Morocco and Spain: Causes of recent friction

More than nationalist ambitions, the tensions with Ceuta and Melilla are due to economic reasons
Atalayar_El Primer Ministro de Marruecos, Saad Eddine el-Othmani, y el presidente español Pedro Sánchez

AFP/FADEL SENNA  -   Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani and Spanish President Pedro Sanchez

2020 is going to end in the same way as it began in relations between Morocco and Spain: with frictions. Whereas at the beginning of the year the issue was maritime, Moroccan sovereignty over waters near the Canary Islands rich in tellurium deposits, the friction is now due to recent declarations by the Alaouite prime minister -Saadedin Otmani- on Moroccan sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla.

Although it is true that this claim is typical of Moroccan nationalism, which has been the cause of friction in the past (as occurred in December 2010 following the condemnation by the Congress of Deputies of the eviction of a Sahrawi camp in El Aauín and in 2007 with the visit of the King and Queen Emeritus to Ceuta and Melilla) and that Morocco is at a sweet spot in its foreign policy following the backing of the Trump administration to its control over Western Sahara, This front owes its rise to a series of actions resulting from the reaction of the current Spanish cabinet to the recent escalation of tension between Rabat and Polisario, particularly the positioning of the coalition partner in the Western Sahara conflict.

Spain is interested in maintaining a good relationship with Morocco for geopolitical reasons. Geographically, Morocco is Spain's southern border, as it is the first country in Africa with which it borders, Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands. Politically, Morocco is a faithful ally of the West, especially of France and the United States, which are also Spain's allies. A poor relationship with Morocco would have repercussions on relations between Spain and the aforementioned allies. Finally, the geographical proximity of both countries gives rise to a fruitful trade and migratory relationship that benefits both parties, proof of which are the Moroccan consulates and financial institutions present in Spain. 

Atalayar_Ceuta Melilla (2)

A una escala bilateral, a Marruecos y España les unen vínculos coloniales siendo el contencioso sobre el Sáhara Occidental el asunto más espinoso. A pesar de ello, los distintos gobiernos democráticos de España han logrado mantener buenas relaciones con Marruecos, alterando roces (siendo el incidente sobre el islote de Perejil en el 2002 el punto más bajo) con buenas relaciones comerciales. Prueba de la importancia que Madrid daba a Rabat era el hecho de que tradicionalmente, el primer desplazamiento hacia el exterior del nuevo presidente de España fuera hacia Marruecos

On a bilateral level, Morocco and Spain are linked by colonial ties, the dispute over the Western Sahara being the thorniest issue. Despite this, Spain's various democratic governments have managed to maintain good relations with Morocco, causing friction (the incident over the Perejil islet in 2002 being the lowest point) with good trade relations. Proof of the importance Madrid attached to Rabat was the fact that traditionally the new Spanish president's first outward journey was to Morocco

Despite these links, recent events with respect to Western Sahara have played a role in explaining the recent downturn.

The statements made by the second vice-president, Pablo Iglesias, calling for a referendum on self-determination and his sympathies for Polisario did not go unnoticed by Morocco, which views any hint of sympathy for Polisario's theses with hostility. Morocco will also be uncomfortable with the discourse that it is using the recent migratory escalation in the Canary Islands as a form of blackmail on Spain either to get Spain to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara or to obtain more aid for Europe, a discourse that is encouraged by some political leaders in the Canary Islands1. In the long term, it did not have to feel good to Morocco either for Pedro Sánchez to break with tradition and not visit Morocco on his first official trip as president (he met Macron on 23 June 2018, but did not visit Morocco until November that year). This unease explains the decision to postpone the high-level meeting scheduled for 17 December, which will finally take place in February next year. Although the official excuse was that it was postponed because of the Covid, Pablo Iglesias' initial presence at this meeting, despite his sympathies for Polisario, explains why such a decision was taken, particularly bearing in mind that the meeting was postponed shortly after Trump's decision to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara.  

AFP/ANTONIO SEMPERE - Moroccan nationals, in Melilla

As regards Ceuta and Melilla, as we have seen earlier, Morocco's ambitions are nothing new, flourishing when bilateral relations are in flux. However, a column in the Moroccan newspaper L'Opinion2 provides an interesting Moroccan perspective on Ceuta and Melilla. More than nationalist ambitions, the tensions with Ceuta and Melilla are due to economic reasons: the movement of goods between the autonomous cities and Morocco. The closure of the Moroccan side due to the pandemic halted this trade, which Rabat views as contraband, but which is a major factor in the economy of the autonomous cities. The free zones of Tangier and Fnideq (Castillejos near Ceuta) and the ports of Tangier Med and Nador West Med are, according to L`Opinion, perceived by Madrid as a threat to the economy of both autonomous cities. On the Spanish side, the Moroccan perception of the economic conflict is reflected in a Tribune by Carlos Echevarría Jesús, Director of the Ceuta and Melilla Observatory of the Institute of Security and Culture and Professor of International Relations at UNED for El Mundo3. In it, the closure of the Moroccan side is seen as a strategy to "strangle both Spanish Autonomous Cities".

In conclusion, the recent setback in Spanish-Moroccan relations, staged in the Alaouite prime minister's declarations on Moroccan sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, occurred with a coalition government in Spain in which part of the government opposed the Moroccan theses on the Sahara, making the Alaouite kingdom uncomfortable. Nonetheless, bilateral relations are good, despite some friction over Ceuta and Melilla and the Sahara. The perception of trade between the Autonomous Cities and Morocco also explains this friction, as both sides do not share the same position on the legality of trade, particularly Morocco's decision to close its side of the border owing to the pandemic and the impact of such a measure.

  1. An example of this is the Tribune of Antonio Morales, President of the Island of Gran Canaria. "Immigration and Moroccan blackmail. Canary Islands 7, 22 November 2020. Available at: Immigration and Moroccan blackmail | Canary Islands7
  2.  "Maroc-Espagne: Les dessous d`una crise diplomatique", L`Opinion, 22 December 2020 Available at: Morocco-Spain : Les dessous d'une crise diplomatique passagère (
  3.  "Ceuta and Melilla, another stage in the frenetic race of neighbouring Morocco. El Mundo, 22 December 2020. Available at:  Ceuta and Melilla, one more stage in the frenetic race of neighbouring Morocco : Spain (