The US State Department said on Thursday it began the process to set up a US consulate in Western Sahara, after President Donald Trump's administration this month recognized Morocco's sovereignty over the region.
In a departure from longstanding US policy, Washington agreed to recognize Morocco's sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a desert region where a decades-old territorial dispute has pitted Morocco against the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state.
The recognition was part of a US-brokered deal in which Morocco became the fourth Arab country after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to normalize ties with Israel in the past four months.
"Effective immediately, we are inaugurating a virtual presence post for Western Sahara, with a focus on promoting economic and social development, to be followed soon by a fully functioning consulate," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
"This virtual presence post will be managed by the US Embassy in Rabat," Pompeo said, adding that Washington would be continuing to support political negotiations to resolve the issues between Morocco and the Polisario within the framework of Morocco's autonomy plan.
Washington's support for Moroccan sovereignty over the desert territory represents the biggest policy concession the United States has made so far in its quest to win Arab recognition of Israel.
The series of normalization deals have been driven in part by US-led efforts to present a united front against Iran and roll back Tehran's regional influence.
President-elect Joe Biden, due to succeed Trump on Jan. 20, will face a decision whether to accept the US deal on the Western Sahara, which no other Western nation has done. Western nations and the U.N. have long called for a referendum to resolve the dispute.