Un viaggio nel deserto: il Sahara Occidentale

Sic transit gloria mundi (pt. III)

🇮🇹 Per la versione in italiano clicca qui.

After the 1991 truce between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the United Nations increased their involvement in the Sahrawi dossier. As a result of this renewed interest, that same year was established MINURSO, a peacekeeping mission responsible for the monitoring of the ceasefire achieved that same year and, more importantly, for organizing and ensuring a free and fair referendum and identifying and registering qualified voters. Along with the peacekeeping mission, the same renewed interest produced various proposals regarding the latter point. The Settlement Plan, an agreement sponsored by the Security Council, and accepted by both sides in 1988, included a roadmap for the Sahrawi Population census in preparation for the referendum planned for 1998.

However, due to Morocco’s refusal to accept the census results, and thus unlikelihood of accepting referendum based on the voters proposed, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan suspended the Settlement Plan. The definitive solution many hoped for collided with the cold, hard facts. In addition, king Hassan II, who died in 1999, was succeeded by his son, Mohammed VI, whom felt obliged to -as any regime’s new young leader- to present a strong image of himself to the technocrats and the military and so he “strongly reasserted Morocco’s claim to the region”, as reported by Carol Migdalovitz in a 2006 Report for the US Congress.

The Settlement Plan was followed by two more census proposals, the Baker I (2001) and II (2003) plans, so called because of the UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara James Baker, Secretary of State during the Bush (father) administration. While the former was rejected by the Polisario and Algeria -its ally-, the latter by Morocco. Baker resigned in protest, criticizing the irreconcilable positions of the parties and the Security Council’s refusal to enforcing a solution.

Despite the subsequent legal and diplomatic impasse, Morocco hasn’t been wasting time these las years, reinforcing its control over Western Sahara’s territory and beginning an actual arms race which lead, in 2020, to a 4.2 billion defence budget, 30% more than 2019.

All of this in order to accomplish its expansionistic ambitions, represented by the “Great Morocco” project, seen en passant in this serie’s first article and aimed to expand into the Maghreb, occupying big portions of Mali, Mauritania, Algeria and the totality of Spanish autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, and, according to some analysts, even the Canary islands.

Rabat’s strategy, which originally began with the consolidation of its Sahara’s military occupation, found fertile ground in the frictions caused by the worsening Sino-American relationship. Having the United States disengaged diplomatically, economically and militarily from many regions of the planet to deal in the Indo-Pacific -and beyond- with what is perceived by the American establishment as the primary threat to the US global position, they had to turn to a number of allies to compensate for such deficiency.

According to Dr. Josep Baqués, a University of Barcelona (UB) and Spanish Ministry of Defence analyst, sub-contracting its geopolitical position in the Maghreb to the Moroccan ally and putting this latter up as a defender of American interests in the region, the United States found themselves in an inferiority position in their relationship with Rabat, leaving Morocco to set the pace. Taking advantage from the increasing Chinese -and Russian too- involvement in the area and, especially, in the old enemy of Algeria, Morocco has recently obtained from outgoing president Trump the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Although being this declaration opposed to numerous UN Resolutions, the official US stance on self-determination (see Kosovo) and although having been badly hurt by the events of the 6th of January not only the president’s status, but also that of the United States of America in general as a global power, Trump’s support will anyway prove itself as extremely advantageous to the reinforcement of Alawite objectives in the region.

At the present day the chances to see a Western Sahara independent and free from the Moroccan military occupation are exceptionally scarce. Recent history teaches us that principles and ideals are to be pondered in accordance with economic and geopolitical interests. After several scandals and examples of inaction at the very best, and apathy at the very worst, the United Nations can’t boast anymore the reputation they once had. Any future solution relating to the Sahara won’t be certainly reached in the halls of the iconic building along the Hudson River, but in the corridors of the government buildings of the involved actors. Never before the pragmatism of realpolitik has been so relevant.

As things stand, Madrid is not in play: after having abandoned the Sahara and its population, it has become a victim of Rabat’s scheme and a loudspeaker for the latter in the European Union. The Alawite state controls the migration routes through which, only between October and November 2020, more than 13.500 people arrived on Spanish shores, as a result, according to Laura Cano, journalist for the Spanish newspaper ABC, of the friction caused by the statements made my some members of the Spanish Government in support of Western Sahara independence.

While Rabat doesn’t hesitate to use the migrants as a bargaining chip every time it needs a favour, Madrid stays reluctant t any further involvement in the Sahrawi issue, afraid of backlash from its southern neighbour. Nevertheless the clash seems inevitable: as we previously explained, Morocco has spent the last few years building up its military and purchasing state-of-the-art American armoured fighting vehicles, fighter jets and attack helicopters and just the last month Prime Minister Saadeddinen al Othmani reiterated Moroccan sovereignty claims on the Spanish autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, seeing them as part of the “Great Morocco”.

Due to a lack of political resolve, we view as improbable a change in near future in Spanish position on Morocco, and, consequently, on the Western Sahara -also considering the internal separatist struggles going on in Spain-. Despite public claims by both sides politicians, Rabat’s actions are all but friendly, and the current relationship is certainly not, from our point of view, that of two allies.

Only a bold State foreign policy, with a more interventionist spirit and aware of Morocco’s real role towards Spain will be able to face and react to the consequences of a paradigm change of such magnitude. Spain doesn’t lack neither the historical ties nor, least of all, the reasons. Spain has, in front of it, the opportunity to strengthen and broaden its place as a regional power, its influence in the strategic Maghreb and, most importantly, to correct past wrongs. Spain only lacks courage.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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