Why the Western Sahara dispute could escalate conflicts across North Africa and the Sahel

Fighters across the region may be drawn in if the violence continues, as has happened for years in Libya’s cascading internal and proxy wars

Policy Fellow
The Berm, Western Sahara
The Berm, Western SaharaMichele Benericetti CC BY

Last week, the Trump administration decided to kick open one of the world’s longest-running conflicts on its way out the door, with potentially far-reaching consequences for North Africa and the Sahel. In a series of tweets on Thursday, President Donald Trump announced that he had signed a proclamation recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a largely desert territory contested by Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front since 1975.

Trump’s decision followed the breakdown last month of a UN-brokered ceasefire signed in 1991. The United States’ recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory – one of Morocco’s highest foreign policy priorities – came in return for what the White House hailed as the normalisation of ties between Israel and Morocco. The move was part of Trump’s sponsorship of the Abraham Accords, under which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have also recognised Israel (and Sudan agreed to take steps towards this in autumn). The United Nations, the European Union, and AU have all reiterated their support for the UN process on Western Sahara, albeit in muted tones.

Although much of the initial media commentary on Trump’s announcement has focused on Moroccan-Israeli relations or US-Moroccan relations, the move poses problems for Morocco at home. The announcement also threatens to create greater unrest in an already-unstable Sahara. And, by disrupting decades of established international agreements, the announcement snubs international law and presents Europe and the incoming Biden administration with another uncomfortable and potentially dangerous international situation to sort out.

A deal, but on whose terms?

The agreement between Israel and Morocco was at least two years in the making. Its pledges of economic investment and military assistance and sales helped overcome Moroccan hesitation about public reconciliation with Israel. For decades, Morocco has cultivated quietly friendly relations with Israel. And the ongoing talks and Israeli advocacy led some analysts to predict months ago that a deal could be forthcoming.

But, on closer inspection, the agreement may not be all that was advertised. Although Jared Kushner – Trump’s son-in-law, consigliere, and lead Abraham Accords architect – referred to the full normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco, Moroccan leaders have been more circumspect. Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, for instance, denied that recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara came in exchange for recognition of Israel. He only announced the reopening of Morocco’s “liaison offices” in Israel and vice-versa, and added in a separate interview that Morocco’s ties to Israel were already “normal”, necessitating no further normalisation.

Similarly, Moroccan Prime Minister Saad-Eddine el-Othmani celebrated the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara without mentioning the agreement with Israel, a position echoed by his Islamist Justice and Development Party. So far, the only official statement King Mohamed VI’s office on the issue has been to say that he telephoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to assure him that Morocco’s support for the Palestinian cause remained unchanged.

Morocco’s public reticence stems in part from its international and domestic position. Despite the fact that the ties between Morocco and Israel were an open secret before the deal, there remains a great deal of public opposition in Morocco to normalisation. In August, Othmani publicly rejected “any normalisation with the Zionist entity”. And support for Palestine and protecting Muslim access to Jerusalem is part of the king’s legitimacy at home and abroad. This makes full normalisation politically problematic, particularly at a time when Israel is entrenching its occupation of the West Bank. In an Arab Barometer poll taken last month, only nine per cent of Moroccans expressed support for normalising their country’s relationship with Israel. And protests against normalisation such as those that took place in September could create further headaches for the Moroccan authorities, which already face sustained political discontent and opposition.

Regional risks

A more serious threat is that the Western Sahara dispute will create further unrest in an already-tumultuous region. The collapse last month of the 1991 ceasefire agreement – which promised a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara – had both proximate and longer-term causes. The initial spark was an aggressive Moroccan response to a sit-in in the border town of Guerguerate that began on 21 October. After Moroccan forces dislodged the protesters and burned their tents and other equipment last month, the Polisario leadership declared that it would return to war.

Guerguerate lies in a buffer area between Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara and a “free zone” made up of land controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). In 2016 Morocco deployed armed security forces in violation of the ceasefire agreement to protect construction workers completing a road that runs through the town to Mauritania (providing a link to West Africa). There were clashes over the construction of the road in 2016, but the ceasefire held – partly due Algeria’s desire to avoid open conflict. Algeria has supported the Polisario Front financially, politically, and militarily for almost all of the group’s history, and Algeria is home to more than 170,000 Sahrawi refugees.

However, the UN has been without a special representative to Western Sahara since last year. And Algeria has endured political upheaval since April 2019, when then-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned following peaceful mass protests. Algeria’s current president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, was absent for much of the current crisis, having been treated for covid-19 in a hospital in Germany since late October.

Nonetheless, the Algerian commitment to Western Sahara’s self-determination at a governmental level and among many Algerians is genuine and unlikely to change. Amid reports of attacks by Polisario forces on Moroccan positions, Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad urged a return to the political process in Western Sahara and the nomination of a new UN special representative. Algeria’s powerful military, meanwhile, warned darkly of gathering foreign threats to the country – a line that it often takes, but that gained significance following the outbreak of violence so close to Algeria’s border. Following Trump’s announcement, Djerad adopted a tone much closer to the army’s, in an indication of the Algerian leadership’s unhappiness with the decision.

While Algeria and Morocco are not on the verge of war, the Algerian government has shown little inclination to halt the Polisario Front’s attacks.

While Algeria and Morocco are not on the verge of war, the Algerian government has shown little inclination to halt the Polisario Front’s attacks. The collapse of the ceasefire followed decades of disappointment and frustration for Sahrawis over the failure to secure the referendum on terms they could accept. This political inaction has increased pressure for a return to war among some Sahrawi young people, who saw it as their only path to self-determination. And the American endorsement of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara has, for now, destroyed the United States’ credibility as a mediator on the issue.

The ongoing conflict also increases the risk that some of the complex constellation of armed groups in the Sahel may be pulled into war. Several of these groups have ties to both Morocco and Algeria, while some fighters – particularly those in Malian Arab armed groups – have family links and commercial ties to Western Sahara. And other fighters and young people in the region may be drawn in if the violence continues, as has happened for years in Libya’s cascading internal and proxy wars.

Western policy

The abrupt change in decades of official US policy puts the incoming Biden administration and the EU in a difficult position. The Biden administration could return to the UN process on Western Sahara by reversing Trump’s reckless move, made in a proclamation that lacks the force of law. Such a reversal would anger Morocco, but it would not necessarily endanger the status of the country’s new accord with Israel – which will continue to provide significant economic, military, and political benefits to Morocco.

Maintaining the Trump administration’s position could also have follow-on effects. The US and the EU have long seen Morocco as a reliable political and security partner in the region. Morocco’s perceived pro-Western bent, openness to outside investment, and ostensible cooperation on issues such as migration also stand in contrast to the difficulty that the US and EU have had in forging a productive political and economic relationship with Algeria, despite their ongoing efforts to strengthen this partnership.

Still, Algeria remains a key political, economic, and military force in Africa, recently receiving its first visit in 14 years from a US secretary of defence. Maintaining US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara would damage the United States’ and the EU’s relationships with Algeria in ways that would be costly on a host of issues, ranging from the Sahel to Libya, to the Mediterranean.

A timid EU stance on Western Sahara question could have a similarly damaging effect on relations with Algeria and the African Union. Although Morocco has gained ground in its economic and diplomatic partnerships in Africa in recent years, the conflict over Western Sahara has disrupted meetings of the AU, of which the SADR is a full member. If the EU is to approach its relationship with the AU as a “partnership of equals”, it cannot also tolerate efforts to erase the SADR.

Moreover, Algeria has a significant institutional and diplomatic presence within the AU. And, while Morocco has increased its economic and political investments in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, Algeria maintains strong ties to several influential AU states that also reject unilateral Moroccan claims to Western Sahara, including Nigeria and South Africa. Acceptance of Moroccan control over Western Sahara would only make it more difficult for the US and EU to engage with these nations and institutions at a time of increasing geopolitical interest and competition in Africa.

The EU and US should make an effort to rekindle the negotiation process between Rabat and the Polisario Front, making it clear that any extension of Moroccan control of Western Sahara would have consequences for their relationships with Morocco. Only through a reinvigorated political process, with genuinely impartial mediation, can the EU and the US respect the rights of Sahrawis, ease tensions in Western Sahara, and promote international cooperation and regional integration.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Policy Fellow