Why Spain backing Morocco’s plan in Western Sahara is important

The decision of Spain to support Morocco’s plan for the autonomy of Western Sahara under its sovereignty really shows international relations have intertwined links. Will it also have repercussions in the war in Ukraine?

Spain president of government Pedro Sánchez meeting King of Morocco, H.M. Mohamed VI on April 7
Spain president of government Pedro Sánchez meeting King of Morocco, H.M. Mohamed VI on April 7

Spain President of government Pedro Sánchez met the King of Morocco, H.M. Mohamed VI on April 7 to discuss the new relations between Spain and Morocco.

We are embarking on a new chapter in our long shared history, which should enable us to face the challenges but also the many opportunities of the future with confidence,” said Sanchez.

On March 18, Spain officially backed Morocco’s vision of the Western Sahara after years of neutrality.

Morocco has been claiming its sovereignty over Western Sahara since Spain left its colony in 1976. But the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the Polisario front. Considered a non-self-governing territory by the United Nations since 1963, a ceasefire has been in place in Western Sahara since 1991.

Solving a diplomatic crisis with Morocco

With this clear step towards Rabat, which opens the door for recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara, Madrid hopes to end a diplomatic crisis that has lasted for a year.

Last year in April, Spain welcomed Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, to be treated for a COVID-19 infection. It sparked ire from the Moroccan Kingdom.

While Spain was keeping a moderately neutral position on Western Sahara, Morocco paused their territorial claims on Ceuta and Melilla, two autonomous Spanish cities on the African continent bordering Morocco. Rabat would also take care of the flow of African migrants trying to come to Europe illegally.

But thousands of them then arrived and overwhelmed Ceuta last May, which Madrid saw as retaliation from Rabat.

Moroccan ambassador to Spain was recalled to her country, and came back only two days after Spain announced supporting Morocco’s autonomy plan of Western Sahara proposed in 2007, in which Morocco’s sovereignty in the region is recognized.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Morocco also suspended for two years its maritime collaboration with Spain. Last summer, it forced about 3 million travelers, many Europeans of Moroccan origins, to ship from France or Italy instead of southern Spain, or take a plane. Morocco has now decided to reopen the maritime route.

Morocco controls about 80% of Western Sahara territories but the Polisario is asking for a referendum on its self-determination.

Polisario is also backed by Algeria. Morocco and Algeria stopped their diplomatic relations for a feud over the Abraham accords.

Western Sahara map
Western Sahara region | © Wikipedia interactive map

Risks to see Algeria increasing prices of gas

Morocco recognized Israel as part of the deal with the United States, which in return recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Donald Trump’s administration even announced the creation of a consulate in Dakhla, which would have acted as an official diplomatic branch in the region. Although President Biden was less enthusiastic by the move – the consulate may not be built anytime soon – he decided to keep supporting Morocco, which was confirmed during U.S. State Department Secretary Antony Blinken’s visit to Morocco end of March.

But tensions between Algeria and Morocco increased since the Abraham Accords and Algiers decided to stop diplomatic relations with its neighbor last August. In October, it also decided to stop delivering gas from the Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline. Supplying Spain and then Portugal, the pipeline crossed Morocco and the decision prevented Rabat from taking its share of Algerian gas in the deal.

Part of the gas was shipped to Spain instead of using the pipeline.

In an effort to ease tensions with Morocco, Spain considered exporting Algerian gas via the Maghreb-Europe Gas to the north African Kingdom, which was categorically refused by Algeria.

Algeria was the first supplier of gas to Madrid, accounting for 45% of the imports. But Spain diversified its suppliers and the United States became its main partner since 2020.

Meanwhile, Europe has been trying to reduce its dependency on Russian gas. Spain benefits from a lot of gas storage capacity in ports which could prove useful and an entry point for international gas trade. The construction of a pipeline between France and Spain, once considered too expensive, may also be back on track.

And Algeria could be a potential supplier to replace contracts with Russia.

But Spain’s decision could affect the possibility to increase the supply of Algerian gas. Although contracts between Spain and Algeria last until 2030, Sonatrach, Algeria’s state-owned gas company, acknowledged it could revisit gas prices for Spain.

Algeria’s economy very much depends on gas and oil exports. With energy prices falling with the COVID-19 pandemic and the slowdown of the world’s economy, Algeria struggled. But the new high prices may reinvigorate Algiers’s position. Its international trade balance became positive in December, a first since 2014.

A decision for more regional stability?

On top of Algeria’s anger, the decision from the government of Spain has been criticized by both left-wing government allies and right-wing opposition, arguing such an important move has been made without domestic consensus or debate. Western Sahara’s independence has strong support in Spanish society. Moreover, Spain didn’t sign any document that would secure the country some benefits from the decision.

With the backing of Morocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara by the United States, Morocco has been pushing for other countries to follow.

In May 2021, Morocco recalled the ambassador in Berlin partly because of Germany’s position on the matter. But tensions have eased with the new government after it praised Morocco’s “important contribution to an agreement in 2007 with an autonomy plan” for Western Sahara. Nevertheless, it also states Germany’s position on Western Sahara “has remained unchanged for decades“.

Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita recently asked more countries to “get out of [their] comfort zone” instead of supporting a status quo.

There is a dynamic at the international level in support of the Moroccan Autonomy Plan as a serious, credible outcome for this regional dispute. This is the position of the United States, this is the position of Germany, this is the position of France, this is the position of the Arab countries, this is the position of the African countries, and others,” said Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita during U.S. State Department Secretary Antony Blinken’s visit.

France, which was a partner of Spain when Western Sahara became its colony, has not changed its position. It is in favor of Morocco, one of its closest partners. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated that the plan is “a basis for serious and credible discussions“.

For Bourita, “supporting a process doesn’t mean supporting a solution,” even though he hopes this solution is found “within Moroccan sovereignty and within the Moroccan Autonomy Plan”.

With its decision, Spain will probably have peace of mind regarding the flow of illegal migrants and territorial sovereignty in Ceuta and Melilla. For Europe, it may secure a solid partner as relations with North and Central African countries have become colder and leaning toward Russia.

But will this also have an impact on the Russian war in Ukraine? Morocco – and Algeria – abstained from condemning Russia’s actions at the United Nations, which was moderately appreciated by the United States and the European Union.

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