By Dr. Ilan Fuchs
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
There has been much press coverage of the Trump administration’s recent recognition of the Kingdom of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, an area that has been contested for decades.
Writing in The Washington Post, former Secretary of State James Baker said, “This rash move [by the U.S.] disguised as diplomacy will contribute to the existing deadlock in resolving the long-standing conflict between Morocco and the people of Western Sahara over the status of that territory.”
What is this “long-standing conflict” and why did the U.S. decide to pick sides in a conflict that has been going on for the past three and a half decades?
A Short History of Western Sahara and Its Political Development
Western Sahara is a small former Spanish colony originally inhabited by the Sahrawi people, an amalgamation of tribes and clans including Berber, Black African and Arab elements. They live in Mauritania, Morocco, and southern Algeria, and they speak a dialect of Arabic called Hassaniyya. According to Ethnologue, a leading database of world languages, there are over three million Hassaniyya speakers, of whom between 200,000 and 400,000 live in the contested area of Western Sahara.
The area was one of the last European colonies in Africa. In 1975, Spain relinquished control over the territory and Morocco, Mauritania and the local Saharawi inhabitants laid claim to the area. Morocco, however, took over most of the territory and the Saharawi tribes created an armed resistance organization called the Polisario Front. This organization has been waging an on-again-off-again war against the Moroccan army ever since.
Morocco controls most of the territory, and the Polisario Front has about a quarter of it. Their 30-year cease-fire broke down in November, when, according to The New York Times: “The Polisario Front accused Morocco of having shot at peaceful protesters whom the independence group said had been demonstrating against what it called the plunder of resources from the Sahrawi, the people who live in Western Sahara — all under the watch of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory.”
The Moroccan Foreign Ministry responded promptly. “Morocco remains firmly attached to the preservation of the ceasefire, noting that the operation carried out by the Royal Armed Forces aims precisely to consolidate the ceasefire by preventing the recurrence of such serious and inadmissible acts that violate the military agreement and threaten regional security and stability.”
These statements, however, do not seem to be backed by any actual diplomatic moves. For several decades there has been a United Nations peace-keeping force on the ground dedicated to the peaceful resolution of the conflict. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established in 1991 by UN Security Council Resolution 690 with no success.
US Recognition of the Moroccan Claims
U.S. recognition of Morocco’s control over the territory was a result of discussions between the U.S. and Morocco on the latter’s joining the Abraham Accords, which established peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Morocco revived its diplomatic relations with Israel and the U.S. agreed to sell Morocco military equipment and recognize its claims over Western Sahara.
As The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor explained: “For years, Morocco’s ruling monarchy maintained friendly yet covert ties with Israel, and Israeli passport holders are already able to obtain visas on arrival in Morocco. Yet the kingdom’s leadership needed a popular national victory, such as U.S. recognition of its Western Sahara claims, to assuage public opinion, which remains opposed to full normalization with Israel.”
Baker, who also served as a United Nations special envoy to the Western Sahara region, called the U.S. move a political mistake: “Ever since 1975, when Morocco took control of Western Sahara by force following Spain’s withdrawal, the United States and most of the international community have refused to recognize this claim as legitimate. This began to change more than a year ago, when Israel and the Trump administration first approached Morocco to propose a trade-off of Moroccan resumption of formal relations with Israel in exchange for U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara. At that time, Morocco refused, wisely calculating that bilateral recognition of its sovereignty, even by the United States, would not bring it any closer to its desired goal of international legitimacy. Nothing has changed since then.”
US Recognition Will Have Little Effect
This move by the White House will have very little effect on the issue. Baker attempted to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict from 2000 to 2005. In essence, Baker’s proposal called for “a period of several years of autonomy for the Western Sahara under provisional Moroccan sovereignty, followed by a referendum in which the bulk of the Moroccan settlers introduced since 1975 would vote alongside UN-authenticated Sahrawis. The choice would be between integration with Morocco or independence, with the possibility of a third option, mostly likely continued autonomy, being added.”
Baker suggested that the entire present-day population of Western Sahara would participate in the referendum, including people who had migrated from or been settled by Morocco after 1975. Morocco rejected this proposal and Baker resigned.
Since then, nothing has changed. The U.S. may have officially recognized the Moroccan claim. But France, while officially maintaining neutrality on the issue, has been militarily aiding Morocco in its battle against the Polisario Front. Paris supports its proposal for autonomy of Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty.
Many African states also support the Moroccan autonomy plan. Several nations have established diplomatic missions in the disputed territory, including a consulate established by Bahrain on December 16.
The time and energy expending to solve the conflict in Western Sahara have brought no results in more than 35 years. The U.S. move does little to change that. Other forces, namely France, have much more actual power to navigate this situation.
It is worth remembering that global forces are using Africa as a testing ground for their interests by waging proxy wars at the expense of the indigenous peoples. Even now, Russia and France are waging a proxy war in the Central African Republic with the international community paying little or no attention.
U.S. recognition of Western Sahara as an independent state can be challenged on the basis of its morality, but politically it will have very limited results and very little in the way of actual political consequences.