The Western Sahara Conflict: Shedding Light on a Few Misconceptions


My response to the Economist’s “The Never-ending Conflict: Things are Heating Up in Western Sahara” 

The article bearing the title, “The Never-ending Conflict: Things are Heating Up in Western Sahara”, published in the November 6th, 2021 edition of The Economist covers quite a few elements of the Western Sahara conflict and lays out a relatively balanced approach to the situation on the ground. Nonetheless, it makes some unwarranted assumptions and a few omissions and contains some facts that are only partially true that are worth pointing out.  

To start with, Algeria has not been “supplying natural gas to the kingdom” as stated in the article but has used the Maghreb-Europe pipeline that goes through Morocco to supply Europe, especially Spain, with natural gas. 

Morocco perceives a mere 5 % in-kind fees (i.e. natural gas) for allowing the pipeline to go through its land but has over the last years so diversified its energy mix that stopping the flow of gas from Algeria has had zero effect on its energy supplies. 

Algeria said it is weaponizing energy (along with its airspace) to “punish” Morocco for alleged and still unsubstantiated aggressions, but the real reason for ceasing to use the Maghreb-Europe pipeline is reduced production at home and the significant rise in domestic consumption, which make it difficult for the country to meet a good part of foreign demand. Spain is hurt in the meantime, and it is not certain that Algeria will make up for the loss in supply through other pipelines that go directly via the Mediterranean.  

With regard to Western Sahara, the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty has created a new diplomatic order around the issue but it has had the merit of encouraging other countries to move away from the stalemate that has lasted three decades with no solution on the horizon, and support the Moroccan proposal of a Sahrawi “autonomy within Moroccan Sovereignty”, a win-win solution that will leave none of the parties too bitter to put down weapons.  

War has been tried in the seventies and the eighties: at the beginning the Polisario, aided by Algeria, Kaddafi, and Castro was winning a few battles here and there, but with the construction of the wall (the BERM), the Moroccan army has had the upper hand. When the ceasefire was signed in 1991, the” guns” on the ground have already been silenced. By the way, by virtue of the ceasefire agreement, 80 % of the territory will remain under Moroccan control, and 20 % will remain demilitarized buffer zones. The Polisario’s claim that is controlling those lands is a flagrant violation of the ceasefire as has been noted by the UN on several occasions.  

The referendum was tried too in the late nineties. It did not work, not because of  “Moroccan obstructionism” as The Economist stated, but because 135000 Sahrawis who were refused eligibility to vote by the Polisario appealed the decision. Processing all of those appeals and getting to an agreed upon eligible voting population became a daunting, if not an impossible mission. 

 The UN then called upon the parties to come up with creative ideas to reach a “mutually agreed upon solution” to the conflict. The zero-sum game idea of a referendum was de facto declared unfeasible. And Morocco’s proposal of an “autonomy within sovereignty” (2007) was hailed by the Security Council and many other countries, as “credible and realistic.”  

Algeria claims that it supports the Polisario as part of its support of liberation movements around the world. Morocco has supported revolutionary third world movements as well: it funded ANC and was home to training camps for its fighters as recognized by the late Nelson Mandela, it supported the Algerian revolution with arms, training and logistical support, refusing to negotiate borders with France till after the independence of its eastern neighbor. 

Morocco welcomed Amilcar Cabral (of Guinea Bissau) and his liberation party on its territory, and provided Agostino Neto (of Angola) with a Moroccan passport to flee the oppression of Salazar in Portugal. The Moroccan monarchy has never been ‘uncomfortable” with liberation movements.  

Algeria should not think of Morocco as a rival but as a neighbor, a possible ally and strategic partner. Algeria closed the border in 1994 not because of the alleged Moroccan interference in its own internal affairs but because Morocco set up visas for Algerians, after a group of French-Algerians, suspected to have links to the Algerian intelligence services, committed a terrorist attack on a hotel on August 25, 1994 and killed two Spanish tourists. As a reaction, Algeria closed its land borders with Morocco.  

The bombing that took place on November 3rd 2021 and led to the death of tree Algerian truck drivers has the looks of a completely botched up act. First, Algeria said it happened on Mauritanian soil. When Mauritania denied that, Algeria alleged that it happened on the demilitarized buffer zone, the same zone that Polisario uses to wage its “semi-fictional” war on Morocco. What were supposedly civilian truck drivers doing in a demilitarized “war” zone and not using the paved road between Algeria and Mauritania remains a mystery. The MINIRSO was not able to find any evidence of an air attack on the trucks. The accusation is as unsubstantiated as the alleged igniting of fires in Algeria by Morocco last summer.  

It is true that Western Sahara under Morocco’s rule is booming, and investments are colossal as stated by The Economist. Human development in Morocco-ruled Western Sahara is among the highest in this part of the World. Subsidies target Sahrawis first and foremost, and not only non-Sahrawis coming from other parts of Morocco as said in the above-mentioned article.  

On the other side (and last but not the least), in the camps on Algerian soil, Sahrawis are warehoused against their will as rightly pointed out by The Economist. They are considered refugees but they have no right to free movement, gainful employment and they are not identified nor counted, as stipulated in the Geneva Convention (1951) and as regularly demanded by the Security Council and the UNHCR. 

The Polisario receives 134000 food rations from the World Food Program but aerial pictures and evidence on the ground suggest that their number is less 90000. The European Anti-Fraud Office accuses the Polisario of embezzling the rest of the food rations and selling them on the black market, with help from Algerian military officers. 

Lahcen Haddad is Senator in the Moroccan Parliament. He is also University Professor and International Development Consultant. He was Morocco's Minister of Tourism between 2012 and 2016