Support for the Western Sahara as an independent state has ebbed over the years because of the growing importance of Morocco's $110 billion economy – the fifth largest in Africa. Muslim countries, except for Algeria, do not support the Polisario Front against the Kingdom of Morocco. Morocco announced on 02 May 2018 it was cutting all diplomatic ties with Iran over the latter's alleged military and financial support to the Polisario Front, a Western Sahara independence movement. The Moroccan government is closing its embassy in Tehran and will also expel the Iranian ambassador to Rabat. Foreign affairs minister of Morocco Nasser Bourita told Al Jazeera that they have proof of Iranian support to the Polisario Front via Tehran’s embassy in Algeria.
The involvement of Iran in the dispute was unheard of until May 2018, and it came as no surprise that Rabat's claims were rejected by Iran and Algeria. Morocco has maintained a historically strategic alliance with the US and the Gulf monarchies, dominantly Saudi Arabia, especially after the Arab Spring.
Morocco on 29 April 2017 voiced satisfaction at a UN Security Council resolution endorsing a new peace initiative on the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The vote 28 April 2017 came as UN military observers confirmed that Polisario Front forces, fighting for independence in Western Sahara, had withdrawn from the Guerguerat area near the Mauritanian border. “This action should improve the prospects of creating an environment… to relaunch the negotiating process with a new dynamic and a new spirit,” said UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said after the vote.
The Security Council also voted to renew the mandate of the MINURSO peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara for a year. “Morocco welcomes the resolution,” Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told reporters. Bourita also voiced satisfaction with the withdrawal of Polisario forces from the Guerguerat area, but said Rabat would continue to “monitor closely” developments.
The Sahrawi Republic is a government in exile. It wants the Western Sahara to be independent. The United States does not recognize the Sahrawi Republic. It is considered the government arm of the group known as the Polisario Front. Morocco claims the Western Sahara and considers it an important part of its territory. The dispute over the area has lasted over 30 years. It has created tense relationships, notably between Morocco and Algeria.
The United Nations has been trying to broker a Western Sahara settlement since 1991 after a ceasefire was reached to end a war that broke out when Morocco deployed its military in the territory in 1975. Local Sahrawi people are campaigning for the right to self-determination, but Morocco considers the territory as part of the kingdom and insists its sovereignty cannot be challenged. Repeated bids by United Nations mediators to hold a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawis in the vast desert but mineral-rich territory have failed. In 2007, Morocco proposed a plan for autonomy under its sovereignty, but this is rejected by the Polisario Front which demands a referendum on self-determination.
Western Sahara, a Territory on the north-west coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, was administered by Spain until 1976. Spanish Sahara was the name used for the modern territory of Western Sahara when it was ruled as a territory by Spain between 1884 and 1975. The Western Sahara dispute broke out in 1975 when Morocco annexed the territory after Spain relinquished its colonial grip on the arid, but phosphate-rich parcel of land. The next 16 years were marked by a low-intensity war. Algeria supported Polisario efforts to establish an independent state in the Spanish Sahara.
The Kingdom of Morocco claims the Western Sahara territory and administers Moroccan law through Moroccan institutions in the estimated 85 percent of the territory it controls. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization that has sought independence for the former Spanish territory since 1973, disputes Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the territory.
There has been no census since the Spanish left the territory in 1975, but the population was estimated to be more than 500,000 persons, many of whom were attributable to Moroccan immigration. The indigenous population is Sahrawi (“people of the desert” in Arabic), who also live in southern Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. In the absence of reliable data or a census, local observers estimated ethnic Sahrawi constituted no more than 25 percent of the population. Morocco administered the 85 percent of the territory it controlled.
As nomads, Saharawis were distinct from Berber Tuareg nomads to their east, as well as from black African farmers to the south, and semi-nomadic or sedentary Berbers to their immediate north. Saharawi society is highly stratified along tribal, caste and gender lines. Politically each tribe and faction regulated its affairs through djemaa of the heads of its most distinguished families, men who enjoyed the greatest respect.
Spanish Africa consisted of Adrar and Rio de Oro on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara between Capes Blanco and Juby; Cape San Juan and Rio Muni between French Congo and Kamerun; Annobon, Corisco, Elobey and Fernando Po Islands in the Gulf of Guinea; and Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, with Alhucemas, Chaferinas and Pefion de la Gomera. The area of these possessions, which are the last fragments of Spain's once world-wide colonial empire, is 80,580 square miles, though some authorities who gave an enormous extension to Spanish Sahara gave the area as 243,890 square miles; and the population is 291,946. By 1970 Spain’s holdings included Spanish Sahara and five small presidios — the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, and three small offshore islands.
The area of the Spanish Sahara defined and extended by the Franco-Spanish Conventions of 1904 and 1912 is about 110,000 sq. miles. The frontiers had not been delimited. A central volcanic tableland, the Tiris, about 1,000 ft. above sea-level, falls by terraces broken by ravines to the coastal plain and to the Segiet el Hamra on the north. To the South, the vast dunes of Azefal separate the Spanish Sahara from Mauretania.
Smara, 160 km. inland from C. Juby, was the most important settlement at the time of the Great War and was the headquarters of the notorious religious agitators Ma el 'Ainin and his son El Hiba. The desert population, roughly estimated at 80,000, is nomadic, fluctuating between French and Spanish territory, and is split up into pro-French and pro-Spanish partisans. In 1912, there was a general rising under El Hiba. In 1916, a small Spanish expedition occupied C. Juby, but the fishermen, of whom the chief were the Aulad Delim Arabs and their allies the Regeibat (Arabized Berbers), remained practically uncontrolled. Camels and ostriches were reared.
Until the late 1950s most Saharawis were still nomadic. Their lives began to change rapidly when the territory’s rich mineral resources became known to the West. The Western Sahara has rich iron ore and phosphate deposits onshore, and suspected oil reserves offshore. It is also one of the best fishing zones in the world, unexploited by the Saharawis. The economic changes of the 1960s and early 1970s brought about the rapid modernization of Saharawi society; a majority of the population became sedentary, while the urban population trebled in seven years.
There was little if any sense of national identification with the political entity known as Spanish Sahara. Indeed, for most of these illiterate nomads, the concept of loyalty does not extend beyond the tribe or clan to which they belong. More often than not, the nomad viewed the central government as a remote tax collector that had little relevance to or impact on his traditional way of life.
Spain’s contacts with the area date from 1476 when it established a fort there, but Madrid showed little interest in the territory until the mid-19th century. At the Congress of Berlin in 1885, Spain unilaterally proclaimed a protectorate over the coastal zone from Cabo Bojador to Cabo Blanco, to be administered from the Canary Islands.
Since 1956 Morocco has laid claim to a vast portion of the Algerian Sahara, the whole of the Western Sahara and Mauritania and the northwest tip of Mali. Morocco based its claim to the Spanish Sahara on pre-colonial history, when Moroccan rulers intermittently exercised varying degrees of control over much of the western Sahara. From the 10th thru the 17th centuries, Moroccans looked southward, penetrating Spanish Sahara, Mauritania, southwestern Algeria, and for a short time Mali. At one time or another the nomadic peoples in the area accepted the religious supremacy of the Sultan. The successive waves of Moroccan penetration, however, alternated with periods when Morocco’s interest turned northward to Spain. During these times politico-religious chieftains from present day Mauritania extended their control into Morocco, which had several dynasties of Mauritanian origin.
The Mauritanian government viewed any loss of Western Saharan territory as a grave security threat in view of the 1,570 kilometre border between the two countries. Almost half of this border is within 50 kilometres of the strategic iron ore railway upon which Mauritania depends for 85 per cent of its export earnings. In response to the series of UN resolutions on the holding of a referendum on the self-determination of Western Sahara, King Hassan II of Morocco was determined to thwart what was clearly a prelude to independence.
Spanish Sahara, located along the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa, was juridically a Spanish province and was also claimed by Morocco and Mauritania. Algeria had also gone on record as “an interested party” in the disposition of the area. The discovery of natural resources, primarily phosphates, made the territory even more valuable to Spain and desirable to its neighbors.
As one of the last vestiges of European colonialism in Africa, Spanish Sahara was the focus of much anti-colonial rhetoric and the UN has passed a number of resolutions calling for self-determination for the area. Portugal’s decision to grant independence to its African territories and renewed Moroccan claims increased pressure on Spain to relinquish the desert province. Madrid’s subsequent decision to hold a referendum in Spanish Sahara generated attempts by the four interested parties to influence the outcome of the vote.
Since 1973 the Algeria-backed Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO) has challenged the claims of Spain, Mauritania, and Morocco to the territory. Polisario is a Sahrawi liberation group seeking national self-determination in the Western Sahara. Polisario guerrillas constitute the military wing of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a government-in-exile for what in 1987 was known as the Western Sahara. The main base for the SADR and Polisario was Tindouf, Algeria. Unresolved, the crisis leaves approximately 90,000 Sahrawi people languishing in refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria and the territory a potentially attractive safehaven for terrorist planning or activity. Sahrawis (as the persons native to the territory are called) lived in the area controlled by Morocco, as refugees in Algeria near the border with Morocco, and to a lesser extent, in Mauritania.
After Spain withdrew from the Spanish Sahara in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania mobilized forces, with Morocco occupying two-thirds of the territory. The Moroccans staged a "Green March," in which 300,000 of its citizens and troops marched with Qurans to reclaim Moroccan territory. This issue has become the single most defining aspect in Moroccan nationalism today. Morocco annexed the entire territory and in 1985 built a 2,500-kilometer sand berm around three-quarters of it. This Moroccan-constructed berm or sand wall encloses most of the territory. Morocco currently occupies 80 percent of Western Sahara.
While the peace has held in Western Sahara for more than a decade, there has been no real rapprochement between Morocco and Polisario. Successive Moroccan governments have used maintained that Western Sahara is an integral part of Moroccan national territory. Polisario has continued to lobby for self-determination for the Saharawi people.
The decision of the International Court of Justice, issued on October 16, 1975 regarding the conflict over Western Sahara, states the following, "The Court's conclusion is that the materials and information presented to it do not establish any tie of territorial sovereignty between the territory of Western Sahara and the Kingdom of Morocco or the Mauritanian entity. Thus the Court has not found legal ties of such a nature as might affect the application of General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) in the decolonization of Western Sahara, and in particular, of the principle of the self-determination through the free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples of the territory."
The Moroccan government sent troops and settlers into the northern two provinces of the territory after Spain withdrew in 1975 and extended its administration over the third after Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979. Moroccan and Polisario forces fought intermittently from 1975 until the 1991 ceasefire and deployment to the area of a UN peacekeeping contingent, the UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Sahrawis, literally "people of the desert" in Arabic, live in the south of internationally recognized Morocco, in the area of the territory controlled by Morocco and, to a lesser extent in Mauritania. Some also live as refugees in Algeria near the border with Morocco. An approximately 2,000 kilometer stone and sand defensive wall constructed by Morocco in the late 1980s, known as the "berm," is the effective limit of Moroccan administrative control.
The United Nations has been seeking a settlement in Western Sahara since the withdrawal of Spain in 1976 and the ensuing fighting between Morocco, which had "reintegrated" the Territory, and the Frente POLISARIO, supported by Algeria. Mauritania renounced all claims to Western Sahara in 1979. In 1979, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) also became active in seeking a peaceful solution of the conflict.
In 1985, the United Nations Secretary-General, in cooperation with the OAU, initiated a mission of good offices leading to "the settlement proposals", which were accepted on 30 August 1988 by Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General was to have sole and exclusive responsibility over matters relating to the referendum and was to be assisted in his tasks by an integrated group of civilian, military and civilian police personnel, to be known as the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. Morocco and the Polisario agreed to settle the dispute by referendum. However, disagreements over voter eligibility and which options for self-determination (integration, independence or something in between) should be on the ballot were not resolved, and a referendum never took place. Over the years, there have been several attempts to broker a solution.
In 1990, the Security Council approved the Secretary-General's report S/21360 containing the full text of the settlement proposals and the outline of the Secretary-General's Plan for implementing them. On 29 April 1991, the Security Council, in its resolution 690 (1991) , decided to establish the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in accordance with the Secretary-General's report S/22464 which further detailed the implementation plan.
The Plan provided for a transitional period during which the Special Representative of the Secretary-General would have sole and exclusive responsibility over all matters relating to a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. The Special Representative would be assisted in his tasks by an integrated group of United Nations civilian, military and UN police personnel, to be known as MINURSO. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would carry out a repatriation programme for eligible Western Saharan voters living outside the Territory. The transitional period was to begin with the coming into effect of the ceasefire and end with the proclamation of the results of the referendum.
Since the deployment of MINURSO in September 1991, the ceasefire has generally held. The transitional period, however, has not begun, given the parties' divergent views on some key elements of the Plan, in particular with regard to the criteria for eligibility to vote. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the parties have repeatedly stated their commitment to implementing the Plan, and MINURSO has carried out its functions in so far as conditions have allowed. For his part, the Secretary-General and his Special Representatives have continued efforts to find compromise solutions acceptable to both parties. This process has required a number of revisions to the Plan and the timetable.
Over the years, the UN proposed several draft peace plans, trying to find an acceptable model for a referendum, which have never gained the full support of the two sides. Meanwhile, the costs of the UN-backed peace continued to pile up while resources ran thin. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) provides a basic diet for 155,000 refugees living in desert camps near Tindouf in the south-western corner of Algeria. The 66.6 metric tons supplied costs US$ 14 million per year. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has helped with the repatriation of 1249 POWs since 1984. Some 514 Moroccan prisoners were still held by Polisario. After more than 20 years in detention, they are the world's longest serving prisoners of war.
On 29 July 2002 the Polisario Front rejected the draft Framework Agreement as the solution to the conflict in Western Sahara that since 1975 has opposed the Saharawi independentistas to Morocco. In a letter to the President of the United Nations Security Council, Jeremy Greenstock, Frante Polisório's representative to the UN, Ahmed Boukhari admitted as a way out of the current impasse in the Western Sahara conflict "a period of negotiations between the parties aiming at a Mutually acceptable solution ". For Ahmed Boukhari, the draft Framework Agreement, one of the four alternatives proposed in the UN Secretary-General's report, Kofi Annan, which provides for extended autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan administration is a covert way of turning the territory over to Morocco.
"The Framework Agreement, whether revised or not, is designed solely to deliver the people and territory of Western Sahara to the colonial power. Therefore, it can not constitute a credible, legal and viable way to solve the problem of the decolonization of Western Sahara, "reads Jeremy Greenstock's letter. The Polisario Front's refusal is based on the fact that the draft Framework Agreement "ignores the point of view" of the independentistas, making a "taboo" of the UN peace plan that provides for a referendum on self-determination in the Sahara West. The Polisario Front's position is supported by the African Union (AU) and several European countries including Spain's former colonial power. Morocco, in support of the draft Framework Agreement in the Security Council, is supported by France and the United States of America. However, The Polisario Front considered that the support of France and the United States of America to Morocco is related to the riches of the Western Sahara: Phosphates and Petroleum. In his letter to the President of the UN Security Council, Ahmed Boukhari also considered that "Framework Agreement is a blatant violation of the spirit and letter of the peace plan and constitutes a unilateral approach that only takes into account the aspirations and interests of Morocco Which are contrary to international legality ".
Also the President of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Mohamed Abdelaziz called on the UN Security Council to "not turn away from the Saharawi people, preventing their right to self-determination." The President of SADR also rejected the draft Framework Agreement as one of the solutions to the Western Sahara conflict. According to him, the Framework Agreement (by the special representative of Kofi Annan for Western Sahara, James Baker former US Secretary of State), "is no more than a planned integration of the Western Sahara into Moroccan territory." Mohamed Abdelaziz also called on the Security Council not to lean on the draft Framework Agreement because it would mean a "total turning away from international law and the rights of the Saharawi people." "Our preference goes to the implementation of the UN settlement plan for Western Sahara which stipulates the organization of a referendum," said the President of SADR. Mohamed Abdelaziz also stated that "the Security Council has always clearly argued that any alternative to the peace plan would be conditioned by prior acceptance by both parties."
Pressure was on for the two sides to accept a peace plan put forward by the UN special envoy to the Western Sahara, former US Secretary of State James Baker in 2003. That plan provided for a referendum to take place in four to five years time. The final vote would offer the inhabitants of the territory a choice between independence, autonomy within Morocco or complete integration with Morocco. The plan also proposed that, in the run-up to the referendum, an autonomous Western Sahara Authority be made responsible for running key parts of the administration, taking control of local government, taxation, economic development, internal security and other dossiers. But Morocco would retain control over foreign relations, national security, external defence and all matters relating to the production, sale, ownership and use of weapons during the interim period.
Since 1977 the inhabitants of the Western Saharan provinces of Laayoune, Smara, Awsard, and Boujdour (and Oued Ed-Dahab since 1983) have participated in Moroccan national and regional elections. In 2007 parliamentary elections, Sahrawis with pro-Morocco political views filled all the parliamentary seats allotted to the territory. No Sahrawis opposed to Moroccan sovereignty were candidates in the elections. According to government statistics, 37 percent of registered voters turned out for the election nationally, but 62 percent of registered voters in the territory voted. While the international mission that observed the September elections did not monitor voting in Western Sahara, domestic observers leveled accusations of corruption, principally vote buying, in some races.
The world had seen some of the most dedicated negotiators abandon their efforts to find a solutionin frustration over lack of progress. Six hundred million dollars has been spent bythe UN Peacekeeping Mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO, in an attempt to hold the long promised referendum. Thousands of Saharawis had raised their children in desert camps outside of Tindouf in the western region of Algeria, far from their homes in Western Sahara. Thousands of Saharawis still have no information about their fathers, brothers, and spouses who fought in the liberation war against Morocco, and soldiers on both sides have terrible stories of the tragedy of war and its bitter aftermath.
The political situation in Western Sahara saw some positive developments in recent years. Under the auspices of the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara, representatives of the two parties together with representatives of the neighbouring countries, Mauretania and Algeria, convened for two rounds of UN-sponsored talks in suburban New York in June and August 2007.
Despite the continued divergence in positions, the renewed dialogue marked the first direct negotiations between the parties to the conflict in more than seven years. A third round was held in January 2008, and the parties came together for further informal meetings in August 2009 and February 2010. However, none of the meetings produced any movement on the core substantive issues.
Throughout this period, MINURSO continued to fulfil its mandate by monitoring the ceasefire as well as supporting a range of assistance programmes to address the plight of displaced and separated Sahrawi families. While talks resume on a mutually acceptable political settlement to the 32-year conflict, MINURSO continued to assist both parties in maintaining the ceasefire across the buffer strip (aka the ‘berm’), which stretches along the entire length of the disputed territory and separates the Moroccan-administered portion (west) from the area that is controlled by the Frente Polisario (east).
The United States believes that the United Nations holds the legitimacy and the impartiality necessary to facilitate a lasting political solution to this conflict. The United States is hopeful that the adoption of the resolution April 28, 2015 on April 28, 2015 will encourage the parties to demonstrate their serious and genuine commitment to the UN-led political process to “achieve a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara,” and to engage in negotiations as soon as possible.
The United States was determined to see the parties make significant progress toward a mutual political solution and to improve the human rights situation throughout the next year. The United States remained committed to the UN’s efforts for Western Sahara, including those led by Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General Christopher Ross, Special Representative of the Secretary-General Kim Bolduc, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Several developments of concern in 2014-2015 included stalled family visits, dwindling humanitarian assistance, and rising tensions inside Sahrawi refugee camps, as well as greater security concerns in the region – illustrate that the status quo is clearly untenable. Over the past year, the United Nations also suffered a significant and regrettable loss of diplomatic engagement.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|