Morocco’s Gamble In Western Sahara

By Rayomand Bhacka
Picture Source: Google Images


It’s been more than 40 years since the Kingdom of Morocco, led by their monarch, King Mohammed VI has claimed its sovereignty over Western Sahara, a conflict that until now seems to have no resolution.

This conflict began in 1975, when Spain, as inscribed in the Madrid Accords, abandoned all of its possessions in North Africa, except Ceuta and Melilla. Thereafter, Morocco immediately placed its sovereign claims over Western Sahara. In the process, it invoked many ancestral cultural and political ties. 

The dispute escalated after Spain’s withdrawal from Spanish Sahara in 1975, according to the Madrid Accords. Since 1975, the Polisario Front, with Algerian backing has waged a 16 year long war for independence against Mauritania and Morocco. In February, 1976, this front proclaimed the formation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (S.A.D.R), which had not been in any way been admitted into the UN, but received limited recognition from various other states. Yet, Western Sahara remained in control of Morocco, whereas 20% of the said territory was held by the Polisario Front under the banner of the newly proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (S.A.D.R), with certain pockets of territories as Sahrawi Refugee Camps on the Algerian border. 

Algeria has directly indicated official support to the Sahrawi fight for sovereignty and self determination. The military efforts and soft power invested by Algeria in this crisis is either comparable or more than the efforts of a nation central to this crisis, like Morocco. Morocco accuses Algeria of using the conflict in order to further its Geopolitical Interests in the region, accusing Algeria of labelling itself with derogatory and unrelated identities in front of the UN. These include Algeria as a ‘concerned party’, ‘an important actor’, ‘a party in the settlement of the dispute’. But Morocco believes that if Algeria abandons the conflict, the issue can be resolved.    

Years of military confrontations between Morocco and the Polisario Front have led Morocco to control 80% of Western Sahara following an intervention by the United Nations. These confrontations have forced the Sahrawi’s to take refuge in Algeria, near the town of Tindouf, in refugee camps organised by the Polisario Front and partly funded by the United Nations. These refugee camps house approximately 125,000 Sahrawi refugees. Speaking about the areas controlled by Morocco, the Sahrawis are facing constant repressions from Rabat’s security forces. Movements supporting the self-determination of Western Sahara have been banned.

In 1991, the UN set up the Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to halt the conflict with the proposition of a ceasefire. The UN also went forward to guarantee the appointment of a referendum to grant self-determination to the Sahrawis. Although the ceasefire was granted, the referendum did not materialise. 

An outwardly look expresses this conflict as a dormant one but  things are evolving under Morocco’s command. The conflict in Western Sahara, thus appears to be an evolving conflict rather than a frozen one.

Diplomacy – Morocco’s Chief Weapon

Although no one has died in violent Moroccan-Sahrawi confrontations since 1991, fighting has continued with the usage of other means such as Diplomacy and The Media. Diplomacy Scholar R. Joseph Huddlestone has rightly stated,

 “The Front lines have moved from the arid desert to the realm of Media and Diplomacy”. 

In recent years, Morocco’s strategies have been centred around diplomatic measures. In recent years, Morocco has invested a lot of hardwork in gathering international support for its Autonomy Plan, which was submitted to the UN Secretary General in 2007. This particular plan, proposed by Morocco, would prevent the possibility of an independent Western Sahara by turning into an autonomous region under the Kingdom of Morocco. In about a short bout of time, this plan received the support of the International Community as well as the United Nations Security Council.

Morocco is thereby trying to diminish support for the Polisario Front. The Sahrawis and the Polisarios enjoy the backing of many Human Rights Groups throughout the world. Morocco hopes to force Polisario’s supporters to rethink their stance with the Polisario Front, in favor of the declaration of Western Sahara as an autonomous region, thereby weakening any amendments to Morocco’s Autonomy Plan. 

International Cohesion

Morocco’s entry into the African Union in 2017 was one of its most successful diplomatic adventures. In 1984, Morocco left the erstwhile Organisation for African Unity because the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was entered as a member. Post its re-entry into the African Union, Morocco has (rather unsuccessfully) forced 28 African nations to repulse the S.A.D.R’s recognition as a nation state.

This re-entry in its provisions is contrary to the principle of Territorial Integrity enshrined in the African Union’s protocols as Morocco lays its aggressive claims over Western Sahara. The African Union continues to falter in its Directives and Morocco takes this as a huge advantage to further its claims over Western Sahara.

Morocco has recently sought to put its Economic Footprint, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa. King Mohammed VI has, ever since, visited various Sub-Saharan Nations, thereby forging Trade Deals and expanding Foreign Direct Investments. Moroccan banks, telecom companies as well as insurance companies have entrenched their investments into these states. 

By means of this move, Morocco is trying to expand relations with erstwhile French colonial states in Sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas once the Trade Deals were signed and the Investments expanded, these countries withdrew their recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. 

These strategies have caused an impact outside Africa too. Latin American countries like El Salvador and Barbados have also withdrawn their recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. 

Back in the United Nations Morocco uses its contributions to threaten the withdrawal of its peacekeeping troops deployed around the world, in order to summon and dominate the decisions directed on the question of the right to self determination for Western Sahara.

In 2016, post his visit to Sahrawi refugee camps, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon declared that Morocco is an occupant of Western Sahara. This declaration sparked off the worst resentment against a Secretary General in the history of the United Nations as he was forced to publicly apologise.

The Future

The Polisario, over time has been harvesting uncertainty. It completely relies on Algerian support although Algeria intends to continue supporting the Sahrawi cause. The real question is to what extent will the Algerians render their support as it itself is experiencing a political crisis against President Bouteflika’s regime.

Now, anxiety is growing within the Polisario Front as it is at its lowest consensus level at the United Nations. The future of their struggle is quite uncertain. The Old Guards will soon give way to the younger generation who would take up arms for the Sahrawi cause. It is very unlikely that they’ll be able to defeat a strong Moroccan Army.

In the end, Morocco’s Autonomy Plan (with some modifications) appears to be the most viable solution to this crisis. It could satisfy both concerned parties. It gives Morocco its sovereignty over Western Sahara and the Sahrawis get their right to self determination.

But it cannot be imposed presently, as it needs modifications and concessions to the Polisario Front in the form of Political Rights for it to accept the plan. On the other hand, the International Community, hoping to end this conflict, should not opt for an easy solution, whereas it should frame a complex one in order to achieve lasting peace in the region. As the conflict falls more to Morocco’s advantage, the prospects of a peaceful solution are bleak. But on the other hand, a peaceful solution is not enough to keep both sides at bay. 

Subsequent Crises

The Morocco UN Sahara Crisis is in its 6th year between the UN and Morocco. It started with UN Secretary General Envoy – Christopher Ross in 2013 and ended in 2015, with a phone call between UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and King Mohammed VI of Morocco, wherein the Secretary General expressed the UN’s neutrality in the conflict. 

Another issue took place in March, 2015  when the UN Secretary General – Ban Ki Moon visited Polisario camps in Tindouf, Algeria on 5th and 6th March, 2015, which were unacceptable and intolerable for the Kingdom of Morocco. They were a symbol of unbiased behavior at the hands of a UN Secretary General. As a result, the Moroccan Government accused the UN Secretary General of committing excessive behavior in the political conflict during his visits to Tindouf. 

A Tertiary crisis appeared in May, 2016, when Morocco condemned the leak of a correspondence letter between UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and King Mohammed VI of Morocco. The permanent representative of Morocco to the UN – Omar Hilale himself said during a press conference in New York, “Consternation and Incomprehension of Morocco against” the incident. “We received the letter the day before yesterday and twenty-four hours after it was leaked to some stakeholders, which is contrary to the UN Ethics and enrolled countdown diplomatic practice”, he regretted while saying this. 

Moroccan Public March Against The Secretary General

Around 3 Million Moroccan residents led a march in the Moroccan city of Rabat in March, 2015 to protest against the irresponsible comments made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on the issue of sovereignty in Western Sahara. Protesters, who were from all parts of Morocco condemned the biased comments of the UN Secretary General on the Western Sahara issue and chanted Patriotic Slogans. They crammed the streets of Rabat and Political Parties, Unions, and Civil Society Organisations called for a Popular Civil Unrest and a united march.

In addition to this, in the same month, around 180,000 people participated in a Popular March in the city of Laayoune in Moroccan Sahara. Their aim was to denounce the derogatory statements made by the UN Secretary General over the Moroccan-Sahara conflict. This march, organised by Sheikhs and a few selected local Sahrawi tribes, Politicians, Trade Unions and Civil Society Organisations, started from the Sheikh Mohammed Laghdef center to the Headquarters of MINURSO. 

Openings for other Moroccan Partners

One such Moroccan partner is Russia, who’s ties with Morocco have been strengthened at the latter’s initiative. King Mohammed VI’s visits to Russia were postponed twice in 2015 and were finally held on 14th March, 2016. Strong political significance had to be justified in the current scenario. Since the Moroccan visit to Moscow in 2002, a strategic partnership was inevitably signed between Morocco and Russia. Presently, this diplomatic relationship has been strengthened with the addition of a “Deep” Qualifier. Of course economy is the obvious place to develop but policies are the place of prominence. 

Morocco has already gained a form of Russian neutralisation. Now, Although China is much closer to the Moroccan point of view, King Mohammed VI seeks friendship from Beijing. Probably, if China recognises the UN point of view which stands for a political resolution to the conflict, it automatically recognises Morocco’s territorial claims. On April 29, in the Security Council, China voted for Moroccan claims during the vote for the last resolution on the situation in Western Sahara. 

King Mohammed VI also addressed Moroccan territorial integrity in Western Sahara at the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Moroccan Western Sahara continues to side with the Sherifian Sovereign – Mohammed VI who has, as a result flown allegations against the recent biased attitude of the UN Secretary General also went forward to question the neutrality of certain officials of the United Nations. He made his remarks at the first session of Morocco in the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit on April 20, 2015. 


In conclusion, I would like to say that this conflict is yet another proof of the destruction caused by the European Scramble for Africa. Spanish and French colonialism in Morocco bred separatism and invoked deep seated regional, cultural and political ties and gave birth to a decades-long conflict between Morocco and Wesern Sahara. However, speaking about the future, Diplomacy appears to be the most viable tool for both sides. This tool gave birth to the Autonomy Plan as proposed by Morocco which (with certain modifications) appears to be the most viable solution to the conflict. In addition to that, rather than favoring sides in the conflict, the United Nations should inspect the plan and its implementation and persuade Morocco to give some sense of self-determination to the Sahrawis. Another aspect is timing, this plan should be implemented in a timely manner until the Polisario Front is dominated by the young cadres who are determined to take up arms which will turn Morocco into another Libya or Syria. Thus, Polisario should wake up and gather some support through diplomacy in order to push through its demands at the UN in a manner such that both sides are placated. Lobbying for the Sahrawis is extremely important as currently all their eggs can’t be kept in the Algerian basket.

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