Dramatic shift on the Western Sahara: Losing Morocco?

Lamis El-Sharqawy, Sunday 7 Mar 2021

Any change in the US position on the Western Sahara could cause Morocco to go back on its promise to normalise relations with Israel

 Western Sahara
FILE PHOTO: A Polisario fighter sits on a rock at a forward base on the outskirts of Tifariti, Western Sahara. REUTERS

One of the most highly anticipated issues under US President Joe Biden is his revamping of former president Donald Trump’s key policies, especially those set just before he left office.

Among them were agreements made under the so-called Abraham Accords under which certain Arab countries normalised ties with Israel. Morocco received US recognition of its sovereignty over the long-disputed Western Sahara region last December in return for its normalisation with Israel.

However, some 25 US lawmakers have now called upon Biden to undo what they called a “misguided decision” by Trump with regard to the Western Sahara region. Thus far, the US State Department has said it does not have “any updates” concerning the decision.

Trump’s move on the Western Sahara was a dramatic shift in US policy, and undoing it now could damage US relations with Morocco and possibly cause Rabat to reverse its promise to normalise relations with Israel.

But its US opponents say that it has “alienated a significant number of African nations,” according to the lawmakers’ letter to Biden.

As the recognition was part of the Abraham Accords, the Biden administration will probably not want to “put the normalisation of ties between Morocco and Israel at risk, in addition to the fact that the Western Sahara conflict doesn’t rank high in terms of the administration’s priorities in the Middle East,” said Anna Jacobs, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“Biden’s team will likely support efforts to reinstitute the ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario and to re-start UN-sponsored talks,” Jacobs told Al-Ahram Weekly, referring to the Polisario Front which wants to see independence for the Western Sahara region. 

Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front, is working with high-profile lobby firms in the US to gain influence on the Western Sahara issue. The self-proclaimed Sahrawi Republic in the Western Sahara and then the Algerian government hired the US law firm Foley Hoag to promote the region’s independence of Morocco.

In 2007, Morocco presented an autonomy plan for the territory to the United Nations that would grant autonomy for the region within the framework of the kingdom’s national unity. Documents received under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) state that Algeria paid Foley Hoag $420,000 for its work between 2019 and 2020.

“The [lawmakers’] letter is a result of lobbying work undertaken by Foley Hoag. Biden will have no incentive to reverse the decision especially regarding a conflict of low intensity and between long-standing US allies that enjoy mostly bipartisan US support,” said Samir Bennis, a political analyst specialising in Morocco.

“From a legal perspective, once a sovereign state recognises the sovereignty of another state over a territory, that decision is irrevocable. The only exception to this rule is where there is a UN resolution,” Bennis added in comments to the Weekly.

“The US views Morocco as a stable partner in the region, meaning that Biden risks upsetting an important ally if he rescinds the recognition,” Kelsey Norman, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in the US, told the Weekly.

Washington will not want to “lose” Morocco as a major non-NATO ally in the region.

Israel will also not want to sacrifice the normalisation deal gained with Morocco, particularly since Moroccan King MohammedVI has promised he will facilitate direct flights for Jews of Moroccan origin and Israeli tourists to and from Morocco and re-open liaison offices that closed in 2002.

“The package of the [normalisation] deal with Trump includes recognition of sovereignty, setting up a US embassy in the Sahara, some US investments and possibly more military cooperation in the area. The US benefits from the trilateral deal in terms of arms sale to Morocco, cooperation in fighting terrorism and the potential for limiting Russia-China influence in North Africa. It would not be expected of any US administration to forsake these strategic gains,” said Abderrahim Chalfaouat, a professor at the Hassan II University in Casablanca.

“Israel is not expected to forsake the deal either, and it will put pressure on the Biden administration not to reverse it,” Chalfaouat added. “The size of the strategic loss and expected pressure from pro-Morocco and pro-Israel lobbies will oblige the administration to remain in a twilight zone that recognises the trilateral agreement indirectly.”

Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975, unleashing a 16-year war and then 30 years of stalemate between Morocco and the Polisario Front, an organisation seeking Western Sahara’s independence that is based in and backed by Algeria.

“The Saharawi people have decided to continue the armed struggle to defend their legitimate rights to be an independent state, after being failed by the international community to reach independence after 29 years of the peace process led by the UN, especially with the lack of political will from the powers of the Group of Friends of the Western Sahara – the US, Spain, France, the UK and Russia,” said Omeima Abdeslam, Polisario’s UN ambassador on human rights in Geneva.

The Western Sahara has lacked international representation since the last UN envoy for the territory, former German president Horst Köhler, stepped down. The UN has a permanent mission in Western Sahara that has been monitoring the 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario to end the war and monitor the ceasefire.

A restart of negotiations under UN auspices is becoming urgent after the ceasefire deal comes to an end this year. “The appointment of a high-profile UN envoy who could mediate between the two sides and negotiate a truce and a joint and sustained effort by the US, France, Russia and Algeria to keep up the pressure on both sides to restart talks and negotiate a mutually acceptable solution on the status of this territory” is needed, Riccardo Fabiani, director for North Africa at the International Crisis Group, an international NGO, told the Weekly.

Jacobs said it was Morocco that was in the “driver’s seat” in this conflict. “The reality is that Morocco controls the majority of the region and has the backing (to varying degrees) of powerful allies, including the US, Israel and the Gulf states, and major European states like France. Many countries are looking to benefit from the economic development and connectivity of this disputed region,” she said.

“Polisario is primarily backed by Algeria, a country overwhelmed by its own political and economic challenges, and supported diplomatically by the African Union and countries like South Africa. But none of these countries will stick their necks out for Polisario,” she added.

While Bennis believes that a comprehensive solution can be sought through the Moroccan autonomy plan, according to UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 adopted in October 1970, self-determination could be achieved through the creation of a sovereign and independent state, free association or integration within an independent state or autonomy.

 “The Moroccan autonomy plan would allow the Saharawi people to run their own affairs through their legislative, executive and judiciary bodies. The region would be headed by a head of government and have a parliament. Morocco would retain the attributes of sovereignty, namely the national flag, the national anthem and the currency, the management of foreign affairs, national security, defence, as well as the prerogatives of the king,” Bennis added.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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