The Western Sahara remains a disputed territory and the host of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The region, known as the “Southern Provinces” in Morocco, was colonised by Spain in 1884 and became the object of dispute between Morocco and Mauritania in the 1970s. Hassan II’s heavily-marketed “Green March” in 1975 brought over 300,000 Moroccan civilians south and, following Spain’s withdrawal, the territory ended up mostly under Morocco’s assumed control without any referendum from within the decolonised territory.
Subsequent referendum efforts by the international community have been pushed back, with both Morocco and Algeria blaming one-another for delays.
The claim, from Morocco, is that the territory – and indeed much more of the Islamic Maghreb – had been part of the “Greater Morocco” (المغرب الكبير) nation. But this begs questions as to how we define statehood.
Do we go by loosely defined and heavily dynamic historical, regional boundaries or do we define our nations by the modern sovereign state system?
Both definitions have their own problems: the former could mean that much of Western Europe arguably “belongs” to the Vatican City (if one were to use changing history as a point of reference). The latter “standard” represents a sovereign state system defined by Western hegemonic powers with dated Eurocentric, colonial ambitions for the partition of our contemporary globe.
Despite this, the Algerian-backed POLISARIO Front, who have established themselves as representatives of the Sahraoui people, have resisted for decades. Of an estimated indigenous population of 570,000, a significant minority continue to live in refugee settlements just over the Algerian border.
It is clear that a history of human rights abuses has characterised Moroccan state activity in the south. As always, however, with questions of postcolonial territories, the story is a complex one and requires longer historical context in order to understand the motivations of the major neighbouring players of Morocco and Algeria.
European colonialists seeking to maximise their power were not going to decolonise the region without leaving Morocco and Algeria preoccupied with an expensive conflict.
Whilst the Sahraoui people are an identifiably distinct people with their own culture and language,[i] their culture overlaps other North African cultures. The whole situation must subsequently be viewed in a tribal context. Additionally, arguably, the true inhabitants of the area are not Arab Muslim Sahraoua (plural), but pre-Islamic, African Amazigh.
This region was historically populated by networks of nomadic tribes with varying degrees of political allegiance and notions of sovereignty.[ii] Applying contemporary logic of secular, international law and nation-states to the region is potentially neo-colonial and anachronistic.
The wider Maghreb is a patchwork of ethno-linguistic spectrums and, as with much of the postcolonial Middle-East, problems arise with the imposition of inorganic borders. The traditional Moroccan concepts of the bled el-makhzen (بلاد المخزن) and bled es-siba (بلاد السيبة) illustrate how the wider area has historically existed around a distinction between, respectively, the heartlands and the outer periphery with often vague and changeable boundaries.
Historical standards and modern standards of nationhood are, however, mutually exclusive.
This idea of the historical, tribal periphery nonetheless forms much of Morocco’s argument over its claim to Western Sahara (as argued in Morocco’s 1975 case to the International Court of Justice). Various treaties and declared allegiances to the longstanding Moroccan monarchy are at its core. Whilst nobody denies that ‘mainland Morocco’, as an identifiable and coherent polity, is in the north, it is asserted that the Sahara region to the south was a patchwork of tribal societies which, at various time,s declared allegiance with or submission to the state sovereignty back in the bled el-makhzen.[iii, iv]
Indeed, the whole Moroccan case must be understood with regard to the “Greater Morocco” vision which was a powerful political force in the country at the time of independence. King Hassan II, however, emphasised historical Moroccan nationhood whilst also championing postcolonial Moroccan sovereignty. This is a contradiction in ideology.
Sometimes harking back even to the eleventh century Almoravid Dynasty (which originated in the Sahara), Moroccan nationalists claimed an historical sphere of influence stretching across the whole of North-West Africa. The question is really to what extent such a sphere of influence translates into modern state sovereignty.
The Greater Moroccan ideology is itself discredited. The important point is that the Sahara has always been more about Morocco’s own internal issues. For nationalists, it was a rallying point of unity,[v] particularly during the colonial period. For the monarchy, it was a matter of prestige and deflection.
Despite phosphate and mineral wealth in the south, the motivation has been more about these issues than economic motivations.[vi, vii] Indeed, both Morocco and Algeria are spending a lot of money on the conflict. There is something grander in sight for both parties. Although the Sahraoua often look to Algeria perhaps in times of desperation, Algeria almost definitely has its own strategic aspirations for the region. The Algerian regime is hardly ethical in structure and character.
Therefore, liberalisation of the Western Sahara from Morocco may mean recolonisation of the Western Sahara by Algeria (in either a de facto or a de jure sense).
We must therefore separate the question of the fairness of Sahraoui self-determination from Algeria’s motives. There are no principles in much of politics. Recall: many of the Algerian officials rallying momentum against Moroccans have birth or educational ties in Morocco.
Whilst it is subsequently emphasised that the POLISARIO Front were not simply an Algerian creation,[viii] it seems clear that Algeria has ulterior motives in backing the resistance, such as access to the Atlantic which would otherwise be inaccessible, as well as general regional hegemony[ix] particularly following the fall of Gaddafi.
The strategic importance for Algeria does not exist in a solely contemporary context. The region’s Cold War context should not be forgotten. A binary between the radical leftists of Algeria versus the Western-backed conservative monarchy of Morocco has elevated the Western Sahara conflict into a regional proxy battle.[x]
The recurring theme from every angle is the Sahraoui people caught as a pawn between larger powers who manoeuvre according to their own self-interests. This is a true colonial complex. Spain’s role cannot be discarded and it was their incursion into – and irresponsible withdrawal from – a region which had for centuries existed on its own terms which has brought about decolonisation failure in North Africa.[xi, xii]
The so-called “Green March” can thus be seen as a further chapter in the story, in this case with elements of settler colonialism painted with a bright green brush of counter-colonial ethics by Morocco’s controversial Hassan II.
The Western Sahara does not lend itself to easy answers because clear dividing lines often do not exist between one group and another. It is difficult to see how full independence is now a realistic option.[xiii, xiv, xv] On the one hand, seemingly insoluble problems persist around voter eligibility for any future referendum, and the population is now irreversibly mixed. On the other, Morocco surely has legitimate security and economic concerns around any independent state becoming an Algerian puppet or even a failed state vulnerable to terrorism.[xvi, xvii]
More recent developments have been confused: whilst the EU ruled against fisheries off the Western Sahara coast, Morocco also gained re-admittance to the African Union after previously being forced to leave over the conflict, and momentum seems to be behind their autonomy proposal.[xviii, xix]
Some form of recognition for the Sahraoui people would be necessary but if their complex regional history tells us anything, it is that the motives of neighbouring powers cannot always be trusted.
[i] London Review of Books (vol. 28, no. 4), “Behind the sand wall,” February 2006, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n04/jeremy-harding/behind-the-sandwall
[ii] Al Jazeera, “Waiting for the Arab Spring in Western Sahara,” March 15, 2012, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/2012314101516261596.html
[iii] Al Jazeera, “Conflict in Moroccan Sahara: myths and realities,” July 10, 2015, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/07/conflict-moroccan-sahara-myths-realities-150710064216243.html
[iv] Ashford, Douglas E., The Western Political Quarterly (vol. 15, no. 4), “The Irredentist Appeal in Morocco and Mauritania,” December 1962
[v] Ibid. Ashford, “The Irredentist Appeal…” 1962
[vi] Al Jazeera, “Western Sahara’s struggle for freedom cut off by a wall,” June5, 2015, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/05/western-sahara-struggle-freedom-cut-wall-150528065625790.html
[vii] Zunes, Stephen and Mundy, Jacob, “Western Sahara: war, nationalism and conflict irresolution” p. 40, Syracuse University Press, 2010 (quoted in Middle East Policy Council, http://www.mepc.org/western-sahara-war-nationalism-and-conflict-irresolution)
[viii] Ibid. London Review, “Behind the sand…” 2006
[ix] Al Jazeera, ‘Moroccan pragmatism: a new chapter for Western Sahara,” February 13, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/02/moroccan-pragmatism-chapter-western-sahara-170213074116469.html
[x] Boston Globe, “Western Sahara: why Africa’s last colony can’t break free,” June 16, 2013, https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/06/15/western-sahara-why-africa-last-colony-can-break-free/87jACxXfU5bVUtqEe6uyrM/story.html
[xi] Ibid. London Review, “Behind the sand…” 2006
[xii] Ibid. Al Jazeera, “Waiting for the Arab Spring…” 2012
[xiii] Morocco World News, “Western Sahara: There is No Solution Other than Dialogue Between ‘Children of Same Country,’ Says Messahel,” February 22, 2018, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2018/02/241150/western-sahara-messahel-morocco/
[xiv] New York Times, “Desert land in limbo is torn apart,” December 9, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/09/world/africa/09morocco.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FWestern%20Sahara
[xv] Chatham House, “Western Sahara: the forgotten conflict at risk of re-escalation,” May 16, 2016, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/western-sahara-forgotten-conflict-risk-re-escalation#
[xvi] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Perilous Desert: Insecurity in the Sahara,” April 2013, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/western_sahara.pdf
[xvii] Ibid. Boston Globe, “Western Sahara…” 2013
[xviii] Ibid. London Review, “Behind the sand…” 2006
[xix] Morocco World News, “UNSC resolution on Western Sahara sets new course, positive for Morocco,” April 29, 2017, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2017/04/215219/unsc-resolution-on-western-sahara-sets-new-dynamic-in-favor-of-morocco/