The Spanish-Moroccan diplomatic rift peaked in April 2021 with Spain’s decision to grant Ibrahim Ghali, the leader of the POLISARIO separatist movement, access to one of its hospitals in Logroño for medical treatment under a fake identity. Morocco considered the hospitalization a stab in the back by its strategic partner and a violation of good neighborliness and mutual respect. Later, Morocco decided to withdraw Karima Benyaich, its ambassador to Madrid.

What seemed like Moroccan retaliatory pressures on Spain subsequently continued with the economic embargo on the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla – bringing the traffic of contraband within these cities to a halt and closing their border crossings with Morocco. Additionally, Rabat loosened its grip on illegal immigration, allowing a mass exodus of Moroccan and Sub-Saharan migrants to flood Ceuta (in May 2021) and Melilla (July 2021). Morocco limited its assistance and refused to play the role of border patrol for Spain and the European Union. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nacer Bourita said, “Morocco has no obligation to protect the borders of countries other than its own.”

The escalating bilateral spat snowballed and seemed to have no end in sight, despite the surface-level friendly statements made by both sides from time to time. For many observers, the crisis was expected to erupt anytime due to the two countries’ fundamental disagreements over several sensitive issues, including Spain’s irritating position on the Western Sahara, the status of the occupied cities of Ceuta and Melilla, as well as what the two governments claim to set unilateral demarcations of their maritime borders. The tension over these matters had manifested itself in the postponement of a high-level meeting that was supposed to take place in December 2020, then its second postponement to February 2021. As of yet, the meeting has not been held.

The crisis was expected to erupt anytime due to the countries’ fundamental disagreements over several sensitive issues.

In King Mohamed VI’s speech on the 68th anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People, on August 20, 2021, he talked about the confidential negotiations underway between the two kingdoms to resolve the misunderstandings, hoping to inaugurate a new and unprecedented chapter in Moroccan-Spanish relations on the basis of “trust, transparency, mutual respect and the fulfillment of obligations.” Many observers concluded that the king’s tone signaled the end of the conflict, especially as he stressed that he had “personally and directly followed the progress of the bilateral dialogue and negotiations between the two countries.” However, it seems that reaching a compromise and putting Spanish-Moroccan relations back on track required a lot of deliberation and patience from both parties.

The most recent development in Spain’s position on the Western Sahara conflict is the culmination of not only long negotiations which took more than 10 months, but also of a profound disagreement over Morocco’s first national issue of territorial integrity. A statement made by the Moroccan Royal Office on March 18 revealed that Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sent a letter to King Mohamed VI in which he expressed Spain’s full endorsement and support of Morocco’s autonomy plan for the Sahara. In this regard, he states that he “recognizes the importance of the Sahara issue for Morocco,” and therefore, “Spain considers the autonomy initiative presented by Morocco in 2007, as the basis, the most serious, realistic, and credible [solution] for resolving the dispute.”

[Morocco’s Approach to Crisis with Spain is a Roadmap for Peaceful Ties]

[Morocco’s Escalating Diplomatic Crisis with Spain Shows No End in Sight]

Sanchez did not forget to laud Morocco’s “serious and credible efforts […] within the framework of the United Nations to find a mutually acceptable solution” to one of the longest territorial conflicts in the world. After emphasizing the many common denominators between the nations of Morocco and Spain and their shared interests, Sanchez reassured the Moroccan Sovereign that “Spain will act with the absolute transparency that corresponds to a great friend and ally.” He added that “Spain will always keep its commitments and its word  […] with the aim of guaranteeing the stability and territorial integrity of both countries.”

Spain’s U-turn with regards to the Sahara issue indicates an important strategic development in the region.

The Spanish government’s U-turn with regards to the Sahara issue indicates an important strategic development in the region. It appears that this new position has been maturing since the beginning of the deterioration of relations between the two countries a year ago. After months of stalemate, Spain realized that it had the most to lose on several levels, especially since Morocco has always been a “credible and reliable” partner for the European Union, playing a big role in the fight against terrorism, human trafficking, drug dealing, and illegal immigration.

The new Spanish position vis-à-vis Morocco’s territorial integrity came within the international context that more and more countries are siding with Morocco and advocating its stance on the conflict. In addition to the 22 countries that have inaugurated consular representations in the Sahara, the United States, France, and Germany have repeatedly reiterated their support of Morocco’s autonomy plan, describing it as a solid basis for any possible sustainable solution.

Spain ultimately understood the shifting relations of power in the region.

Spain, therefore, ultimately understood the shifting relations of power in the region, especially after the tripartite agreement between Morocco, the United States, and Israel. In December 2020, Morocco normalized its relations with Israel in return for US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the whole territory of Western Sahara. Spanish officials must have weighed their gains and losses behind their long-sustained endorsement of the Referendum in Western Sahara before coming up with  their drastic and surprising change of position. It’s undoubtedly a painful blow to the Algeria-backed POLISARIO front.

Algeria, which hosts the POLISARIO militia on its land and unconditionally supports it, protested Spain’s new position and considered it an “abrupt U-turn.” Subsequently, Algeria recalled its ambassador to Madrid on March 20. In fact, this decision exposes Algeria’s direct involvement in the conflict, a fact that it has always denied.

Spain’s new position attests to the success of Morocco’s diplomacy in handling one of its most thorny issues. The resumption of cooperation and consultation between the two neighboring countries is expected shortly, as both parties are keen on laying the foundations for stronger, more transparent, and more sustainable relations. In a statement Sanchez made in Ceuta, on March 24, he emphasized that “Spain’s relations could not be severed” with a “strategic country like Morocco.”