Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

Madrid joins Rabat's position on the future of Western Sahara

Written by Frédéric Dubessy on Tuesday, March 22nd 2022 à 15:45 | Read 214 times

Since 1991, Minurso is in charge of ensuring the right conditions for the organisation of a referendum in Western Sahara (photo: Minurso)
Since 1991, Minurso is in charge of ensuring the right conditions for the organisation of a referendum in Western Sahara (photo: Minurso)
SPAIN / MOROCCO. "Spain considers the Moroccan autonomy initiative, presented in 2007, as the most serious, realistic and credible basis for the resolution of the dispute". This message from Pedro Sanchez, president of the Spanish government, sent on Friday 18 March 2022 to the king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, shifts the cards on the future of the status of Western Sahara.

José Manuel Albares, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, is expected in Morocco on 2 April 2022 for an official visit and Pedro Sanchez is also expected to make the trip a few weeks later.

This reversal of position, with the abandonment of the neutrality that has guided Spanish policy for forty-six years, marks a real change in relations between the two kingdoms. They have been historically disrupted (see box below) by the question of the future of this territory of 266,000 km² and 654,000 inhabitants, a former Spanish colony, 80% controlled by Morocco. The remaining 20% is controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which was self-proclaimed in 1976 by the Polisario Front, its armed wing.

The issue of migration flows at the centre of the rapprochement

On this issue, Morocco repeatedly uses the massive arrival of migrants via the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta (May 2021) - after the reception of Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, who was stricken by Covid-19, by a Spanish hospital - and, again very recently, Melilla, as a means of pressure on Spain. It is clear that the fate of these two autonomous cities will be part of the future rapprochement agreement. Other stumbling blocks that could be reduced are the disagreement over the delimitation of exclusive economic zones in the Canary Islands and the suspension of regular maritime links between the two countries via the Strait of Gibraltar.

José Manuel Albares said that he was "approaching this new period with the determination to tackle common challenges together: in particular, we want to strengthen cooperation in the management of migratory flows in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, acting in a spirit of full cooperation". For Pedro Sanchez, "The two countries are inextricably linked by affections, history, geography, interests and shared friendship." His foreign minister said he was "considering a clear and ambitious roadmap to establish a lasting bilateral partnership."

Spain at odds with the UN

Madrid joins the American position of recognising Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara, adopted in December 2020, with the counterpart of re-establishing political relations between Morocco and Israel.

On the other hand, Spain has taken the wind out of the sails of the UN, which is trying to relaunch negotiations on the issue. Western Sahara is on the institution's list of non-self-governing territories. A status already defined when it was still a Spanish colony (and at the request of Rabat!). It advocates a negotiated solution between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Even if Pedro Sanchez welcomes in his message to Mohammed VI "the serious and credible efforts of Morocco in the framework of the United Nations to find an acceptable solution".

In January 2022, Guterres set the five priorities of the UN and Western Sahara was among them. For the UN Secretary General, "in a region of the world where we see extremely serious security problems, where we see terrorism increasing in the Sahel and increasingly close to the coasts, it is in the interest of all to resolve this problem of Western Sahara once and for all". He added, "I am hopeful that the political process will start again (...) It is time for the parties to understand the need for dialogue, to seek a solution and not just to maintain an endless process, without hope of resolution."

Autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty

The autonomy plan, more precisely the "Moroccan initiative for the negotiation of an autonomy statute for the Sahara region", was unveiled on 11 April 2007 in New York by El Mostapha Sahel, Morocco's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, to the then UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. It provides for the Sahara Autonomous Region (SAR) to have a government invested by the King, but previously elected by the Region's Parliament (local assembly). This executive and legislature will have exclusive competences, notably in fiscal matters to finance the development of the SAR, but will remain under Moroccan sovereignty (flag, currency...). The Western Sahara has a wealth of resources, notably fisheries, but also phosphate deposits and rare minerals that have not yet been exploited, and even oil. Not to mention the potential for wind and solar power. The draft text lists the revenues from the exploitation of natural resources which will be allocated to the SAR, those which will go to the State and the revenues from the Region's assets.

The Cherifian Kingdom will retain its competences in the regalian domains, such as defence, foreign relations (even if the State undertakes to consult the SAR on matters concerning the region) and the constitutional and religious attributions of the King.

The Polisario Front is calling for a referendum on self-determination. Since 1988, Morocco and the Polisario Front, under the aegis of the UN, have agreed to organise one. It was to take place in 1992, one year after the ceasefire. Created in 1991, the Minurso (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) is still in charge of supervising it. However, due to a lack of agreement between the two parties, notably on the composition of the electoral body, the mandate of this peacekeeping operation has been renewed every year. It currently runs until 31 October 2022.

Shifting tensions towards Algeria

If this new position of Spain closes the diplomatic crisis, at its peak for a year, between Spain and Morocco, it only shifts towards Algeria. Algiers not only historically supports the Polisario Front, the independence movement of Western Sahara, but has broken off diplomatic relations with Morocco since August 2021.
It is therefore an understatement to say that it did not appreciate at all that Madrid changed sides, describing this attitude as a "second betrayal" for the Saharawi people, after the partition agreement of Western Sahara signed in Madrid in 1975. The Algerian government reacted immediately, on Saturday 19 March 2022, by recalling its ambassador to Madrid for consultation, "with immediate effect". And this is far from being anecdotal, especially in the current period.

Algeria is indeed one of the main suppliers of gas to Spain. Its deliveries represent 45% of Spain's imports. The Algerian government has shown that it has also used this weapon in its diplomacy. At the end of October 2021, it did not renew the contract for the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline (GME), which has allowed Morocco to draw gas for domestic use since 1996 in exchange for a passage through its country. And closed its valves. Today, Spain, like Portugal, receives its gas from the Medgaz submarine pipeline, which has been operational since 2011 but is not far from saturation, and by sea for liquefied natural gas.

As for the Polisario Front, through its representative in Spain Abdulah Arabi, it speaks of a "hypocritical" turnaround and accuses the Spanish government of having "given in to pressure and blackmail". According to him, "this is a position that does not correspond to Spain's political and legal responsibility and that will condition its role in the resolution of the conflict".

The history of Western Sahara in a few key dates
1884 : Western Sahara becomes a Spanish colony
1912 : Beginning of the French Protectorate in Morocco and the Spanish sub-protectorate in Morocco in the North of the country and in the Saharan territories of Tarfaya and Rio de Oro
1956: Proclamation of Moroccan independence and end of the Spanish Protectorate in the north of the country
1958: Transfer of the territory of Tarfaya to Morocco by the Spanish, followed by the creation of the Spanish Sahara (with Rio de Oro and Saguia el-Hamra)
1963: War of the Sands between Morocco and Algeria following border incidents
1964: Cease-fire
1969: Cession by the Spaniards of the enclave of Ifni
1975: Spain ceases its protectorate in Morocco, which it exercised with France
1976: Self-proclamation of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) by the Polisario Front
March 1976: Algeria recognises the SADR
1991: Ceasefire declared under the aegis of the United Nations with a pseudo border defined.
2007: Morocco proposes a "broad autonomy" plan, refused by the Polisario Front

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