The Spanish government has reversed its long-held position of neutrality regarding Western Sahara despite the risk of alienating the EU’s third largest provider of natural gas, Algeria.
For the first time in 42 years Spain has decided to support Moroccan claims to sovereignty over Spain’s former colony, Western Sahara. In the process it risks alienating its largest natural gas provider, Algeria, which fiercely opposes Morocco’s territorial claims.
On Friday, Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, called a proposal launched by Rabat in 2007 to grant Western Sahara limited autonomy “the most serious, realistic and credible” initiative for resolving a decades-long dispute over the vast Saharan territory. This threatens to open up a whole new geopolitical can of worms at the worst possible time for Europe’s energy-starved markets.
A Sea Change in Policy
For decades Spain, like most countries, had supported the idea of holding a referendum to resolve the territorial integrity of Western Sahara — which was agreed as part of the 1991 ceasefire and is also strongly supported by Algiers. As such, this represents a sea change in policy.
But Spain is caught between a rock and a hard place in its relations with the neighboring North African countries of Morocco and Algeria. On the one hand, it depends on Algeria for almost half of the natural gas it consumes. However, Algeria — like the United Nations — supports the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. On the other hand, Morocco, which took over the lion’s share of Western Sahara after Spain relinquished the colony in 1975, controls a key gateway for African migrants trying to reach Europe via Spain.
Like Erdogan’s Turkey, Morocco is not afraid of using that power as leverage. In May 2021, Rabat withdrew all of its border guards from a breakwater separating the Moroccan city of Fnideq with Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco, after Moroccan intelligence had discovered that Braham Gali, the secretary general of the Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Polisario Front, had been treated in a Spanish hospital after contracting COVID-19. Within just a few hours some 1,500 African migrants crossed the water into Ceuta, according to Spanish authorities. Rabat also recalled its ambassador to Spain in protest.
Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, suggested on Friday that working with Morocco to tackle migration from sub-Saharan Africa was more important that Spain’s energy dependence on Algeria. “We want to strengthen cooperation in the management of migration flows in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic,” Albares said.
Algiers responded to the announcement by recalling its ambassador from Madrid while Rabat reinstated its own. Algeria supports independence for the Sahrawi people and has long hosted the leaders of the Polisario Front on its soil. The Algerian government wants a referendum on independence to be held to determine the region’s fate. But the possibility of that happening has faded in recent years as the impasse drags on and Morocco has taken a more belligerent stance, as The Africa Report noted in an article in January:
After the 1991 ceasefire agreements were signed between Morocco and the Polisario – which provided for the organisation of a referendum on the Saharawis’ self-determination, under the auspices of the UN and establishment of the Minurso – the two parties have gradually decided to favour the status quo rather than risk making concessions. “None of the solutions proposed by this international body [have] been accompanied by a willingness to put pressure on the various actors in the Sahara conflict,” says Brahim Oumansour, a consultant in geopolitics and international relations. “The United Nations has engaged in voluntary negotiations without success, as the kingdom and Polisario’s opposing stances have hindered any progress.”
However, since its return to the AU in 2017, the kingdom has changed its diplomatic tactics and engaged in the strategy of fait accompli, stating that Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara is non-negotiable. This is evidenced by its military recapture operations in the Sahara, which have enabled it to gradually expand its security belt and push back the Polisario bases. Its policy of opening foreign consular offices in Laayoune and Dakhla, has managed to convince a little more than 10 countries – including many African states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Jordan – to do the same. The latest manifestation of this firmness was King Mohammed VI’s speech, in which the sovereign ruled out any trade agreement that did not include the Sahara, on 6 November.
Morocco’s claims were bolstered in 2020 when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara after Morocco mended ties with Israel. The Biden Administration has so far stuck to this policy.
Interestingly, Trump’s intervention came at a time that Russia, one of Algeria’s longest-standing allies, was itself showing a keen interest in forging closer ties with Morocco. Rabat was reportedly interested in buying the S400 system from Russia and there was even talk of codeveloping a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal 120 kilometers south of Casablanca to receive Russian gas. But according to Middle East Monitor, the Moroccan government baulked at the idea over fears the US would impose sanctions.
In the meantime, tensions between Algeria and Morocco over Western Sahara have intensified…
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