact that Spain – which paradoxically works to defend its territorial integrity against Catalan separatism – provides covert and overt support for the POLISARIO leaders, who seek the independence of the Western Sahara. When the United States, under the Trump administration, recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory in 2020, the Spanish Department of National Security (DSN) criticized the move and claimed that it “only made things worse” in the region.
In a further show of support for the POLISARIO, Spain refused to take part in the US-led African Lion military counter-terrorism exercise last June, which took place in different parts of Morocco, including the strip of Al-Mahbas in Western Sahara. This jarring absurdity of fighting separatism at home and endorsing it in the case of Morocco is not only hypocritical, but undoubtedly detrimental to the relations between Rabat and Madrid.
Nevertheless, the history of the dealings between the two neighbors were marked by cooperation and peace at times, despite the sporadic and transient periods of enmity and antagonism. Spain and Morocco are inextricably tied by their geographical proximity and shared history and therefore must seek ways to coexist and solve their problems without using destructive confrontation.
The current diplomatic crisis between the two countries which “shook mutual trust and raised many questions as to their future,” as King Mohamed VI said in his August 20 speech on the occasion of the 68th anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People, is an opportunity for both parties to reevaluate and reconsider their bilateral relations and rebuild them on solid foundations.
It appears Morocco is indeed committed to regional peace and to establishing strong and productive relations with its neighbors.
It appears Morocco is indeed committed to regional peace and to establishing strong and productive relations with its neighbors. It is in this framework that King Mohamed VI previously called on Algeria – which recently cut diplomatic ties with Rabat – to “work together, without conditions, for the development of bilateral relations based on trust, dialogue and good neighborliness.” And this spirit of good faith is reflected in Morocco’s management of its political fallout with Spain, as the Monarch has explicitly expressed Rabat’s keenness on resolving their issues.
In fact, he said with regard to Spain: “With a feeling of optimism, I sincerely look forward to continuing to work with the Spanish government and with the Spanish Prime Minister, His Excellency Mr. Pedro Sanchez, to usher in a new, unprecedented phase in the relations between the two countries, on the basis of trust, transparency, mutual respect and the fulfillment of obligations.”
His statements are a potential roadmap for the negotiations underway between the two countries, which is an opportunity for both parties to reconsider their bilateral relations and rebuild them on solid foundations. In turn, Spain offered Morocco “a dialogue without taboos or limits” on the questions of the Sahara, Ceuta, and Melilla, as revealed by El Espagnol.
Another positive signal from Spain is the radical shift in its policy towards Morocco since the recent appointment of the current Foreign Minister, Mr. José Manuel Albares, compared to the former Minister, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, who is accountable for the surreptitious entry of the Sahraoui leader Brahim Ghali to Spain.
A positive signal from Spain is the radical shift in its policy towards Morocco since the appointment of the current Foreign Minister, Mr. José Manuel Albares.
To date, nothing has been leaked about the outcomes of these very confidential talks, yet statements from both parties confirmed that they are eager to have a comprehensive reevaluation of their relations and resolve the outstanding issues, in a way that does not allow any similar tensions to unfold in the future.
One of the most important matters in this thorough reassessment is the Spanish stance on the Moroccan Western Sahara conflict. While Morocco seeks Spanish recognition of its sovereignty over the region, Madrid rejects this option and ostensibly clings to a UN-brokered solution to the dispute. At the least, Morocco wants Spain to remain neutral and not object to its efforts to lobby support for its authority over the Sahara. If Morocco succeeds in neutralizing Spain, or gaining its backing for its autonomy plan for the Sahara, this will be the last nail in the coffin of the separatist project.
Many Moroccan experts believe that some changes may have occurred in the Spanish positions towards the issues on the table without being announced, and that these variables relate mainly to Spain’s position on the territorial integrity of Morocco. Yet only the upcoming days will tell.
Ultimately, and whatever the current negotiations eventually yield, Spain will be required to deal with Morocco on the basis of the new geopolitical transformations. As Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita once said, “today’s Morocco is not that of the past, and Spain needs to understand this.” Most importantly, Spain should renounce its colonial logic and condescending view of Morocco if it desires strategic win-win relations with its southern neighbor.