On November 22 1975, Juan Carlos I was sworn in as King of Spain, swearing allegiance to the principles that structured the National Movement A week earlier, still as prince and acting head of state (given Franco's state of health), he dispatched the handover of the last Spanish colony, Western Sahara, to Morocco and Mauritania, through the Tripartite Madrid Agreements. The beginning of the second Bourbon restoration [the first one was from 1871-1934] in our country was thus linked to one of the blackest pages of Spanish foreign policy. An event about which there seems to be a kind of collective amnesia, especially about the role of the then Prince Juan Carlos in the betrayal of the Saharawi people and the subsequent relationship with the Moroccan monarchy.
The extreme care for the figure and image of the monarch that the Spanish media and political establishment has traditionally had not only focused on systematically covering up the "personal" and financial scandals of the King Emeritus, but also on avoiding analysing his role in numerous historical episodes in which he has been a co-protagonist. The recent revelations about the offshore Lucum Foundation, in which Juan Carlos I hoarded 100 million euros of alleged illegal commissions from Saudi Arabia, have been a real state scandal. One more, it had to be the Swiss court investigations related to his ex-lover Corinna Larsen and a string of articles in different international media that finally broke the usual news blackout, making it impossible to continue with the cover-up of the illegal commissions.
But how had Juan Carlos come to win the favour of the Saudi totalitarian theocracy to the point of accumulating such a large amount of money? Tugging on that thread, we can go through a long history that for decades has woven a web of friendship, exchange of favors, geopolitical balances and great business. The job of commissioner to the King Emeritus in the service of the Saudi dynasty began even before he came to the throne, when he was still a prince. The journalist Jaime Peñafiel explains how in 1973, when a great oil crisis was taking place in Spain, Franco, who already knew about Juan Carlos' closeness to the Al Saud family, allowed him to talk to the Saudi king so that he could feed us with oil at that very complicated time. He also allowed the now emeritus to charge a few cents for the thousands of barrels that came to Spain during that time. Thus, with this commission to which Adolfo Suárez also gave his approval, the king forged his fortune.
Much has been said about the supposed role of Juan Carlos I in the promotion of the Spanish economy at international level. What has not been mentioned so much and what we will hardly be able to quantify one day is what price their vaunted diplomatic efforts had. At least it seems obvious by now that they were neither free nor much less transparent. And Spanish-Saudi relations are a clear example of this. Because beyond the recently uncovered commissions or sumptuous gifts like the yacht Fortuna, Saudi Arabia has played a much more prominent role in the recent history of the Spanish monarchy.
Shortly after the parliamentary monarchy formally succeeded Franco's dictatorship, the Saudi prince Fahd bin Abdelaziz al-Saud granted a 100 million euro loan at zero interest to Juan Carlos I with the aim of helping the "consolidation of the Spanish monarchy. A credit which, to date, is not known to have been returned. Some naive mind might attribute this "Saudi generosity" to a matter of courtesy between "friendly" monarchies. However, one does not need to have studied a master's degree in international relations to know that the House of Saud has traditionally used so-called "petrodollar diplomacy" to further its geostrategic interests.
The role of international politics in consolidating the reign of Hassan II
A few years before that loan to the Bourbons, the Saudis had decisively supported the consolidation of Hassan II's reign in Morocco, becoming his main supporters and protectors in the Arab world. It should be remembered that the situation of the young Moroccan monarchy at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s was not exactly simple: it had suffered two attempted coups d'état in 1971 and 1972, it had the reticence or suspicion of part of the army and the nationalist parties with a strong presence in the cities questioned its power.. Faced with this situation of internal instability, Hassan II decided to have an aggressive foreign policy that could be a balm for his internal problems. A foreign policy based on two premises: the strengthening of relations with Arab countries (counteracting the influence of Algeria) and the annexation of the Spanish Sahara, two pillars strategically ordered in time.
First, Hassan II focused on consolidating his relations with most Arab countries. To this end, he strengthened his relationship with other Arab monarchies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), from the outset "in solidarity" in the common defence of their respective regimes, and on the other hand he sent a message to the Arab world with the participation of Morocco in the October 1973 war against Israel. A conflict which, although it ended without any major military objective, helped to improve relations with the Arab League countries and, at the same time, contented an important part of the commanders of the Royal Armed Forces (FAR) of his own country.
But Hassan II "made the annexation of the Sahara the centrepiece of his foreign policy and the basis on which to definitively establish the throne. He had a medium term plan: to entertain the people, the military and the political forces of Morocco with the claim of the Sahara, while waiting for the crisis of Spanish succession. It was a success. The defence of the Palestinian cause and above all the vindication of the Sahara brought a truce in the national political life". To carry out his plan of annexation of Spanish Western Sahara, Hassan II had two fundamental allies: the USA and Saudi Arabia.. The former provided the geopolitical support; the latter the money. But let's take it one step at a time..
With a socialist Algeria and an uncertain Mauritania, the USAmericans had no doubts: Morocco was the strongest bet in the region. But this support would have to be carried out without destabilizing neighboring Spain, which was in a very complicated situation with the imminent death of Franco and an uncertain transition led formally by a Bourbon monarchy in full resurrection. Thus, the USAmerican Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, decided to force an understanding on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, taking advantage of the fact that the two countries were allies of US in the framework of the Cold War.. Thus, when Kissinger first met with Hassan II in November 1973, "the USAmerican said he shared the king's comment that it would be a mistake to create an artificial state called Sahara. In August the following year, Kissinger conveyed the same idea to the Minister Laraki more clearly, since he was against the independence of the Sahara and inclined to believe that the dominant role in the region should be played by Morocco, and not by Algeria."
The Green March
From the combination of USAmerican advisors and the financing of Saudi petrodollars was born the operation of occupation of the Sahara, which at first was nicknamed White March and later ended up being known as the Green March. In his book The Forbidden History of the Spanish Sahara, Tomás Bárbulo tells how "a small group of Moroccans were advised by USAmerican agents for a secret project called White March. The funding of the work, carried out in a strategic studies office in London, was provided by Saudi Arabia. Hassan II had entrusted his Secretary of Defence, Colonel Acha-bar, with the supervision of the work (...) the USAmerican Secretary of State closed the delivery of the Sahara to Morocco with a telegram sent to Rabat from the embassy of USA in Beirut: Laissa will be able to walk perfectly within two months.. He will help you in everything', the text said.. Laissa was the code name for the White March, which two months later would launch Hassan II as the Green March. He was the United States of America..
On 16 October 1975, the International Tribunal at The Hague published the Report of Findings on the claims of Morocco and Mauritania to the Territory of the Sahara. The international tribunal stated that "no link of territorial sovereignty was established between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian complex. Thus, the Court has found no legal ties of such a nature (...) as to modify the decolonization of Western Sahara and in particular the principle of self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the territory". The report was a clear diplomatic defeat for Hassan II's aspirations over the Sahara, in the face of which he decided to accelerate his invasion plans. Quickly, the monarch addressed his country and the whole world, announcing the beginning of the Green March. "All that remains is for us to take back our Sahara, whose doors have been opened to us". And then he made public the historic announcement that, with Kissinger's help, he had carefully prepared: in a few days the king himself would lead a peaceful march into that territory made up of civilians and protected by the Royal Armed Forces..
But the Green March devised by the US and financed by Saudi Arabia was not only a military strategy to occupy the Spanish Sahara, thus frustrating the decolonisation process that would have been opened. But it was also a movement of patriotic exaltation fundamental to the consolidation of the monarchy of Hassan II.
As Javier Otazu points out, "the Green March, which has subsequently marked the lives of whole generations of Moroccans, took away from the nationalist parties the very essence of their patriotic discourse and forced them to bend to a necessary national union in the face of the subsequent war in the Sahara, which lasted fifteen years.". Since then, the most important dates in the official Moroccan calendar have been the Throne Festival and the anniversary of the Green March: the two fundamental events in the consolidation of the current monarchy in the Alawite country.
According to the official chronicles, on 6 November 1975, with the Spanish occupying power most concerned with a dictator at death's door, an advance party of 350,000 emboldened civilians flying Moroccan flags and carrying portraits of Hassan II crossed the border of the Spanish Sahara. Among the allegedly unarmed civilians, an estimated 25,000 Moroccan soldiers from the Royal Armed Forces (FAR) were marching. And it is right at that moment that the role of the then Prince Juan Carlos comes into play in this whole story.
The occupation of the Sahara and the role of Juan Carlos I
After the death of Admiral Carrero Blanco, the leading advocate of maintaining the Sahara, and with a dying Franco, it seemed unlikely that Prince Juan Carlos would decide to risk the future of the crown in an African adventure with a possible military confrontation with Morocco. Or at least that has always tried to be the most plausible explanation that sought to justify Prince Juan Carlos' decisions and movements in the political crisis in the Sahara: a mixture of opportunism and conservatism that would lead to the abandonment of the Sahara in exchange for securing his crown But recent declassifications of confidential CIA documents on the subject point to a much more active role of the monarch emeritus in the Moroccan occupation of Spanish Sahara. And again we have to find out from outside sources.
Wells Stabler presents his credentials to Franco in 1975. Photo EP
In January 2017, 12 million CIA pages were declassified, 12,500 of them about Spain. In many of them the name of Juan Carlos I stands out. According to the information revealed by the US intelligence service, the King Emeritus became one of the most valuable informants of the United States, providing confidential information to his contact in Madrid, the USAmerican ambassador Wells Stabler. But in addition the CIA papers detail that the role of the former monarch was not limited to mediating to resolve a conflict that ended with the withdrawal of the Spanish army from the Sahara. Moreover, "Juan Carlos secretly agreed with Hassan II that the advance party of the gigantic Green March, with which Morocco took possession of Western Sahara, could enter a few hundred metres into the Spanish colony from whose northern border the Spanish army had previously withdrawn. It also accepted that a delegation of about fifty Moroccan officials and spies should enter Laayoune, the capital of the Sahara, at this time.. This double cession, which consummated the Moroccan conquest of the last Spanish colony, is recorded in some declassified CIA documents.
What's more, days before the formal entry of the Green March into Western Sahara, with Prince Juan Carlos taking over as acting Head of State, FAR units invaded the north of the colony, occupying posts abandoned by the Spanish army. Spanish troops were ordered from Madrid to look the other way. Only the Polisario Front confronted the invaders, in the face of the bewilderment of the Spanish colonial troops observing the Moroccan occupation, impassive and impotent.
On 1 November, five days before the Green March arrived in the Spanish Sahara, Juan Carlos, as acting head of state, brought together at La Zarzuela the government and the army chiefs of staff to inform them that he would be travelling to El Ayoun. "Franco is two steps away from death and I am the heir... in office. Therefore, I am going to El Ayoun to explain to Gómez de Salazar (governor of the Spanish Sahara) and his men what we must do and how we are going to do it. We will withdraw from the Sahara, but in good order and with dignity. Not because we have been defeated, but because the army cannot shoot into a crowd of unarmed women and children. Juan Carlos' justification was totally inconsistent, as the Spanish secret services and the Spanish army itself had reported the presence of thousands of FAR soldiers in the Green March. But the argument anticipated the cynicism that marks the future monarch.
A cynicism that Juan Carlos would repeat when he arrived in El Ayoun, this time before the military commanders stationed in the Sahara.
According to the official transcript itself, the young prince stated: "Spain will fulfil its commitments and we wish to protect the legitimate rights of the Saharawi civilian population".. Only two weeks later, on 14 November 1975, the Tripartite Agreements were signed in Madrid by which Spain unilaterally handed over Western Sahara to a tripartite administration formed by Spain itself, Morocco and Mauritania. The objective of the Accords was none other than to legalize the Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation of the Sahara. An occupation that by then was almost over and that would start a bloody war that lasted more than fifteen years. The United Nations General Assembly rejected the so-called "Madrid Accords" as well as the occupation, presenting a resolution demanding respect for international law, calling on Spain to conclude the process of decolonisation and recognising the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination.
Juan Carlos in El Ayoun, 2 November 1975: "We wish to protect the Saharawi civilian population"
Some authors point out that Prince Juan Carlos gave up the Spanish Sahara for fear of embarking on a colonial war with uncertain results. And that this decision was heavily influenced by the Portuguese experience in Angola and Mozambique, the prelude to the subsequent Carnation Revolution, which was very much present in the decisions and fears of the Francoist hierarchy and especially in the future monarch. But this supposed "strategic" calculation omits that there was always an alternative on the table: that Spain would have delegated its responsibilities as a decolonising power, transferring the administration of the territory to the UN, which would organise and supervise the referendum on self-determination in the Sahara committed by the Spanish administration on an interim basis for a period of six months. This was stipulated in the Waldheim Plan, insistently offered by the UN Secretary General to ensure a solution which would preserve the rights of the Saharawi people and allow Spain to fulfil its international commitments, a proposal that Juan Carlos I, as acting head of state, directly rejected.
From the occupation of Western Sahara to the Bourbon restoration
In this way, the new Spanish monarchy was born in obedience to the interests of the USA with the demanded surrender of the Sahara to Morocco. As Bernardo Vidal, a Spanish soldier stationed in the Sahara and a member of the Democratic Military Union (UMD), describes it, "The culmination of the Franco era, or the beginning of the monarchy, whichever you want to take, has been what has come to be known as the decolonisation of the Sahara, which in pure military or political ethics could be called deception or treason (...) humiliating deception of the Spanish military, who have played the role of puppets at the service of very specific interests and of a few who, on orders from the USA, have sold the Sahara to Morocco" .
On the global chessboard of the Cold War, the US administration was prepared to do anything before allowing the establishment of a socialist regime friendly to the Algerians, who were an ally of the Soviets, in an area of such strategic importance as the Western Sahara, both because of its geographical location and its phosphate-rich resources. Moreover, with the same move, they ensured the stability of the Moroccan monarchy, Algeria's rival and located on the northwest flank of Africa, with a coastline on two seas and the ability to control the strait that links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Likewise, Saudi Arabia was assured an important ally in the Arab League, especially relevant since the fall of the monarchies of Iraq and Libya.
In another of the reports declassified by the CIA, this one made before the Moroccan occupation of the Sahara, the future monarch Juan Carlos is spoken of as a person little able to lead a democratic transition and, above all, the little popular enthusiasm for the monarchical restoration in Spain is highlighted. There is little enthusiasm for Juan Carlos and the monarchy in Spain, but a certain willingness to support him in the absence of a better alternative," the document said. "If you manage to preserve law and order while achieving political openness, you will gain support. The challenge is enormous. And it is unlikely that the new king will gather the necessary qualities to do so." However, after his role in the conflict in the Sahara, Juan Carlos' figure as an international ally for the United States gained weight in the CIA's reports, until he was named as the "engine of change" in a 1983 memo.
President Gerald R. Ford, King Juan Carlos I, Henry Kissinger, Foreign Minister José María de Areilza and Ambassador Stabler at the White House, 2 June 1976
But in addition to the start of the juicy Saudi commissions on secret accounts that we have only now come to know, Juan Carlos obtained other important rewards thanks to his "management" of the Saharan conflict. In those years, the young aspirant to the throne and the Spanish political elites leading the post-Franco transition were well aware that one of the main obstacles to Bourbon restoration was the lack of international legitimacy, especially after refusing to carry out a popular consultation to endorse the monarchy for fear of losing it, as Adolfo Suárez himself acknowledged in an oversight. And that's where the White House returned some of the favor of the Sahara to Juan Carlos, receiving him in USA on his first official trip as king, with the consequent international acclaim he needed.
We may never know if that 100 million euro zero-interest loan from Saudi Arabia to Juan Carlos I to help "consolidate the Spanish monarchy" was another "commission" for its leading role in the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara that Riyadh was so interested in.. What is beyond doubt is that the occupation of the Sahara became an indispensable historical event to understand the subsequent evolution of the consolidation of both Moroccan and Spanish monarchies, thus intimately linking these two royal houses, as we saw just over 20 years ago when Juan Carlos was moved to tears when he offered his condolences to Mohamed VI on the death of his father, Hassan II, who died in Rabat on 23 July 1999. Upon leaving the funeral, the Spanish monarch declared: "I have told King Mohammed VI that just as my older brother King Hassan II was, I am now his older brother. In the end it all comes down to family.
2/ Rodríguez Jiménez, José Luis. “Agonía, traición, huida. El final del Sáhara español. Critica 2015. pp 288
3/ Rodríguez Jiménez, José Luis. “Agonía, traición, huida. El final del Sáhara español. Critica 2015. pp 705
4/ Barbulo, Tomas: “La historia prohibida del Sáhara Español.” Península 2017. pp 269
5/ Barbulo, Tomas: “La historia prohibida del Sáhara Español.” Península 2017. pp 273-274
6/ Otazu, Javier: “Marruecos, El extraño vecino”. Catarata 2019. pp 63
8/ Barbulo, Tomas: “La historia prohibida del Sáhara Español.” Península 2017 pp 289
9/ Barbulo, Tomas: “La historia prohibida del Sáhara Español.” Península 2017. pp 347