In what may be his last major foreign policy initiative as president, on December 10 Donald Trump announced a US-brokered agreement that will see Morocco become the third Arab country since August to normalize ties with Israel.
Following deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the White House hailed this agreement as “advancing regional stability.” But, as Saharawi journalist Ahmed Ettanji tells Jacobin, its real effect is to “legitimize two occupations — that of the Israeli occupation of pre-1967 Palestinian territory and that of the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.”
Under the agreement, the United States becomes the first major power in the world to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the illegally annexed Western Sahara — a move which flies in the face of numerous UN resolutions and a ruling from the International Court of Justice.
Covering an area the size of Britain, Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony — that is, what the United Nations designates as a “non-self-governing territory.” The Saharawi people were denied independence in 1975 after former colonial power Spain reneged on its promise of a referendum on the country’s future status, instead signing the tripartite Madrid Pact which carved up the territory between Morocco and Mauritania. About half the Saharawi population fled to neighboring Algeria to escape the subsequent Moroccan invasion.
Today, close to two hundred thousand refugees continue to live in camps along the border. Thousands more have been tortured, jailed, and killed for resisting the occupation since the 1970s. In Freedom House’s annual ranking, Western Sahara is listed as the seventh-least free territory in the world — just one point above North Korea.
Trump’s cynical intervention — announced via Twitter — did have the unintended consequence of renewing international attention on a conflict largely unreported by Western media. And it comes as the conflict is heating up again. A 1991 cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front — the main Saharawi pro-independence movement — broke down in November. Daily exchanges of artillery fire are now taking place along the 2,700 km defensive sand wall (or berm) that divides the territory. For Saharawi Voice‘s Elbu Sidahmed, “The decision [to recognize Moroccan sovereignty] blows apart any chance of the US credibly mediating the conflict.”
Yet the wider context for Trump’s formal recognition of Moroccan annexation is the West’s decades-long complicity with the occupation regime. One basic condition for ensuring the economic sustainability of Morocco’s hold over Western Sahara is the exploitation of its mineral wealth and other natural resources by corporations from over forty countries.
For Ettanji (cofounder of one of the few media organizations operating out of the occupied territories, Equipe Media): “The United States, France, and Spain have not been supporting a solution to the conflict, quite the opposite — they have aided the occupier in undermining our basic rights and in plundering our resources.”
Indeed, this didn’t all start with Trump. A clear example of this international complicity is the European Union’s aggressive trade policy in the region. In December 2016, the EU’s highest court issued a landmark ruling that the 2012 free trade deal with Morocco on agricultural and fisheries products had no legal basis to include Western Sahara. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) concluded that Western Sahara had a “separate and distinct status” from any country in the world “by virtue of the principle of self-determination” and must be regarded as “a third party” when it came to such bilateral treaties. As a third party, it could not be legally subject to these treaties without “the expressed consent of its people.”
The ruling represented a particular threat to the lucrative fishing trade. Spain imports 100,000 tons of Moroccan-labelled fish a year at a value of €1.6 billion — though much, if not the majority, of this is generated from fishing in the occupied Saharawi waters. Similarly, Morocco has become a key exporter of fish oil and fish meal to the EU — with €44 million worth of fish meal from Western Sahara passing through the German port of Bremen alone between 2017 and 2019. At the same time, 90 percent of the catch from European trawlers operating in Moroccan-controlled waters comes from fishing in the Saharawi zone — with the EU making a €52 million a year financial contribution to Morocco in exchange for access.
In this sense, rather than seek to apply the ECJ judgment (one which invoked basic principles of international law), the EU’s response was to renegotiate a new fisheries agreement with Morocco to explicitly include Western Sahara in its scope. As a recent report from Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) explains, the EU justified this by committing to undertake a process of “consultation” with the “concerned population” — something qualitatively distinct from the legal requirement of receiving explicit consent from “the people” of the territory.
Moreover, the consultation process itself was also highly restricted: all eighteen groups whom the commission invited to take part supported Morocco’s position on the conflict. The WSRW lays out how this was concealed by the European Commission in a report on the trade deal that was sent to the European Parliament and national governments. This document included, among the names of the stakeholders who were supposedly consulted, eighty-nine Saharawi civil society organizations that, while not invited to participate, had sent a letter condemning the consultation process itself.
“The double standard is incredible,” declared WSRW coordinator Sara Eyckmans as the European Parliament approved the new deal in February 2019. “One day we observe EU politicians advocate for rule-of-law and democracy in countries like Hungary and Venezuela. The next day, those same politicians openly vote to ignore the rulings of the highest court in the EU . . . The EU has no right — legally and ethically — to steal the fish from the Saharawi people in partnership with their Moroccan occupiers.”
For Sidahmed, this is only the tip of the iceberg. He tells Jacobin: “Pretty much every country that says it supports human rights and international law is helping to plunder Western Sahara today — beginning with New Zealand and India, which continue to import conflict minerals . . . while companies like the British Windhoist and German Siemens continue providing Rabat with infrastructure support in the occupied territories.”
Western Sahara’s large reserves of phosphate, a key component in modern fertilizers, have been exploited since the 1960s — with Moroccan state-owned phosphate company OCP taking control of the massive Bou Craa mine in the wake of the occupation. In 2018 exports were worth US$164 million, but this figure fell to US$90 million in 2019 as Canadian fertilizer giant Nutrien chose to halt imports to the North American market. Its move came after a number of institutional investors divested from the company, citing concerns over the legality of the imports. Among OECD countries, New Zealand now stands alone in the continued importation of the conflict mineral — with purchases totalling US$29 million in 2019.
Yet a number of European corporations do play a crucial role in facilitating Morocco’s mining operations at Bou Craa. For example, in 2013 Siemens installed a park of twenty-two wind turbines which supply the mine with 95 percent of its power while another German company provides maintenance services on the world’s longest conveyor belt which ferries the phosphate 100 km across the desert to the coast. Siemens is also the sole supplier of wind turbines to three other large-scale parks in the occupied territories that are owned by the king of Morocco’s renewable energy company Navera. A fifth park is planned in conjunction with Siemens and Italy’s Enel Green Power — which taken together with the other four will have a combined power of 850 MW.
A whole host of other extractive activities are also currently ongoing in Western Sahara. For decades Spanish companies have exported industrial quantities of sand from its former colony, particularly to the nearby Canary Islands, to be used in building works, on golf courses, as well as in the construction and renewal of its artificially sandy beaches. Huge agri-business plantations, largely owned by the Moroccan monarchy, and various Moroccan and French companies have left underground water reserves in the Dakhla peninsula severely depleted — to the detriment of the local population. Exploratory oil and gas drilling has also been undertaken by various French, American, and UK companies while Texas company Crystal Mountain had been mining and exporting salt to Europe from within the territory until the end of 2017.
As Miguel Urbán, a left-wing member of the European Parliament, notes, “the illegal occupation, as well as Morocco’s illegal wall, are being paid for by the Saharawi’s own resources . . . with the territory being turned into a Wild West for multinationals — in which anything goes.”
A Return to War
On October 21, scores of Saharawi civilians engaged in a peaceful sit-in blocking a major highway in the Guerguerat buffer zone along the Mauritanian border. This left two hundred trucks stranded — most of which were carrying fisheries and agricultural products. “Saharawi people see this road as a route through which the natural resources of Western Sahara are plundered, so blocking it is blocking the plunder,” Sidahmed tells Jacobin. As food prices soured in neighboring Mauritania as a result of the trade stoppage, the Moroccan army entered the buffer zone to violently disperse the protesters — thus violating the terms of the twenty-nine-year-old cease-fire.
In response Polisario forces engaged the Moroccan troops, ferrying the civilians out of the area, before declaring the cease-fire null and void. The Polisario Front is recognized by the UN as the political representative of the Saharawi people and is affiliated to the social-democratic Socialist International. From its base in neighboring Algeria, it has launched a series of attacks on fortified Moroccan positions along the sand berm in recent weeks, but Morocco’s wall, the longest defensive barrier in the world, makes any meaningful military gains highly unlikely — not to mention Morocco’s technological and numerical advantage.
Yet both Ettanji and Sidahmed underscore how the cease-fire status quo had long become unsustainable for the Saharawi people. “Regarding whether armed struggle is a viable option for gaining independence: the UN (and now the US), have made it clear that peaceful means will definitely not work,” claims Sidahmed. “After twenty-nine years of peaceful struggle, and winning legal cases in various courts stating Morocco has no right to Western Sahara, the international community has only emboldened Rabat. Meanwhile, the world forgets that the Saharawi people still exists.”
The end to the sixteen-year war in 1991 had been negotiated on the basis of a joint commitment from Morocco and the Polisario Front to hold an independence referendum within one year. Yet attempts to organize such a vote have been systematically sabotaged by Morocco, which has also continued to populate the region with Moroccan settlers. A wave of nonviolent protests in 2010 (which Noam Chomsky posits as the start of the Arab Spring) ended with deadly violence at the Gdeim Izik protest camp as Moroccan security forces stormed the site in the middle of the night, leaving eleven Saharawi dead and hundreds injured. Nineteen leading figures in the movement have been handed twenty-year and life prison sentences — with their convictions largely based on testimony extracted under police torture.
“We are living in an open-air prison. It has been many years since the Sahara has known peace, and so most of us have welcomed the return to war — which might at least change something,” Ettanji explains in a phone interview from the Saharawi capital El Aaiún. He and his wife Nazha El Khalidi, who is also a journalist, had been placed under house arrest for a number of weeks in November. He tells Jacobin that “we [journalists and activists] are under constant watch. Surveillance has increased considerably since the end of the cease-fire and if you walk around the city you can see a large police and military presence everywhere.”
A People Betrayed
It remains unclear whether Joe Biden will reverse the United States’ position on Western Sahara, which effectively seeks to legitimize “the takeover of one African nation by another” according to academic Stephen Zunes. As with his statements that he will not reverse Trump’s decision to move the United States’ embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the president-elect might decide against alienating a key regional ally, in this case Morocco.
Yet even if he does, a more permanent solution to the conflict is still needed. Such a solution is only possible if the Saharawi people can exercise their right to national self-determination, including regaining sovereign control over its natural resources and mineral wealth. For now, that remains a distant prospect. It likely remains so, as long as Western powers see their economic and security interests in North Africa best served by a continuation of the brutal occupation.