For nearly 30 years Morocco has embarked on an ambitious plan to bring the Western Sahara territory to a developmental level comparable to the national level, with the political objective that development would bring both domestic acceptance of Morocco’s rule within the territory and tacit international acquiescence of its claim over Western Sahara. This dual track approach to the issue of Western Sahara, which ambitiously targets both economic development and conflict settlement, has not proven fully effective. While the former implies a careful and balanced national policy aimed at economic and human advancement, the latter is currently based on an autonomy proposal, which has not yet reached the negotiating stage. And evidence has yet to appear of this approach giving way to acceptance of Moroccan rule through international support of Rabat’s autonomy plan—chiefly from Algeria and the pro-independence Polisario Front it backs.

In this context, Rabat, for both economic and political reasons, has committed itself to a thorough evaluation of its development policy in the southern region, looking at the critical linkage between development growth, stability, and long-term settlement of the dispute in the territory. Morocco has put in place an impressive array of policy and institutional tools to promote investment and leverage developmental goals in Western Sahara. Making up 2.7 percent of the total Moroccan population, the territory contributes 4 percent of the country’s Gross National Product through phosphate mining, fishing, and tourism; its Gross Domestic Product remains superior to the national average (though this figure may be inflated by public investment and weighted public salaries). Although the poverty rate has dropped sharply—for example, the territory’s rate fell by 17.9 percent between 1994 and 1999, compared to Morocco’s total decrease by 1.9 percent—this has to be balanced in the long run with projected high unemployment, which is currently almost double the national rate (19.6 percent compared with 9.6 percent in 2006), perhaps due to Western Sahara’s comparatively high rate of urbanization. In addition, high unemployment may be the result of migrating jobseekers from Morocco’s northern regions attracted by tertiary sector employment offers in the territory. Overall, the territory’s human development index sits at the top of all Moroccan regions and remains above average within the Arab world.

Yet the success of Morocco’s development policy depends heavily on how much political return it receives, in terms of the territory’s support for Moroccan rule, compared to its public investment. A fragile societal fabric has emerged, due to rapid urbanization and the abrupt dismantling of the nomadic culture of the population—which is internally polarized by the varying and at times unequal distribution of socio-economic entitlements and aspirations among the many resident groups (including native Sahrawis, Sahrawis from outside of the territory, Moroccan settlers, and Sahrawi returnees from Polisario-run refugee camps in southwestern Algeria). In addition, high joblessness among educated youth (significantly higher than the national level and that of university graduates in the region) is a critical constraint on growth and social cohesion and shows that education is no panacea to fighting unemployment, a task that can best be tackled through a combination of sustained growth and labor market flexibility. Furthermore, unemployment has human and social costs that quickly resonate with economic grievances, political demands, and ethnic tension, as witnessed by spontaneous and recurrent outbursts of sometimes violent discontent among youth in 2010 and 2011.

Morocco does not have the means to overwhelmingly invest and subsidize Western Sahara’s economy in order to dampen its political aspirations, as some Western countries have done with distant overseas territories; so Rabat is likely to seek the right developmental approach with realistic expectations of short- or long-term political dividends. And to do so, Rabat needs a credible and internationally supported political roadmap for the future status of the territory. However, Morocco’s quandary is that putting forward the case of an economically self-reliant Western Sahara could undermine its supporters’ arguments that an independent Western Sahara would be a failed state dependent on Algeria’s handouts.

At the same time, the still undefined framework of Morocco’s constitutionally mandated decentralization and regionalization is fraught with potential risks for national cohesion and regime stability. It has to find a suitable conceptual and programmatic articulation with the autonomy plan for Western Sahara that Rabat has unveiled at the UN Security Council. Morocco’s constitutional plan for decentralization and regionalization has to fully integrate ethnically or linguistically based autonomy (in Western Sahara as well as in the Rif region), the risk of rebellion, the legitimizing religious role of the Moroccan monarchy at the national level, and Western Sahara’s own set of international, regional, and political dimensions.

The Western Sahara territory, in its current international borders, will have to find a fitting place in this complex developmental, political, and international architecture Morocco had created to strengthen its claim and further entrench its administration of the territory. Though it makes sense—from a historical, social, developmental and national perspective—for Morocco to treat the territory as part of the geographically broader “Southern Provinces,” the specificity of the territory’s international legal and political requirements will have to be factored in sooner rather than later. 

The complexity of addressing the developmental and political dimensions concurrently is further compounded by the regional and international factors—such as UN-led negotiations with the Algerian-backed Polisario and the constitutional context of Morocco’s decentralization policy. These factors, together with Morocco’s development plan, should be integrated at the consultation and design level, starting with the preservation of internationally recognized administrative frontiers of the territory as inherited from Spain’s UN mandate.

Neither a successful and fully inclusive economic development policy nor its still elusive political translation (broad Sahrawi support for autonomy) can erode the relevance of the self-determination framework, which the International Court of Justice reaffirmed nearly 40 years ago in highlighting the need for a popular referendum on the future status of the territory. The Court’ seminal opinion imposes a popular consultation on any political agreement that parties to the dispute could reach. The current impasse on the Western Sahara conflict has shifted the elusive goal of a self-determination referendum to a political accord on autonomy that is viewed by Morocco as final and by Polisario and Algeria as  instrumental in leading to a final self-determination referendum on the status quo (autonomy) or independent statehood. However, whether such a political settlement has to be submitted to popular referendum at all—with or without the option of independence—is an issue that neither international law nor states’ practice can successfully address.

Irredentist, secessionist, or regional-hegemonic claims have a logic of their own, which is driven by identity rather than motives. Human and economic development is about expanding opportunities and choices. Just as political grievances and rebellion have their economic roots, development has its own political narrative. The two tracks run independently but intersect frequently without a clear cut sense of action or leverage. Understanding both tracks’ unique dynamics and potential synergies would not only benefit stabilization in the Western Sahara but also re-energize economic development and address effectively political demands.

Morocco does not appear to consider Western Sahara as a territory for which it formally inherited a civilizational and developmental mandate or pursued primarily an irredentist policy. In fact, in Western Sahara Morocco struggled to find a modern expression for its existential and historical claims over its Saharan identity, through the Sahrawi people, and ultimately its African aspirations. The more Morocco streamlines, integrates, and rationalizes the dual-track approach to legitimizing its administration of the territory and securing lasting settlement, the better it can prepare for a long-term presence in what Morocco perceives as its natural Saharan footprint. 

Jacques Roussellier is an Instructor at American Military University and co-editor of the forthcoming book Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalism and Geopolitics (Rowman & Littlefield).