How the Western Sahara Became the Key to North Africa

LAAYOUNE, Dec 19, 2020:: Fighting erupted last month between Morocco and separatists in the disputed Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco. The sparsely populated region is bordered by Algeria to the east, Mauritania to the east and south, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and Morocco to the north. First, Morocco launched a military operation in a U.N.-controlled buffer zone in a village called Guerguerat. The soldiers removed a camp of 60 peaceful protesters who were blocking traffic between the Moroccan-controlled side of Western Sahara and Mauritania.

Then, the pro-independence, Algeria-backed Polisario Front declared an end to the 1991 cease-fire with Morocco and promised a full resumption of fighting. Although the United Nations and the international community have called for restraint on both sides and for the maintenance of the cease-fire, on Nov. 15, the Polisario Front said it was mobilizing “thousands of volunteers” to join its fighters.

Since then, there have been reports of exchanges of fire between the two sides. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement this month that the United States would officially recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalizing ties with Israel, upending decades of U.N.-led mediation and U.S. diplomatic efforts that aimed to resolve the regional dispute. This U.S. policy shift further increases the likelihood for a resumption of large-scale fighting and intensifies growing regional instability in North Africa.

Much is at stake in the Western Sahara conflict. Beyond the threat of fighting between Morocco and the pro-independence forces, there is the potential (albeit unlikely) for direct military clashes between Morocco and Algeria, two of the largest and most well-equipped militaries in Africa. Moreover, many other regional and global actors have vested economic and political interests in the outcome of the conflict, given Western Sahara’s strategic position on the Atlantic coastline and its natural resources. If the conflict heats up, in other words, the Western Sahara won’t be the only prize at stake.

The Western Sahara conflict is more than four decades old, resulting from a dispute over territory that arose after the Spanish colonizers withdrew in 1975. The Moroccan monarchy organized a mass gathering of nearly 350,000 Moroccans into the region, which became known as the Green March. The participants claimed that they were taking back sovereign Moroccan territory. In short order, a war broke out between neighboring Morocco and Mauritania, as well as the Algeria-backed Sahrawi independence movement, later called the Polisario Front.

Fighting stopped after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in 1991, and a plan was set to hold a referendum for self-determination for the Sahrawis, the Indigenous people of Western Sahara. However, no such referendum has ever come to pass, due to disagreements over the questions the referendum would cover (would full independence be an option?) and who would be allowed to vote. In the meantime, Morocco was able to assert its de facto control over around 75 percent of the disputed land and has invested heavily there in recent decades. The kingdom offers tax breaks and high salaries for civil servants there.

While Morocco may have agreed to the 1991 U.N. cease-fire stipulation to hold a referendum, the kingdom has changed its position in practice. It has rejected any referendum that would include full independence as an option. Instead, it has proposed an autonomy plan for the region. Many of the country’s Western allies welcomed the move, even though it directly undermines the U.N. promise of self-determination for the Sahrawi people. And so, the conflict remains unresolved, thousands of refugees remain stranded outside the region, and tensions flare up regularly. Political negotiations started back up last year, but they, too, have stalled.

Part of the reason for the deadlock is that the Western Sahara is strategically placed on the Atlantic coast and has vast natural resource wealth, including phosphate and shale gas. Since phosphates are a key, and finite, ingredient for synthetic fertilizer, they are a core resource in global food production. The region is also believed to have significant offshore oil and gas reserves, but due to the unresolved conflict, these waters are officially off-limits to exploration. Morocco maintains control over most of the disputed land, and is aiming to turn it into a major economic and investment hub.

Morocco maintains control over most of the disputed land, and is aiming to turn it into a major economic and investment hub. The kingdom has plans for the construction of a $1 billon port in the Western Sahara coastal city of Dakhla. In January 2020, the Moroccan parliament passed two draft laws to expand the country’s territorial waters and to establish an exclusive economic zone that includes waters along the disputed Western Sahara, a move that angered Spain, which controls the waters surrounding the neighboring Canary Islands, and the Polisario Front, which rejects all exploitation of resources by Morocco off the Western Sahara coastline.