The Western Sahara conflict is multifaceted. The war that followed the Moroccan occupation (1975-1991) progressed alongside a constant diplomatic tug of war that has occasionally been tougher and seen more damaging consequences than on the battlefield.
Illustration by Irene Blanco (@IreneWCKD)
This diplomatic contest, unlike the military one, has not witnessed any truces or ceasefires. In the 40 years of the conflict, the well-oiled Moroccan and Sahrawi diplomatic machines have fought tirelessly in all international forums, either directly or indirectly through their respective allies.
The European Union is a key actor in the conflict: France’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the role of Spain as the de jure administering power and the global influence held by the EU community have turned it into one of the principal diplomatic battlegrounds for both sides.
The EU: between lobbies and intergroups
Aware of the benefits of maintaining the status quo, as it has de facto control of the Sahrawi territory and its resources, Morocco bases its diplomatic strategy in torpedoing any referendum attempts and eroding the international reach of the República Árabe Saharaui Democrática (The Democratic Sahrawi Arabic Republic, RASD in Spanish). Here, the second aspect of the strategy complements the first: silencing pressure from the international community about the occupation leaves the path clear for Mohamed VI.
The Alawite Monarchy has always enjoyed unconditional French support, for whom Morocco represents its primary sphere of influence in Africa, a situation which has brought about a mutual complicity in international politics. France, with either its social-democratic, republican or liberal governments, has vetoed any and all initiatives in the UN Security Council seen as contrary to the interests of its partner. Among these, the veto in 2013 stands out, in which it prevented MINURSO from monitoring human rights violations in the territory.
The other key European actor, Spain, avoids assuming its international responsibilities regarding its former colony, dealing with the conflict in the Sahara as if it concerned a third state or a non-EU country. The difficult relations with neighbouring Morocco, which manipulates the flow of migrants and drug-trafficking to the Iberian Peninsula and the Canary Islands as a way to apply way pressure, go a long way to explaining Spain’s weak stance.
Despite this, the rest of Europe has not demonstrated any clear alignment with Rabat; in fact, for the most part, the community advocates for a “just, lasting, and mutually acceptable solution”, as goes the euphemism employed by the countries to justify their low profile in the conflict. Without a shadow of a doubt, the non-alignment with Morocco in no way benefits the RASD, which is still not recognised as a state by any member country of the EU.
The Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita shaking hands with Josep Borell, the head of European diplomacy
In the EU, Morocco has combined ordinary diplomacy with newer and more sophisticated methods of pressure and influence. Western Sahara is the “priority” of the country’s foreign policy and its diplomatic service, which applies political pressure to other administrations at the same time as it offers excellent trade deals for the exploitation of the natural resources in the occupied territory. Furthermore, the EU takes advantage of the lower cost of labour and Morocco’s low prices in the procurement of primary materials, with it being one of the leading exporters of fruit, vegetables and fish.
Morocco threatens and pressures countries within the EU in a variety of ways. In 2016, it refused IKEA permission to open a store in Casablanca, declaring a complete boycott of Swedish products after the Scandinavian parliament’s decision to recognise the RASD, something which ultimately did not happen. In 2016, the Moroccan government officially suspended all relations with the EU after the ruling from the European Court of Justice that annulled the agriculture agreement between both parties to exploit the lands of occupied Sahara. Shortly after this, relations were re-established.
Yet, without doubt, the most high-profile incident was the suspension of “all contact” with the German embassy in Rabat, a decision taken and communicated by the Moroccan foreign minister himself, Nasser Bourita, which affects “all ministries and organisms”. The despatch was leaked to the press and triggered a heated controversy in Germany, which summoned the Alawite ambassador in the country. With this diplomatic gambit, occurring in March 2021, Morocco sought to punish the “unusual German hostility to fundamental issues for the Kingdom”, as Bourita himself wrote. These disagreements were the German rejection of a proposed consulate in the occupied territory and its loyalty to a stance in favour of a “mutually acceptable solution that takes into account the right to self-determination recognised by the UN”, as described by the German press.
Another recent event, at the beginning of 2020, saw Mohamed VI present a strongly-worded diplomatic complaint after a reunion held between the RASD minister of social issues and women, Suelma Beiruk, and the Spanish secretary of state for social rights, Nacho Álvarez. This “technical” meeting, where cooperation in the policy area of disability was discussed, provoked a serious diplomatic crisis according to sources at the Spanish Foreign Ministry, which subsequently hastened to pacify Morocco.
Within this panorama, immigration and drug-trafficking must also be considered. They are two elements that Morocco tightly controls and whose flow rate oscillates in keeping with the political situation, as permitted by the geography. Thus, in any given moment, the Alawite Kingdom facilitate the trafficking as a way to put pressure on European countries. It is an extremely effective tactic that Turkey also availed itself of after the migrant crisis in 2016, when it became a buffer state with the ability to threaten the EU over the opening and closing of its overcrowded borders. Since the conflict resumed in Western Sahara, the arrival of migrants to the coastline of the Canary Islands (departing from cities in occupied Western Sahara) has increased by almost 700% compared with 2019 according to the Spanish Home Office. It had already become the deadliest route for those currently trying to enter the EU: nearly 3,000 people have died in fewer than six months.
Furthermore, Morocco is the largest producer of cannabis resin in the world, holding on to the top spot as the leading exporter of the drug to the EU. In 2017, a report by the New Frontier data foundation wrote that “Spain receives enormous quantities of cannabis resin originating in Morocco, with it representing 72% of seized goods in the EU in 2017”. This data was verified by the latest report on the illegal drugs market in the EU carried out by EUROPOL and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), which highlighted the flow coming from Morocco as the most extensive and the most important, with the substance from this country reaching right up to the furthest latitudes: Central Europe, the Baltic Republics and even Scandinavian countries.
Cannabis resin trafficking flows in Europe. Source: “EU Drug Markets Report”, EUROPOL, EMCDDA
This aspect is accompanied by a smart Moroccan political economy, which, also through its diplomatic service, offers advantageous trade deals to government, companies and European multinationals to conduct business in the occupied territories. Notable examples include Siemens Gamesa, Abengoa, Deutsche Bank, Enel Green Power and nearly 30 large corporations from the community, who benefit from the facilities handed over to them by Morocco.
The exploitation in the energy sector, with the construction of wind and solar farms; the phosphate sector with its extraction and distribution; the construction sector, due to the immense logistical needs of the territory; or the fishing sector, are tremendously profitable. Consequently, they are one of the main arguments wielded by Morocco for Europe to recognise its sovereignty over Western Sahara.
In the case of fishing, it is beyond doubt that the bountiful Sahrawi fisheries are the both the cheapest option and the closest for exporting fish to Europe. The different fishing agreements signed by the EU and Morocco have been declared illegal by the European Court of Justice on the basis that they exploit the natural resources of a territory awaiting decolonialisation; this is something that does not seem to have bothered Europe much, as together with morocco it has appealed at every instance to continue fishing in the area.
In parallel with this political and economic work carried out by the embassies and consulates, Morocco designates significant sums of money towards the creation of think tanks and lobbies, a practice that it carries out the world over. In the U.S., it is the 17th largest donor to think tanks in the country, according to a report in January 2020 called “The Foreign Funding of Think Tanks in America”, coming in ahead of France, other European countries and various multinationals. In Europe, this lobbying work has attracted greater attention since the restart of the conflict: airtime in the media, meetings with former figures of authority or varying levels of pandering to other governments.
Nevertheless, the multiple routes pursued by Moroccan pressure and work have not returned the desired results. Its foremost lobby in Europe, the EuroMedA Foundation, with whom it engaged in activity in the European Parliament, no longer features on the list of the European Commission register of interest representatives, as revealed by the French website Africa Intelligence. The organisation counted on the participation of influential European politicians and was complemented by an informal EU-Moroccan friendship group presided over by Gilles Pargneaux, who lost his seat in Europe in 2019.
This grouping sought to act as a counterbalance to the influential intergroup “Peace for Sahrawi People”, composed of more than 100 MEPs and with a newly elected president in the figure of Andreas Schieder from the Austrian SPÖ. He is an influential political figure in the European social-democrat family, as well as in his country, where he was finance secretary. In his first weeks in the new role, Schieder’s declarations added further tension to the EU-Moroccan relations, which are going through a difficult spell after the confrontation with Germany and the imminent ruling from the ECJ, which is predicted to declare once again that the fishing agreement between the two parties is illegal.
“The conflict in Western Sahara has lasted for more than 40 years, and the Sahrawi population has lived just as long under Moroccan occupation and in intolerable humanitarian conditions. The UN and the EU must no longer forget the people of Western Sahara. As president of the intergroup, I will work to ensure that the EU leads the international efforts to resolve the conflict”, stated Schieder.
Added to context is the extensive network of delegations that the Polisario Front has on the old continent and in the current EU, led by the diplomat Ubbi Bouchraya, and the incessant legal harassment that the RASD carries out against countries and companies that exploit Western Sahara’s natural resources. Their legal victories have significantly disincentivised the economic activity of multinationals in the territory.
Ubbi Bouchraya, the representative of the Polisario Front for EU
The “Moroccanness” of Western Sahara: a failed attempt
Donald Trump’s recognition of the “Moroccanness” of Western Sahara might well be the Alawite Kingdom’s greatest diplomatic success since the Madrid Accords were signed in 1991. Although the North American declaration has not brought about any change in the international status of the territory, which according to the UN, and the overwhelming majority of the international community, remains a “non-self-governing territory” awaiting decolonialisation, it is true, however, that the declaration does reinforce and reenergise Alawite ambitions. Above all, it makes it more difficult to fix the state of paralysis the conflict has been in since the year 2000, when Morocco refused any chance of carrying out a referendum. This is because the United States, by direct action or by omission, is an actor capable of slowing down or encouraging the tentative international efforts that were on the table before the recognition.
This gambit opened the door for a handful of states to follow the North American example, something that we already witnessed in the Palestine conflict with the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the relocation of embassies to the city. This time, it was a declaration of an equally unilateral character and equally foreign to international law, but it nonetheless managed to drag various countries into its sphere of influence: Honduras, Paraguay, Guatemala, Nauru and Australia, all of whom operate under the North American geopolitical umbrella and who have signed tantalising trade deals with Israel.
Now that the U.S. has opened the floodgates, Morocco and its diplomats have employed the same formula, pressuring allied states to follow in the footsteps of Trump. Yet this time, they had no such luck: no country recognised Western Sahara as Moroccan, to a large extent because the decision came during the final days of Trump’s mandate and because the legal status of Western Sahara is even more clear cut than that of Palestine.
Alawite diplomatic efforts have henceforth centred around getting Europe to follow the U.S: example and at the very least open consulates in the occupied territories, with this being an indirect recognition of sovereignty, as well as pressuring various states and offering significant economic contributions in return. Bourita has stated that Europe has to “leave its comfort zone”. The EU’s unanimous rejection is one of the reasons for the break in relations with Germany, who maintains a firmer stance amidst the tentativeness that characterises European foreign policy.
Morocco also failed to win support for the “autonomy proposal” that it offered to Western Sahara, a framework proposed by Mohamed VI as an alternative to the UN-approved referendum. In a conference convened in January 2021, taking advantage of the hangover from Trump’s actions, he only managed to get France to show up.
In light of recent developments, an emboldened Moroccan diplomacy appears to have miscalculated its strategy in Europe, which is against closer ties with Rabat and which penalises its chutzpah-driven foreign policy, although it stops of openly criticising it. This state of affairs does not benefit the Sahrawi nation either, which continues to view the EU a passive agent that refuses to assume its potential role in resolving the conflict.