In February, the Moroccan government surprised the international community after withdrawing its troops from the disputed Guerguerat border area with Mauritania. The realpolitik of Mohammed VI. Possible negotiations between Rabat and el-Ayoun (the capital of Western Sahara).
Guerguerat has effectively served as a buffer zone monitored by UN military observers. The border demarcates the division between Morocco and Western Sahara, controlled by the Polisario Front. The fact that Morocco has taken this unilateral decision has helped to avoid a resumption of fighting, even if the issue of Western Sahara’s independence remains. Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975. The region holds among the world’s largest phosphate reserves.
In 1976 Morocco claimed the territorial jurisdiction over the former Spanish colony, starting an endless war against the Polisario Front independence movement, which emerged from colonization, claiming an autonomous Republic. International pressure and African Union diplomacy helped establish a ceasefire in 1991, but a highway construction project recently revived it. The road would have passed through Polisario claimed territory. But, Morocco wants the highway to ease the transportation of phosphates and minerals for export. The Polisario Front claims sovereignty over the territory and the mines, denouncing their exploitation by the Moroccan Government as illegal. Last January, the Polisario Front attacked Moroccan forces in their side of the Guerguerat border, breaching the ceasefire and risking an escalation. But Morocco reacted in a surprising way. It retreated instead of returning fire. It also resumed its membership in the African Union.
The move will not prompt any major changes internally; thus, the low-intensity conflict will continue for the time being. Yet, there’s no denying that Morocco has chosen the path of ‘realpolitik’. Having rejoined the African Union, which it left in 1984 to protest its recognition of Western Sahara, Morocco is in a better position to advance its own claims. Or at least it would like to sway many African States to its position – a difficult task, given the African Union entertains a hostile opinion over Morocco’s claims in the territory, seeing it as a new colonization in the continent. Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa have been some of the most vociferous in this regard. Not surprisingly, Morocco has followed up by launching an unprecedented diplomatic charm campaign between Rabat, Abuja and Pretoria. Meanwhile, it plans to counterbalance opposition to its Western Saharan project by courting smaller African states to its side. Ironically, South Sudan, which struggled for years for independence from Sudan, supports Morocco. Naturally, such ‘contradictory’ support comes at a price. Morocco has promised to make sizeable investments to develop infrastructure, agriculture and oil extraction in South Sudan. For its part, the Polisario wants to persuade the European Union to exclude Sahrawi fish and agricultural products from the EU-Morocco agricultural trade agreement.
Morocco has chosen a new diplomatic course, one which might even lead to better relations with its neighbor Algeria. Rabat could not hope to weaken the Polisario Front or Algerian support for it. Thus, as the country undergoes other significant political changes, King Mohammed VI has decided he can obtain more in the long term, adopting a moderate and pragmatic approach. In doing so, the Moroccan monarch has turned the tables. Morocco has entered the sphere of international legality, leaving the Polisario isolated and in a weaker position. Rather than an intensification of the conflict, the inevitable next step could involve diplomatic talks with the Sahrawis and the Algerians.
The stalemate that has lasted no fewer than 40 years has not given Morocco any regional or national advantages. Instead, it has inhibited its economic, political and regional ambitions. So long as Morocco ignored diplomatic options, it faced the prospect of a more fighting.
Under duress, the Sahrawis would not have accepted anything less than full independence. That is an independent Saharawi State following the ‘model’ set by South Sudan’s break from Sudan. Now that Morocco has left a door open for talks, it has taken the driver’s seat. Negotiations are now possible, which might include realistic prospects of granting Western Sahara independence with a Moroccan confederation or even a lone autonomy status within the current framework of Morocco. Western Sahara is rich in resources and in the hypothetical talks, now more likely, it could even demand a corridor for access to the Atlantic Ocean. The relationship between Rabat and el-Ayoun (the capital of Western Sahara) might be modeled on that between Madrid and Barcelona. The Sahrawis would still benefit from broader autonomy, even if within the framework of the Kingdom.
The risk is that the Moroccan veiled ‘opening’ toward Western Sahara could rekindle the fighting after a dormant 2016. The Polisario Front remains as determined as ever to push for a total Moroccan withdrawal and for national sovereignty. Morocco controls about 60% of Sahrawi territory, consolidating it and ending the conflict – in its favour – will be King Mohammad’s principal foreign policy goal for the next few years. Western Sahara is one of the main pillars of Moroccan unity along with the figure of the King. That’s why, the October 2016 elections that saw the emergence of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) poses fewer challenges for the country than a similar outcome elsewhere in North Africa. The King’s legitimacy is beyond dispute. In turn, when confronting difficulties – such as the election of a Muslim Brotherhood dominated parliament – the monarchy can always raise the issue of Western Sahara. Parties that oppose the monarch’s positions can always be guaranteed to toe the line when it comes to patriotism, which finds in Western Sahara its main expression.
Western Sahara encourages all parties to follow the Constitution. Thus, while the Muslim Brotherhood has challenged monarchies throughput the region – that’s why Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the UAE fears them – there is less concern that Moroccan society will drift toward greater Islamization. After all, Morocco is a key ally of the West. Its recent diplomatic foray in Africa has a nationalist purpose vis-à-vis Western Sahara. But, it has in no way interfered with Morocco’s wider foreign policy stance. Morocco has long held a privileged rapport with the West, well before the Second World War. Let us not forget that the country is one of the oldest states in the world, one of the first to recognize the independence of the United States.
This historical depth gives it a special place on the African continent and on the Arab world. On the regional scene, Morocco has managed to retain stability in a troubled region. Its biggest obstacle has been its poor relations with Algeria over Western Sahara. These have hinder inter-regional development, blocking the effectiveness of the Maghreb Union, which presented itself as the building block for a closer, European Union like, economic and political group including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.
Thus, even if the PJD should build on its momentum, there’s little chance of it questioning royal authority. The King pre-empted the outbreak of an ‘Arab Spring’ on his territory by conceding powers and allowing for a new Constitution. But he still retains key roles, including guidance in foreign policy, which allow him to continue to play an important role in the political life of his Kingdom. But, the King in Morocco can also count on religious authority. The sovereign is not ‘malik’ (king), he is the ‘Amir Al Mouminine’, the title held by the caliphs of ore, the commander of the believers, so he remains above any religious fracas. The King also has control over key aspects of the military, the police and general economic policy.