Disarray in post-Gaddafi Libya and the ongoing political turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia has inadvertently overshadowed events in neighbouring North African countries. Yet a realistic prediction of what the future holds for the volatile region cannot be made without consideration of the entire region in general, and recent events between Algeria and Morocco in particular.
The ongoing feud between Algeria and Morocco has been renewed in recent weeks and casts the marginalised issue of the disputed status of the future of the Western Sahara territory back into the limelight. As Morocco temporarily withdrew their ambassador for ‘consultation,’ and frustrated Moroccan protesters tore down the Algerian flag from the Casablanca based embassy, relations between the two neighbours remain fractured. Frustration in Morocco came as a direct response to Algerian prime minister Bouteflika’s calls for a human rights agenda to be incorporated into monitoring of the aforementioned Western Sahara. However, Algeria accuses Morocco of fabricating this chaos, ahead of King Mohammed IV visit to Washington, as a shrewd diplomatic manoeuvre to present his solutions to the instability to US president Obama and consolidate and substantiate his appeal for additional financial support.
What is the Western Sahara conflict?
In the political imagination of the Middle East and North Africa, the Western Sahara conflict is widely overlooked and misunderstood. In simplistic terms, Spanish colonisation of the Western Sahara territory continued until 1975, where the Spanish reneged on their promises to grant the right to self-autonomy to the Sahrawi people, and instead divided the territory between Mauritania and Morocco. The Polisario Front, which enjoys support from Algeria, constitutes the main form of resistance by the indigenous Sahrawi people, who initially fought for independence for the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic from the Spanish colonisers and then against Moroccan and Mauritanian military forces. By 1979 Mauritanian forces withdrew from the area, leaving the conflict to be battled out between Morocco and the Polisario Front, who continue at loggerheads to this day with no practical solution in sight.
Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the Western Sahara but the Polisario Front demands the right to a referendum as stipulated in a 1991 U.N brokered cease-fire agreement that concluded a period of 15 years of bloodshed, human rights abuses and guerilla warfare. Algeria is largely supportive of the Polisario Front’s pro-independence, nationalist objectives but Morocco criticizes this position as nothing more than a cynical ploy for regional domination.
As is the case with all these difficult and complex territorial issues, it is worth asking the question, what is the Western Sahara worth to the two countries in question, Morocco and Algeria? For Morocco, why do they squander military resources on trying to secure this volatile region? Why do they risk these accusations of human rights violations which compromises their international image? Why do they offer tax exemptions to the Sahrawi people if there is nothing suspect and illegitimate about their control.
The answer is predictable: natural resources. The Western Sahara contains a vast wealth of natural resources which sustains and drives Morocco’s economic development, including 75% of the world’s phosphate reserves and a strong fishing industry. In particular the exportation of octopus to Russia and China, provides alarming revenue.
According to Morocco, Algeria advocates for the Polisario Front and their goal of independence to increase their regional domination and exploit the area for their own personal gain. However, recent Wikileaks revelations beg to differ; as they expose the consistency in the Algerian position to merely uphold the right for the people to self-determination. Algeria permits the Sahrawi people to govern their own refugee camps in North Algeria and encourage the presence of researchers and aid workers, while Morocco baulked at the mere request for human rights monitoring in the territory.
Resolving the Western Sahara issue remains a distant possibility and with a distinct lack of interest and commitment from academic and political circles, a path to a peaceful resolution is unlikely. However, it is essential this conflict finally receives the attention it deserves and concrete measures are imposed to protect the rights of the Sahrawi people. Without removing this thorn in the side of Algerian-Moroccan relations, there is no fortified united front against escalating terrorism the rise of Al-Qaeda. To build regional cooperation in North Africa to restore stability to the region as US and foreign allies insist upon, resolving the Western Sahara crisis must be top of the agenda.