Morocco Wants Compromise, Not War, in Western Sahara
Pro-Sahrawi U.S. commentators ignore the territory’s history and the international community’s shifting stance toward the conflict.
Since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in December, a number of political commentators and scholars have been quick to caricature and decontextualize the decades-long dispute while omitting key historical facts.
Their black-and-white history is often driven by a false urgency to save the Sahrawis. Lost are the intricacies of the dispute, as well as its implications for the region and the world at large.
One audaciously ahistorical conclusion that stands out from Zunes’s and Bolton’s articles is the notion that the conflict’s history started in 1975 and ended in 1991. Nothing that happened before and after these dates seems to matter. Instead, they express outrage at a U.S. decision that supposedly violates international law and prevents the Sahrawis from establishing their own independent state.
One aspect that has been conspicuously absent from this debate is the change in the legal status of the territory over the past 15 years. According to the predominant narrative, a solution to the conflict should be in line with international law, which enshrines the right of the Sahrawis to self-determination. This narrative omits the fact that self-determination is a product of customary international law, which takes the force of law based on the consistency of the practice of individual states, as well as that of international organizations, regarding any given conflict.
In the case of Western Sahara, the principle of self-determination has been the basis for the solution of the conflict since December 1966. As Spain showed no willingness to negotiate the future of the territory, Morocco called on it to allow the population of the territory to decide its future through a referendum of self-determination that was scheduled for 1967. But that referendum never took place. By virtue of the principle of consistency of practice in international customary law, the referendum then became the basis for the solution.
In many ways, the past 15 years feel like an extension of this scenario. The consistency of practice of the U.N. Security Council, as well as individual member states, created legal consequences for the conflict. From the perspective of the council, peace will only come through negotiations and the achievement of a mutually acceptable political solution.
In his latest report, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres clearly indicated that Resolution 2440 and subsequent resolutions are the basis of the political solution. Former U.N. envoy Peter van Walsum argued in El País in 2008 that when the Security Council took the reality of the conflict into account, it acted within the limits of its powers, as well as international law. He added that there is nothing in international law that obliges the “Security Council to use all the powers at its disposal to implement the resolutions of the [U.N. General Assembly] or the advisory opinions of the International Court of Justice.”
Although countries such as Algeria, South Africa, and Cuba still cling to the self-determination argument, the principle of a compromise-based, mutually acceptable political solution is now the U.N. consensus on how to end the Western Sahara stalemate. This gives the compromise-driven approach force of law according to the principle of consistency of practice.
Critics of Morocco fail to explain the genesis of the Sahrawi independence group Polisario Front, how it first intended to end Spanish colonialism and sought the support of Moroccan authorities, and how Algeria took control of it after Morocco turned down its request. Zunes and Bolton don’t mention that Morocco laid its claim to the territory in 1957 and was behind the U.N. decision to include Western Sahara on its list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. Nor do they mention that Morocco proposed holding a referendum on self-determination in 1981 but Algeria and the Polisario rejected it.
So, too, with the period since 1991. Both authors still regard the Western Sahara conflict as one where the United Nations needs to allow the Sahrawis to exercise their right to self-determination. They systematically portray Morocco as the villain, an occupying country that has annexed a defenseless territory and has since stymied any U.N. efforts to hold a referendum.
Yet by the account of former U.N. officials, the hasty way in which the U.N. concluded the cease-fire agreement, as well as the disagreement between the parties over Sahrawis eligible to vote, is the fundamental reason that the referendum never took place.
In a report from February 2000, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan emphasized the lack of means to enforce the result of a referendum, saying that it was time to consider other ways. Consequently, Annan asked his U.N. envoy to Western Sahara, James Baker, “to explore ways and means to achieve an early, durable and agreed resolution.”
Between 2001 and 2003, Baker presented two proposals. Morocco accepted the first one, but Polisario and Algeria rejected it. In 2002, then-Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika proposed the partition of the territory, which Morocco rejected.
Morocco repudiated the second Baker Plan, while Algeria and Polisario embraced it. Following Baker’s resignation in 2004, the U.N. called on the parties to submit proposals to reach a mutually acceptable political solution.
In 2007, Morocco submitted its autonomy proposal. The U.N. is widely reported to have tacitly blessed Morocco’s proposal, not least because Security Council resolutions in the past decade have described the Moroccan plan as “serious and credible.”
In a much reported April 2019 interview, then-Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said that neither the United States nor Europe supported the establishment of an independent state in the fragile Sahel-Sahara region.
But mainstream reports and analyses tend to overlook all these facts. This blurs the picture for policymakers and diplomats, preventing them from basing decisions on an informed, well-documented, and comprehensive understanding of the conflict.
The Biden administration should not fall prey to this biased analysis. By supporting the Moroccan autonomy plan and building on Trump’s decision, the Biden administration would not only be respecting international law but also doing justice to a staunch ally whose territory was dismembered by colonial powers.
With its support, the United States would also be honoring the commitment it made in 1906 to preserve Morocco’s territorial integrity. When European countries convened in the Spanish city of Algeciras from January to April 1906 to deliberate on Morocco’s colonial status, Western Sahara was officially still an integral part of the North African kingdom’s territorial domain.
Only after colonial conquest was the territory divided in two: the French protectorate in mainland Morocco and the so-called Spanish Sahara in the kingdom’s southern provinces, as well parts of northern Morocco.
Since the Allied victory against the Nazis, Morocco has remained steadfast in its support for the United States. Over the past two decades, Rabat has played a pivotal role in the U.S. war on terrorism in the region—making it an indispensable security partner for Washington and its allies.
In 2004, the U.S. government designated Morocco as one of its three major non-NATO allies in Africa. Furthermore, Morocco is the only African country that has signed an free trade agreement with the United States; it is also the only African country with which the U.S. military conducts an annual military training. These facts speak volumes about the level of trust between the two countries.
Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty and overtly declare the country’s autonomy plan as the basis of a mutually acceptable solution brings into the open U.S. support over the past two decades. Indeed, successive U.S. administrations have supported Morocco’s decision to make Western Sahara a semi-autonomous region. By consistently validating Morocco’s autonomy plan, the U.S. government has created in Morocco legitimate expectations of similar U.S. conduct in the future.
It was former U.S. President Bill Clinton who convinced Morocco to submit the autonomy plan and pledged to support it. This support continued under President George W. Bush.
In April and October 2007, the Bush administration sought to make the Moroccan plan the basis of the U.N.-led political process. However, this attempt faced pushback from France, Russia, and then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who feared alienating the Non-Aligned Movement. Under President Barack Obama, the United States embraced the Moroccan proposal on numerous occasions.
Over the past 13 years, a solution resulting in a victorious party and a vanquished one has been off the table in U.N. negotiations. This is clear in the absence of the term “referendum” from all resolutions adopted since 2007. Since 2018, “compromise” has become the cornerstone of the political process. For the U.N., the only viable way to end the conflict is through negotiations that preserve the interests of all parties and preserve stability in the region.
By providing clear support to Morocco, the United States would not only do justice to a long-standing and reliable ally. It would also contribute to stability in the region. Better still, such a move would provide investment opportunities to U.S. businesses in the African market. With the world-class infrastructure projects it has launched in recent years, such as the Dakhla Atlantic Port, Morocco seeks to turn the disputed territory into a trade hub between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.
This could enable U.S. businesses to explore opportunities in the untapped African markets where many global and regional powers, such as China, Russia, India, France, Britain, and Turkey, are vying for influence and market share. With the African Continental Free Trade Area’s entry into force this month, the economic growth potential of several African countries will be unprecedented. Washington could very well use Dakhla’s location and its strong relations with Morocco as a springboard for its African policy.
Contrary to Zunes’s and Bolton’s accounts, businesses operating in the area would be by no means complicit in Morocco’s alleged “exploitation” of the territory’s natural resources. One oft-cited example of this unfounded exploitation thesis is that of phosphates.
Yet the proportion that Morocco’s state-owned phosphate company OCP extracts from the region’s deposits represents only 2 percent of its reserves and 5 percent of the company’s total revenues. The same applies to allegations pertaining to the region’s fisheries resources. Since 1995, Morocco has signed several four-year agreements, the latest of which was signed in January 2019 in exchange for 52 million euros ($63 million) a year. The agreement allows European vessels to operate in Moroccan waters off its Atlantic coast, including in the disputed Western Saharan territory.
While Morocco reaps minimal financial benefit from the fisheries agreement and phosphate deposits, it has made massive investments in the territory since 1975. It has built cities from scratch, enabling the local population to have far better living standards and higher levels of literacy. The cities of the Sahara are all run by Sahrawis, many of whom are members of the parliament or are local elected officials.
Other development indexes, which consistently show that the region now fares better than the rest of Morocco, call into question the argument that Morocco illegally exploits and benefits from Western Saharan resources.
King Mohammed VI said in a speech in 2014 that for every dirham it earns from Western Sahara, the Moroccan government invests 7 dirhams. In addition, Morocco has recently embarked on an unprecedented investment spree in infrastructure projects to turn the region into a regional trade hub.
Zunes and Bolton fail to acknowledge that the value of the territory for Morocco lies not its natural resources but in its symbolic value for the Moroccan people as part of their homeland that was snatched away by colonial powers and in its strategic importance as a link between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.
U.S. policy toward Morocco should be based on realism and reciprocity. On the Western Sahara question, this means taking into account the recent developments in the conflict, as well as Morocco’s proven desire to reach a compromise-based and sustainable political solution. Above all, U.S. policymakers should not ignore Morocco’s status as a staunch ally.
At stake is America’s prestige and its reputation as a reliable partner. If Biden is to reestablish that prestige and win the trust of U.S. allies, he should start by providing clear support for Morocco.