Spain shafts Western Sahara to win Morocco’s favour

The Moroccan royal palace recently publicised a letter in which Spain said it supported Morocco’s desire to make Western Sahara its province as “the most serious, realistic and credible” path to solving the 46-year-old conflict in the region. 

Many Sahrawi consider their land an independent nation. But Rabat insists it is part of Morocco.

Spain controlled Western Sahara until 1976, after which Morocco and Mauritania claimed it as their own. Mauritania later dropped its claim.

The letter published by Rabat suggests Spain is backing away from a 1991 United Nations proposal to let the Sahrawis decide their status through a referendum. Spain had traditionally supported this proposal. For the past 30 years, international effort to resolve the conflict has revolved around getting the territory and conflicting parties ready for such a referendum.

Spain’s foreign affairs minister, José Manuel Albares, said the latest development opens a “new stage” for his country’s relations with Morocco, which have been strained for years. 

The unexpected decision has opened a crisis with Algeria, the main gas supplier to Spain. Traditionally an ally of the Sahrawi, Algeria has recalled its ambassador in Madrid after calling the Spanish move a “historic treason”. The Algerian city of Tindouf is home to nearly 175 000 Sahrawi refugees and is the base of operations of the Frente Polisario, Western Sahara’s liberation movement.

Spain needs Algerian gas more than ever, as Europe looks at alternatives to Russian gas to avoid funding the invasion of Ukraine. Spain’s about-turn on Western Sahara may reduce gas flow from Algeria, exacerbating the looming energy crisis but, at the same time, the Spanish government’s gamble appears to be that by buying more gas as promised, Algerians will look away.

In Spain everyone’s question is: “why now?” But, ultimately, Spain is only mending fences with an old friend with whom it shares the tendency to claim autonomous lands. Spain and Morocco are led by royal houses that enjoyed close ties for decades before Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez — who came into power in 2018 — soured the relations when he didn’t visit Morocco’s King Mohamed VI. 

For decades, Rabat had enjoyed the symbolic privilege that it was the destination of the first foreign official visit by every new Spanish leader. 

Morocco’s expansionist claims over waters around the Spanish Canary Islands soured the relationship further. As did the 2020 claim by the Moroccan prime minister that Ceuta and Melilla, two cities that Spain considers its autonomous regions, are “as Moroccan as Western Sahara”.

The diplomatic row took another turn in April 2021 when Spain secretly granted hospital access to Brahim Gali, the leader of the Sahrawi liberation movement that opposes Morocco’s claim to the territory. Gali had Covid-19. The Spanish foreign minister at the time, Arancha González-Laya, smuggled him into Spain under the fake name of “Mohamed Benbatouch”.

When the news broke, Morocco recalled its ambassador in Madrid. Rabat then apparently looked the other way when, a month later, an unprecedented 8 000 migrants crossed to Ceuta by swimming from the Moroccan border. The strained relations led Madrid to remove Laya as foreign minister and replace her with Albares in July 2021. His main mission has been to improve relations with Morocco, a vital ally for border control and trade.

In the meantime, relations between Morocco and Algeria were worsening. In August, Algiers severed bilateral ties with Rabat over the Western Sahara dispute and concerns that Morocco was pursuing hegemony over the region.

The agreement between Morocco and Spain has yet to be confirmed by the Spanish prime minister. It has only been publicised by Morocco. But Albares defending it suggests Spain may have received Moroccan assurance on border control and acquiescence to its claims over Ceuta, Melilla and the waters of the Canary Islands. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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David Soler
David Soler is the editor-in-chief of the Spanish media site, África Mundi

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