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Morocco’s Two-Track Approach to the Western Sahara Conflict


Morocco’s focus on economic development in Western Sahara, in an attempt to build support for its rule among residents, has left negotiations without a clear path forward.


Morocco’s focus on economic development in Western Sahara, in an attempt to build support for its rule among residents, has left negotiations without a clear path forward. 

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).


Comments (19)

  • Dr. Jeanty Remy
    2 Recommends
    Morocco is one of the Arab countries that tries really hard to conserve the Moroccan national identity. Although the country experienced a period of political turmoil, the Moroccan government always shows a sense of political autonomy for their country, that is, they are Moroccans, so they have to resolve their problem in a Moroccan way. I am sure they will resolve the Western Saharan territory problem pacifically.
    Dr. Jeanty Remy      
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    • Chasli replies...
      Dr. Remy,

      I am a bit baffled about how you conclude that you are " sure they [Morocco] will resolve the Western Saharan territory problem pacifically." Roussellier for some reason refrains to mention in his article that the UN and the International Court of Justice do not recognize Morocco's occupation and give the Western Saharans the right to choose independence, not to mention that Morocco's sovereignty is not recognized by any country while over 80 countries have recognized the Polisario's sovereignty. It is wishful thinking that Morocco's 40 year illegal occupation of a portion of the non-self-governing Western Sahara will somehow be resolved peacefully under Morocco's terms. Morocco's attempt to somehow ram their sovereignty down the throats of the Sahrawi is far more likely to regrettably lead to a return to the armed struggle in the territory. If Morocco tries to resolve all this "in a Moroccan way" as you put it, I am sure that lots and lots of blood will be spilled in Morocco and the Western Sasara.
    • J Roussellier replies...

      It is true that Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara has never been legally recognized by any state pending a settlement of the status of the territory. In fact it is not clear either whether Spain has lawfully terminated its former position as ‘administering power’. The ICJ was never asked to give an advisory opinion on the nature of Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara after Spain left.
  • saharawi
    pacifically.? yes of course but morroco should ask me before what i want . if independence or the kingdom slavery---
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  • Salsmishka
    Thank u for a non biased informative article! As a moroccan , you pinpointed the right issue that moroccans talk abt in the street abt the western sahara.
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    • Omar101 replies...
      Sure, non-biased and dispassionate regarding the humanity and dignity of those Morocco has oppressed for decades. Maybe the "street" should talk more about what it feels like to be beaten, raped and murdered.
  • Dr Sidi M. Omar
    The author’s approach to the Western Sahara conflict from the human development perspective is interesting. However, the underlying causes of this long-running conflict are purely political, which are rooted in the historically known expansionist policies of the Moroccan monarchy, of which the neighboring Mauritania and part of Algeria were victim at a certain point of time in the past. It is true that the Western Sahara issue has become inextricably linked to the very existence and continuation of the ruling monarchical regime in Morocco. This fact however cannot be used to justify the maintenance of the status quo nor the denial of the internationally recognized right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination. People on both sides and elsewhere may differ in their views on the Western Sahara conflict and on how to resolve it, but a peaceful, democratic solution sanctioned by the will of the people concerned undoubtedly remains the only venue conducive to reaching a viable and sustainable solution to this protracted conflict.
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    • J Roussellier replies...
      It is clear that the maintenance of the status quo may not be sustainable in the medium or long term without a firm and comprehensive road map. Having said that it is also equally doubtful that, owing to risks and the low priority of this conflict, key external players would try to push forward any solution in the current fragile context in North Africa.
  • Boubker
    in fact, only 65000 people are considered as from Moroccan Sahara and most of them were kidnapped in the 70's and brought to Tindouf. And what it's really funny, is the fact the Mohammed Abdelaziz, pseudo-president of RASD, is not even considered as from Sahara since the UN refused his name to be added in the list for any future referendum. He is not even a saharawi...what's the joke? we all know that Morocco is under pressure from different players, specially Algeria who still using the old soviet stratagems. People are suffering in the camps of shame in Tindouf and it's time to end this drama.
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  • Laura Roldán Roldán
    Sooner or later the people of Western Sahara shall overcome one day. Why Morocco does not organize a free and fair referéndum in what is considered as the Africa´s last colony, because the sahrawi people is struggling for decades for a free and independent country and the international law recognize this legitimate right.
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    • J Roussellier replies...
      The key issues here are (1) who the Sahrawis are and (2) who among them are entitled to take part in a self-determination referendum. Should we tick the click back to 1975 and update t voter register or should parties to the dispute sit down and agree on a voter list? Is this really international legality versus political agreement? Why can’t we have both: a political agreement on future status and voting rights?
    • Medred replies...
      Why do everybody talks about Referendum as beeing the miracle solution?! What do you think would be the consequences of a referendum that doesn't draw an overwleming majority, whether for or againt independance? I tell you what that consequence would be: civil war in Morocco and a regional conflict between Morocco and Algeria!
      I salute the author for this impressive synthesis of the conflict. It is a complex issue that needs time to get resolved.
  • HamidChef
    Great Article!
    I hope one day, the brothers in Tindouf will go back home and live in harmony with the rest the Moroccans.
    Peace and prosperity to all
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    • Chasli replies...
      Mr. Roussellier,

      The Polisario and Morocco came to 3 agreements on who should vote in the self-determination referendum, in 1988, 1991, and 1997. The parties agreed to base the voter list on the last Spanish census. MINURSO, using the criteria agreed to by the two parties, registered some 85,000 voters by 1999. Morocco, realizing that there was absolutely no way they could win this election, filed over 100,000 totally frivolous appeals and shut down the referendum process. In other words, we already have had a political agreement, but Morocco has simply refused to honor it. There is no new agreement to be made, either on future status or voting rights. The Polisario is not going to ever agree to accept Morocco's illegal occupation or Moroccan sovereignty. And with illegal Moroccan colonists making up some 3/4 of the current occupants of the occupied territories, there is no way the Polisario will agree to letting any of them vote on the territory's status. Again, there is no political agreement to be made on future status and voting rights. If the occupants of the former Spanish Sahara and their descendents do not have their referendum, bloodshed will return to the Western Sahara.
  • Chasli
    Roussellier hit us with this: "The key issues here are (1) who the Sahrawis are and (2) who among them are entitled to take part in a self-determination referendum."

    "Who the Sahrawis are" isn't an issue at all. De-colonial self-determination is for the inhabitants of the colony, not for an ethnic group. Pretty much every colony in Africa was either multi-ethnic or multi-tribal or else had large numbers of people from their ethnic or tribal groups who lived in other colonies or countries. The people of the Western Sahara who have self-determination are the inhabitants of the Spanish Sahara and their descendants. "Who is a Sahrawi" is irrelevant.

    And "who among them are entitled to take part in a self-determination referendum." Again international law and the UN is clear about this: I repeat, it is the inhabitants of the Spanish Sahara and their descendants. Sahrawis from Morocco and Mauritania quite simply do not have the right to vote in a referendum. And just as certain is that non-Sahrawis Moroccans do not have the right to vote in a referendum.

    MINURSO spent some 8 years inverviewing people who claimed to be inhabitants of the Spanish Sahara or else to have provable connections with the territory and came up with around 85,000 voters --roughly half in Tindouf and half in the occupied territories. With some adjustments to add descendents who have come of age and to subtract those who have died and you have those who can vote in the referendum.

    There is no agreement to be made between the Polisario and Morocco. Roughly 75% of the current population of the Western Sahara are illegal Moroccan colonists and clearly have no right to vote in a referendum. Illegal Israeli colonists on the West Bank have no right to live there and certainly have no right to vote in Polestinian election. Similarly, neither do the Moroccan colonists.
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    • peace on earth replies...
      I believe that the core of the probleme is not between Morocco and our brother and sisters in tindouf , it is sadly between our close brothers and sisters from the governoment of Algeria. Other countries some high ranking took and taking advantage of this conflit and made a lot of money, where our brothers and sisters soufer. I wish on day the money we spend in this issue be used in bringing our famlies togother and live in peace. We love our families in Tindouf or in Algeria, and no one can say AAOUD MINA A CHAITAN A RAJIM and make peace ,hope and love each others as starting point in celebration of El aid in chaa Lah .
      thank you all
    Western Sahara has been a Spanish colony, and has no historical or legal connection to Morocco. Stating that Western Sahara should become part of Morocco is stating that the US should become be absorbed by Canada. If Sahrawis are a small population with minor resources that should not be a reason to ignore them as people who are different and want to become independent.    Morocco should liberate Sebta and Mlila which are historically part of Morocco.   The UN and most of countries in the world, inclduing Europe and the US do not recognize the annexation f Morocco to Western Sahara. How could you support colonialism in the post-enlighthnement era.
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  • mr dadi
    no dear friend a western sahar is a free and demand his freedom
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  • Dr.Ameur
    There is only one Morocco and the south Sahara is part of Morocco ,just as there is only one USA and California is part of USA .
    Long live the king and there is no problem to solve. We morocans are also sahraoues.
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