In his first official trip to Morocco as Secretary of State, on March 29, 2022, Antony Blinken met in Rabat with the country’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, only days after the two men joined a group of six nations for a high-level summit in Israel’s Negev Desert.
The so-called “Negev Summit” over the last week of March brought together Israel, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, and the US to discuss the problem of Iran’s nuclear program and other common concerns. The Arab-majority nations participating have either long-standing (in the case of Egypt) or recent (in the case of Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain) peace and normalization agreements with Israel.
When Blinken met separately with Bourita and other top Moroccan officials in Rabat, he called for an expansion of the positive diplomatic trends shaping up across the Mideast, forming new economic and political alliances among Israel and some of its former enemies, and turning generations-old notions of realpolitik on their heads.
A controversial plan for Western Sahara
Blinken and Bourita also discussed terrorism and regional security issues specific to Morocco, particularly those surrounding its contested control of neighboring Western Sahara. The US, according to Blinken’s remarks published on the State Department’s website, continues to regard Morocco’s projected autonomy plan for Western Sahara as a “credible” alternative, although the Biden administration has stopped short of full endorsement.
Morocco’s plan would grant semi-autonomy to Western Sahara, providing it accedes to ongoing Moroccan control. Spain has also expressed confidence in this plan, likely as a bid toward securing greater Moroccan control of immigration from Africa across Spain’s borders.
Western Sahara has been on the United Nations’ list of Non-Self-Governing Territories since 1963, and the UN does not recognize Morocco’s control. Other countries with a stake in the discussion have also expressed opposition to Morocco’s designs on the territory. In particular, Morocco’s continuing rule there is deepening a rift with Algeria.
A desert land in contention
Since achieving independence from Spain and then immediately being annexed by Morocco five decades ago, Western Sahara has experienced the devastation of militant conflict and terrorism. It has also been the prize fought over in a fierce game of one-upmanship between Morocco and Algeria as those two nations vie for control of their weaker, smaller neighbor.
With a population of only a little more than half a million, Western Sahara sits toward the far western edge of the African continent, hemmed in by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Morocco on the north, Mauritania to the south and east, and a very tiny eastern border that connects it to Algeria.
Much of Western Sahara is uninhabited desert, but in addition to the plentiful fishing grounds off its coast and its large deposits of phosphate, many experts believe it has previously untapped offshore oil deposits.
In diplomatic limbo
In 1991 the UN facilitated a truce between warring factions in Western Sahara, but a guaranteed referendum on independence has still not been held. Today, a Moroccan-created buffer zone fortified with landmines runs along the border of territory disputed between Morocco and the separatist, ethnic Sahrawi rebels known as the Polisario Front.
The western part of Western Sahara, which includes the Atlantic coastline, is still under the administrative control of Morocco. The Algeria-supported Polisario Front controls a smaller and less-populous portion of land to the east.
In 1976 the Polisario Front declared the existence of a new state, which its leaders named the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR. A number of countries, most of them in the developing world, have officially recognized the SADR, although some have revoked that recognition.
Whither US policy?
Late in 2020, under the former Trump administration, the US recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. That decision was linked to Morocco’s support for the Abraham Accords that cemented the North African country’s ties to Israel.
In a rare move, the Biden administration has elected to continue this Trump-era policy. But the US remains the only country to accord Morocco this recognition, a step that has drawn sharp criticism from the diplomatic community.
No angels in this desert
Critics point to Morocco’s harsh military rule over the Sahrawi people. According to the nonprofit democracy advocacy group Freedom House, Morocco severely limits civil liberties and expressions of independence in Western Sahara, although the territory it controls maintains representation in Morocco’s legislature.
The Polisario Front, whose leadership remains in exile in refugee camps and military bases across the border in Algeria, is, of course, not on board with this direction. Algeria continues to provide extensive practical support for the rebels.
In 2020 the Polisario Front obstructed an essential trade route between Morocco and nearby Mauritania, heightening tensions further. The Polisario Front has also been accused of acts of terrorism and human rights violations, particularly against women, in its camps in Algeria. And the group’s leaders have been accused of war crimes—including torture and murder—by human rights organizations.
Morocco-Algeria friction likely to continue
Algeria and Morocco have had a fraught relationship since the days when France maintained colonial governments in both countries. The French protectorate in Morocco ended in 1956. After a bloody conflict, Algeria won independence from France in 1962.
The two nations have long jockeyed for power and influence in their region, and early in 2021, Algeria announced the severing of their diplomatic relationship. The ostensible reason was Morocco’s alleged “spying” in Algeria and the lack of progress in the fate of Western Sahara. Subsequent border disputes and a deadly drone attack on Algeria attributed to Morocco haven’t helped.
Whether Biden ultimately rescinds his predecessor’s endorsement of Morocco’s claims on Western Sahara remains to be seen. As he concluded his North Africa trip, Blinken called on Algeria to curtail its alliances with Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s continuing presence in Syria. He also called for reconciliation between Algeria and Morocco. Given the situation on the ground in Western Sahara, none of these pleas seem likely to be answered any time soon.