Global Policy Forum

Western Sahara: Geopolitical Tug-of-War


By Des Carney

September 2, 2009


Western Sahara, a coastal desert of less than 500,000 inhabitants and rich in phosphates, fisheries and potentially, oil, was annexed by Morocco and Mauritania after Spain withdrew its colonial administration in 1975. The Polisario Front, an indigenous Sahrawi force with the financial and military backing of Algeria, fought an armed resistance against the occupation, forcing Mauritanian withdrawal in 1979 and a UN-brokered ceasefire with Morocco in 1991. Since then, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has maintained an uneasy truce in the territory, but has not fulfilled its mandate to organize a referendum on self-determination.

Last month’s talks were the brainchild of the new UN special envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, and were an attempt to allow the parties to air their positions in a less public setting that would prevent the posturing and grandstanding that have marred previous negotiations.

Moroccan Communications Minister Khalid Naciri stressed Rabat’s position to broadcaster Al-Jazeera in August  as one that seeks a “political solution based on realism and accord” -  an oft-cited rhetorical link to ‘political realism.’ Morocco views the dispute as one of secession from the kingdom and presented a proposal in 2007 that would see the territory receive autonomy within its international border, but refuses to consider territorial independence. Morocco has stationed an estimated 150,000 troops in Western Sahara and controls 80 percent of the territory.

The Polisario Front views the conflict as an independence movement against colonial domination and believes Morocco’s position is motivated by a commercial interest in Sahrawi natural resources. They call for a referendum on self-determination that includes independence as an option, and cite UN Resolution 1514 (XV) on the right of self-determination of colonial peoples as the outstanding legal principle that supports their position. After the talks, the Polisario Front National Secretariat reiterated their commitment to “direct negotiations as a means to achieve the legitimate aspirations of the Sahrawi people,” but the talks remain stymied by both sides’ mutually exclusive positions.

In 2003, former UN special envoy James Baker presented a plan that called for an interim period of autonomy followed by a referendum on self-determination, but it was rejected by Morocco because it contained the option of independence. New special envoy Ross has yet to espouse a plan of action, but he has frequently used the phrase 'self-determination' and is likely to formulate a strategy based loosely around the Baker plan.

Political quagmire

Meanwhile, the negotiations provide a stern examination of the UN’s capacity to resolve low-intensity conflicts.

The UN repeatedly affirms that the conflict is a matter of decolonization, ensuring its principled responsibility to organize a referendum on self-determination, yet it lacks the political tools to put doctrine into practice. The issue is handled under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, which encourages resolution through consensus, rather than under Chapter VII, which would allow the Security Council to impose arbitration.

Part of the UN’s inertia stems from the diplomatic efforts of France that prevent any pressure on Rabat to concede negotiating grounds to the Polisario. France, a powerful political, security and trade ally of Morocco, often echoes Rabat in support of a “political settlement [...] in the spirit of realism and compromise” and consistently supports the autonomy plan at the Security Council.

The US has a potentially balancing role. US policy in the Maghreb under the Bush administration, swayed by Moroccan rhetoric linking terrorism in the Sahel with political instability in Western Sahara, took a firmly pro-Moroccan stance. Under President Barack Obama, however, the US claims a stronger commitment to multilateralism and, during the latest renewal of MINURSO’s mandate, declined to publicly endorse the autonomy plan.

Jacob Mundy of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter told ISN Security Watch that “the real test of the Obama administration will come when it is time for the Security Council to make the hard choice, which might involve the United States straining relations with France and, possibly, Russia, who plays a divide and rule role for either side.”

Given the low-intensity nature of the conflict, when push comes to shove, the US is unlikely to assume a pioneering role and upset its allies, and more likely to shelve responsibility on the UN special envoy.

Stalemate and regional geopolitics

Algeria, the counterbalance to France’s carte blanche defense of Rabat, remains a wild card. Their close support of Polisario leadership reflects longstanding support for the principle of self-determination and their competition with Rabat for influence across the Maghreb region, and the resolution of Western Sahara’s future is likely to affect an uneasy strategic balance.

The threat of terrorism in North Africa has, however, brought renewed interest in regional cooperation. The expansion of al-Qaida in the Lands of the Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist outfit born in the Algerian Civil war and increasingly active across the Sahel, have forced the military elites into cooperative initiatives, but competing pretensions to regional hegemony have thus far prevented Algeria and Morocco from working together.

Instead, Rabat is reportedly facilitating the deployment of AFRICOM, the US' military command for Africa, and in return will receive enhanced military training, access to US intelligence services and air and naval support. Moreover, a recent meeting on counterterrorism between the chiefs of staff of the armed forces of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger in Tamanrasset showed Algeria’s willingness to isolate Morocco from trans-Sahel initiatives.

Certainly, solving the Western Sahara conflict would help to unlock their frozen relations and would pave the way for regional integration. But part of the problem is that Morocco and Algeria, like the Security Council, are too comfortable to upset the apple cart.

Jacques Roussellier of the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC told ISN Security Watch that neither side “wishes a solution to the Western Sahara issue as the current status quo seems preferable than a risky solution that could usher in greater instability in the region.”

For the two rivals, stalemate has become an end in itself. Both claim strategic advantage: Morocco entrenches control of the territory and exploits its natural resources; Algeria receives recognition as the champion of colonial peoples and alienates Morocco from regional leadership. While Western Sahara remains intimately attached to geopolitical rivalry, the benefits of regional integration - trade, foreign direct investment, economic development, political clout - are likely to be trumped by strategic concerns.



FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.