On Wednesday June 8, 2022, Algeria announced that it was suspending a decades-old “treaty of friendship” with Spain. The cooling of relations between the two countries, separated by only 150 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, has major ramifications for peace and stability in the region of Western Sahara, a country contested by Morocco and an independence movement supported by the Algeria run by an organization known as the Polisario. Western Sahara came under official Spanish control after the Berlin Conference of 1884, which saw Europe’s major colonial powers embark on a “scramble for Africa” as they partitioned the continent. Despite being a minor presence in Africa compared to Britain and France, Spain has retained its grip on the region, a sparsely populated stretch of desert on the coast of South Africa. Northwest, until the death of Francisco Franco in the 1970s, when international pressure to decolonize led to a Spanish withdrawal. Since then, Spain’s position on the complex issue of Western Sahara sovereignty has been one of neutrality. However, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has recently begun to disavow neutrality, opting instead to adopt a more pro-Rabat approach.
Immediately after the Spanish withdrawal in 1975, Western Sahara was claimed by Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the south, while the Polisario disputed and waged a guerrilla-style war for self-determination. Morocco occupied most of the territory after Mauritania renounced its claims in 1979. The Polisario, representing and descending from nomadic Sahrawi-Arab tribes, has since found refuge in the most inhospitable parts of the country and in camps refugees settled in neighboring Algeria. The armed conflict between the Polisario and Morocco has subsided since the 1991 ceasefire, but recent developments and the inability to reach a viable solution for the government make this peace fragile.
According to Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University, the promise made by King Hassan II of Morocco in the 1970s, amid rising anti-monarchy sentiment in North Africa , to gloriously “recover” Western Sahara has since been engraved in the national memory. The independence of Western Sahara was deemed unacceptable. Foreign observers like the UN note Morocco’s historical ties to the region but do not consider them important enough to merit granting outright sovereignty to Rabat. Polisario claims to sovereignty over Western Sahara are more convincing if the concept of self-determination, the right of a people to freely choose their own government without outside interference, is to be verified. The conflict has seen immense human suffering on both sides, with tens of thousands of Sahrawis driven from their lands and into Algerian refugee camps, while a similar number of Moroccans have been expelled from Algeria.
Prime Minister Sánchez recently affirmed that a Moroccan-led solution was the “most serious, credible and realistic basis” for change in Western Sahara and spoke of a “new phase” in relations between the Spain and the Kingdom of Morocco. Spain’s decision to alienate Algeria, the main exporter of fossil fuels to the country (Algeria supplied 40% of Spain’s imported natural gas according to euro news) and longtime rival from neighboring Morocco, did not prove popular for Pedro Sánchez domestically. However, Rabat has displayed a willingness to use the migration flow as a political weapon in recent times, leaving thousands of migrants leaving Moroccan shores for Spain.
While the Western Sahara independence movement remains sheltered in Algeria, it remains imperative for the international community not to turn its back on ordinary people facing the consequences of an unresolved territorial dispute. In 2020 Jared Kushner, senior adviser to President Trump, traded US recognition of Moroccan claims to Western Sahara for Morocco’s recognition of the State of Israel. Moroccan domination of Western Sahara is likely to produce the most injustice, and it is unfortunate for the Sahrawi people that powerful nations like Spain and America seem to be only accelerating it.