The current episode of the escalating tensions between Morocco and Spain started on April 21 when Spain consented to hosting the POLISARIO leader Brahim Ghali under a fake Algerian identity “strictly for humanitarian reasons,” as Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said.

Ghali, whose Algeria-backed separatist movement seeks the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco, suffered serious complications following his contraction of the COVID-19 virus in early April, and was transferred to Logrono, Spain – near Zaragoza – for hospitalization. What enraged Rabat is not the treatment of Ghali in Spain per se but the secrecy with which the operation was carried out by Spain and Algeria: Ghali was given an Algerian diplomatic passport under the false name of Mohamed Ben Battouche. Rabat understood Spain’s action as flagrant complicity with Algeria against Morocco at the expense of the Spanish-Moroccan friendship.

After taking knowledge of the incident, the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Spanish Ambassador to Rabat to inform him of its displeasure over Spain’s unfriendly move.

In an official statement, the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation, and Moroccans Residing Abroad, Nacer Bourita, said: “the Kingdom of Morocco expresses its regret for the position of Spain hosting on its soil the so-called Brahim Ghali, leader of the separatist POLISARIO militia, who is accused of committing serious war crimes and gross violations of human rights.”

The Ministry added, in a communiqué, that Morocco expresses its “disappointment with this position, which is inconsistent with the spirit of partnership and good neighborliness, and which concerns a fundamental issue for the Moroccan people and all key players in society,”* referring to the issue of the Moroccan Western Sahara.

Spain’s secret hosting of Ghali is considered a serious violation of international law.

The secret hosting of Ghali is considered a serious violation of international law, for Ghali is accused by the Spanish justice system for crimes of genocide, terrorism, torture, rape, and enforced disappearance. An arrest warrant was, therefore, issued against him by the Spanish authorities in 2008. Since then, Ghali always avoided entering the Spanish territories or attending any kind of activities in Spain for fear of detention.

In 2013, he was charged by the Spanish court of justice represented by Judge Pablo Ruz of the National Court in Madrid. The hosting of Ghali in Spain under a fake identity is an institutional cover-up of a war criminal and a blatant sign of impunity. This is especially concerning since his transportation from Tindouf in Algeria to Spain aboard a medical airplane was coordinated at the highest levels in both countries.

Spain’s unfriendly and calculated move against Morocco also exposes Madrid’s double standards in its discourse with Morocco. When it comes to Morocco’s cooperation with Spain and the EU in matters of illegal immigration, border control, drug smuggling, and fisheries, Morocco is hailed as a serious and reliable partner for “strategic, direct and important”* cooperation. Yet, Spain is maintaining  its hostile position against Morocco’s territorial integrity not only by occupying two enclaves in the north of Morocco (Ceuta and Melilla) but also by opposing Morocco’s attempts to solve the Western Sahara issue which is one of the longest territorial disputes to date.

[Morocco’s Ceuta Stunt was Not a Message to Madrid, but to the EU]

[Moroccan Land, Spanish Affiliation: Anachronism of Ceuta and Melilla]

[Moroccan Western Sahara: A Dagger in Morocco’s Back]

Like a snowball rolling down a hill, the tension has intensified after Spain’s unconvincing claims of “humanitarian reasons,” because humanitarianism, cannot, under any circumstances, prevent the enforcement of law and the principles of universal justice. Morocco, consequently, shifted its tone from pacifism to blunt talk. The kingdom blamed Spain and held it accountable for the implications of its “scandalous” decision.

As Morocco’s Ambassador to Madrid, Karima Benyaich, said: “in the relations between countries, there are certain moves that can bring about bad repercussions, and we must assume responsibility for them,”* referring to Spain’s decision to host Brahim Ghali under a false identity, thus enabling him to escape justice until it was exposed.

On May 18, Morocco withdrew its Ambassador to Madrid for a thorough evaluation of the bilateral relations between Morocco and Spain.

On May 18, Morocco withdrew Benyaich from Madrid for a thorough evaluation of the bilateral relations between Morocco and Spain, but with no short-term return prospects. Morocco linked her return with the end of the real causes of the existing diplomatic crisis between the two countries. In light of the recent developments, some sources did not rule out the suspension of security cooperation between the two countries.

Morocco has already given a taste of what this would mean for Spain and the EU by loosening its grip on illegal immigration and border control near Ceuta, and turning a blind eye to at least 8,000 undocumented immigrants who entered the enclave unimpeded. In a prior statement, Saad Eddine El Ottmani, Morocco’s head of government, affirmed that Morocco will no longer serve as a border patrol for Spain.

The recent influx of immigrants into the city of Ceuta forced Spain to deploy its troops to patrol the borders, while accusing Morocco of extortion and intimidation on the issue of immigration. In a statement to Moroccan media, Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that Morocco does not need any advice from Spain and its media regarding its efforts in combatting illegal immigration, noting that “Morocco has aborted 13,000 illegal immigration attempts since 2017, dismantled 4,163 smuggling networks and recorded 48 attempts to storm Ceuta.”

The Minister added that Spain was trying to exploit what happened in Ceuta as a “pretext to avoid the real debate” about the Moroccan-Spanish crisis related to Madrid’s reception of Ibrahim Ghali.  The war of words, declarations, and communiqués between Morocco and Spain is still ongoing, indicating the rapidly declining trust between the two parties which are bound by a Treaty of Friendship, signed on July 6, 1991 by the late King of Morocco, Hassan II, and the Spanish monarch Juan Carlos I.

Now, Spain seems to be between a rock and a hard place: either it succumbs to Morocco’s pressures and hands over Brahim Ghali to the Spanish justice system, in which case, it will come out defeated in this diplomatic war; or, Spain resorts to secretly deporting him in the same way he entered the country, and in so doing, chooses to sacrifice its relations with a strategic partner for the sake of a criminal. The whole crisis seems to be hinging on that simple choice for Spain.

*All noted statements made by Moroccan officials are translated from Arabic by the author.