On December 10, there was an important development for North Africa when Donald Trump tweeted: “Another historic breakthrough today! Our two great friends Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations – a massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East!”. He further announced that the US now recognizes Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara. This was an unprecedented move. Last week American ambassador to the Moroccan capital of Rabat, David Fischer, announced that the US adopted a new official map of Morocco that now includes Western Sahara. In what would not be a coincidence, the US government also started talks two weeks ago to sell over $1 billion in arms to Morocco, including MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones.
The Western Sahara conflict is another "forgotten war". The armed conflict which had been "frozen" since 1991, saw an end to the ceasefire last month when Morocco deployed its troops to a "buffer zone" patrolled by the United Nations (UN). A road to Mauritania – which had been blocked by Polisario Front separatists – was thus reopened.
The Western Sahara region is a strategic road for Morocco to reach West African markets and it is also home to potential oil reserves. Rabat currently controls around three quarters of the former Spanish colony. Rabat has been offering the region autonomy. Several countries have opened consulates in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, thus implicitly recognizing Rabat’s claims over the region. Meanwhile, the rest of Western Sahara is controlled by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which demands independence and a referendum – an initiative that the United Nations also backs, even though the post of UN envoy has been vacant for a year. The Front claims sovereignty over the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which includes the areas currently controlled by Morocco. To further complicate things, the SADR is a member of the African Union, as is Morocco.
American recognition of Morocco’s claims is clearly a kind of "quid pro quo" after Rabat normalized its relations with Israel. In fact, the new Israel-Morocco deal opens the door for cooperation in the fields of agriculture, medicine, high-tech, and the military, according to Israeli publicist Avigdor Eskin. More Arab countries are expected to follow the Abraham Accords’ initiative, just as Morocco has done.
Regarding the American move, the Prime Minister of Algeria, Abdelaziz Djerrad, has criticized “foreign maneuvers aimed to destabilize Algeria”. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has responded by warning that “Algeria is strong”. Pierre Galand (President of the European Coordination of Support and Solidarity with the Sahrawi People – EUCOCO), stated that “Western Sahara is not for sale”. According to Hamish Kinnear, an analyst for Verisk Maplecroft risk consultancy, American recognition per se will not change the fact that the UN still designates Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory”.
According to Ebba Kalondo, spokesperson of the African Union (AU) Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, the AU remains supportive of Western Sahara’s self-determination through a referendum. On the other hand, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Oman all support Morocco, and all of them congratulated Morocco and Israel for their recent agreement. We could be witnessing an increase in tensions not only in North Africa, but across the entire continent. The Polisario Front finds its most loyal supporters in Southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), but Angola has also been a supporter, as have Lesotho, Mozambique and Uganda. Such countries will be pressed to make official statement within the next days. Nigeria used to support the Polisario, but has been slowing turning towards Morocco. On December 10, Abdelmadjid Attar, the Algerian Minister of Energy, attacked the Morocco-Nigeria gas pipeline project (currently under discussion) as “inoperative” – the pipeline route passes through several countries. Nigeria and Algeria also held talks about a Trans-Saharan gas pipeline, linking both countries via Niger. Therefore, tensions between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara are extending into an Algerian hostility against other African countries joint projects with Morocco.
Tunisia and Algeria, for instance, had some heated exchanges recently over the Morocco issue. Tunisia’s then foreign minister Ahmed Ounaies blamed Algeria for “pushing” Morocco to normalize its relations with Israel, thus causing the division of the Maghreb region – for both Tunisia and Algeria, a deal with Israel apparently is not on the agenda today. Algeria Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djera himself claimed last week that the “Zionist entity” (as he described Israel), wants to be near “our borders”.
One of the concerns among prominent Algerians is that the Israeli-Moroccan deal could open the door for Israeli forces to freely operate near its borders. Israel already has an increasing military presence in the African continent. Algerian journalist and analyst Abed Charef even wrote last week: "The Israeli army is at our borders. The rapprochement between Morocco and Israel opens the way, if it has not already happened, for Israeli aid to support Morocco’s army”. Therefore, even though some Moroccan Jews celebrated the Hanukkah "miracle" of the new Israel-Morocco ties, this new development could actually increase tensions in the Arab world with Israel and could also have a negative impact upon the Jewish community living in North Africa.
Will U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden "walk back" such recognition? Even though some analysts advocate so (and even former US United States National Security Advisor John Bolton does), for Biden to do so would create tensions with both Israel and Morocco. Should he not walk back, on the other hand, Morocco could feel empowered enough by American endorsement to further pursue a war against the Polisario Front, thereby escalating tensions with Algeria, which could then feel pressed to intervene. A long and ugly Algerian-Moroccan "proxy-war" conflict might ensue, increasing instability in the region (not to mention the humanitarian disaster) – with both the US and Israel possibly arming and aiding the Moroccan side. The UN itself is split in its Security Council and is unlikely to be able to offer a "solution" to the crisis.
Western Sahara is also a "jumping-off" point for sub-Saharan African migrants trying to make it to Europe via the Spanish Canary Islands. Morocco claims to be the guarantor of stability in the region and even a kind of "protective barrier" for Europe, but if an escalation of tensions and insurgency ensues, it will no longer be able to be so. Therefore, a crisis in the region would directly affect the European Union in terms of concerns about migration and terrorism also. Last Tuesday, German Euro-deputy Joachim Schuster resigned his post as president of the Parliamentary Intergroup “Peace for the Saharawi people” in protest against the recent Polisario Front’s violation of the ceasefire. This was seen by many as a huge blow to the Polisario Front.
To sum it up, the Western Sahara issue is a divisive matter and any increase in tensions there might fuel pre-existing contradictions between the Maghreb region and the African Union (over Israel), also within the Maghreb region itself (over relations with Israel, among other problems).
Uriel Araujo is a researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.