Western Sahara rarely gets the attention of news editors in Paris, London, and Washington. But that all changed on December 11 when President Trump chose to use his last few days in office to make America the only country in the world to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty in the disputed territory.
Until that point Morocco had been largely losing a battle around the world and certainly at the UN to convince anyone that its occupation was righteous. In fact, in many ways, the indigenous people of Western Sahara, represented by an Algerian movement called the Polisario, had done well out of being the underdog. Eighty countries around the globe had even gone as far as recognizing its claim to Western Sahara as a legitimate state.
In the short term, the decision by the US to recognize Morocco as the rightful occupier of this disputed land, appears to be a good thing, both for Israel and Morocco. Indeed, there are a number of positive points about these relations returning to the days leading up to 2000 when the Palestinian intifada led to ties being temporarily ruptured. Israel may well provide the required rallying call for Gulf Arab nations to step up their investment in Morocco and give a much-needed boost to the troubled economy and provide jobs.
The flip side to improved relations with Israel is that Morocco continues on its erroneous course of ending altogether the pretense of being a modern Arab country.
But the flip side to improved relations with Israel, with all the symbolic frivolities – new “embassies,” representative offices, direct flights, etc. – is that Morocco continues on its erroneous course of ending altogether the pretense of being a modern Arab country and remaining within the EU’s orbit. It has now fully immersed itself into being akin to a Gulf Arab country in terms of human rights erosion and brutal suppression of the press.
The very fact that Morocco, along with the UAE and Sudan cannot support Israel without a tangible kickback says a lot about the authenticity of the agreement. But in reality, it’s a massive blow towards human rights, dignity, civil liberties, and anything we might blithely call democracy.
Quite apart from anything else, few Moroccans are reveling in the knowledge that Israel will provide more cyber weaponry to hack journalists’ phones, or even sell sophisticated battle aircraft on “mates rates” terms. Did the royal palace know, for quite some time, that it was about to stir up a hornet’s nest in the region, which would explain the decision by the King to go on an arms spending binge? Put bluntly, did the Trump administration promise early on to give the green light on Western Sahara, knowing that this might pit Algeria and its allies (Russia, China, and possibly even Hezbollah) against the Moroccan military in the south, and waited until now to give the Moroccans time to beef up their military?
No PR Coup, Rather a Self-Made Disaster
What we are seeing is a panicky move by Morocco, which some are claiming as a PR victory, in a country which distinguishes itself on being a PR and communications disaster zone. The old quote of Hassan II that it “would be better if people couldn’t read” is alive and well in the corridors of power in Rabat – whose experts on media believe that journalists can be entirely ignored as a policy and should be treated with misplaced contempt at all times.
Morocco’s PR plan born in the 1960s was executed by men in their sixties and, in all fairness, never even worked. Not even in the 1960s.
No, there was no PR campaign to get Trump to sign off on the deal. It was pure luck that he took the initiative to give Biden the mother of all headaches in the early days of his term, giving Rabat a Christmas present which it couldn’t turn down, or send back. In reality, the Moroccans outsourced the PR ruse to Israel.
The endorsement from Trump will be a victory if it brings foreign investment to Morocco. But even that will be a farce, if we are heading towards conflict once again in the Western Sahara.
The endorsement from Trump will be a victory if it brings foreign investment to Morocco. But even that will be a farce, if, as many fear, we are heading towards conflict once again in the Western Sahara as the Polisario is pushed over a line with this latest attack on its legitimacy. What’s not reported is the farce of Trump’s logic as his tweets suggest that the Moroccan proposal in the UN giving Western Sahara semi autonomy should now be the only deal in town without realizing that his reckless move will actually guarantee that the draft agreement will never see the light of day.
We can be almost certain that the UN will stand firm now on making sure that the autonomy deal will remain in the recesses and never get the backing that Rabat had hoped will be supported by the EU. Rabat is surely wondering how it will get over a UN hurdle once the dust has settled. Years were invested in the autonomy plan handing over some power to the Polisario while Morocco kept its territory, its flag, and its currency. The normalization deal is not a PR plan, but a self-made catastrophe.
And yet Morocco is special. There is a general feeling in Rabat and in the palace that the country is practically bullet proof and has long taken advantage of special relationships with Brussels, France, and the US – even though all are uncomfortable with the “occupation” of Western Sahara and turn a blind eye to a myriad of human rights abuses both in the disputed Sahara region and in Morocco proper. The EU has remained largely quiet about how barely a week passes without a journalist being arrested on trumped up charges, or another one being charged for merely “liking” a post on social media – or even new, draconian laws being introduced, which require YouTubers to get a filming permit. Each day Morocco feels more and more like Egypt or a paranoid Gulf Arab state.
Why is Morocco Special?
Will this continue once Biden gets into office and has to make sense of the madness that he has been left? What makes Morocco special compared to the other countries which have traded with Israel for this “normalization” deal, is that Moroccan people have a genuine fondness for Palestinians. Moroccans actually care about them. In fact, there is a considerable amount of opposition to the deal within Morocco as the country’s Islamic party and a number of other groups are weary that Israel will continue with its land grabs. If this is to continue, many observers claim that the King will be put in a very awkward spot and may well, for the second time in 20 years, annul the normal relations just to prevent Palestine being the basis of a new Arab Spring in a country ripe for a revolution.
What makes Morocco special compared to the other countries which have traded with Israel for this “normalization” deal, is that Moroccan people have a genuine fondness for Palestinians.
And so the anticlimax in Morocco – which we saw in the first 48 hours as media waited to be briefed by Rabat – is normal. Most Moroccans genuinely don’t care about the people of Western Sahara. They just love their king and know this is a polemical subject which cannot be sensibly discussed by a monarch and a nation blinded by its own dogma. They do however care passionately about the rights of Palestinians, who, like the Sahrawis, are the real losers in the Morocco-Israel story.
The deal is not a big deal. It’s a small deal which we should all hope doesn’t become a big one as the blind eye the US and the EU turned on Morocco and its “Midnight Express” human rights horror stories might soon erupt in the public domain in Washington, London, Paris, and Brussels. With a new appetite for Western Sahara, western media is going to start asking some awkward questions. And the spin machine in New York at the UN and in Brussels in the European Commission will be ready to hand them the copy-paste material.
And then Rabat will need a PR miracle – a real one, rather than the poisoned chalice that it has reluctantly taken by Trump.