Why Spain is wading into Morocco and Algeria's rivalry over Western Sahara
On 18 March, Spain reversed decades of neutrality on the Western Sahara conflict after announcing its support for Morocco's autonomy plan for the disputed territory, which offers limited self-government for the Saharawi people within Rabat’s sovereignty.
Calling it the "the most serious and credible basis” for the resolution of the 48-year-long conflict, the Spanish statement echoed the phrasing used by France and the European Union in support of Morocco's plan.
The announcement marked an unprecedented move in Madrid’s long-standing neutrality towards its former colony. Until 1976, the territory was administered by Spain.
The move angered the Polisario Front, the Saharawis' self-proclaimed government-in-exile, and its historical ally Algeria, who both advocate for a fully independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the province.
"The announcement marked an unprecedented move in Madrid's longstanding neutrality towards its former colony. Until 1976, the territory was administered by Spain"
The decision by Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez to walk away from his predecessors' neutral policy has seen mounting pressure on the socialist leader from the opposition and majority in the Spanish parliament, which continues to support ‘self-determination’ for Saharawi people in the territory.
Sanchez’s decision ended a one-year-long diplomatic dispute between Madrid and Rabat which began in April 2021 when Madrid hosted Polisario leader Brahim Ghali, Rabat’s number one enemy, for medical treatment.
Morocco reacted furiously and recalled its ambassador.
A month later, an immigration crisis erupted on the Moroccan-Spanish border in Ceuta, where more than 8,000 people crossed into the Spanish-controlled enclave. Madrid, at the time, accused Rabat of diplomatic blackmail.
Morocco hailed Spain’s shift in policy as a diplomatic victory and agreed to open a new chapter with Madrid in which the two kingdoms will collaborate on different levels.
The Western Sahara conflict
Situated on the northwest coast of Africa, the territory is home to phosphate reserves and rich fishing grounds off its coast. It is also believed to have as yet untapped offshore oil deposits.
Both Mauritania and Morocco have always considered Western Sahara as a part of their territory. The end of Spanish colonial rule in the 1970s revived their plans to annex the province.
In 1975, Rabat and Nouakchott petitioned the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to adjudicate the status of Western Sahara. The court rejected both countries' claims over the territory.
The rejection prompted Hassan II, the Moroccan King at the time, to speak on state television and proclaim the Green March: a civilian demonstration in Spanish-controlled Sahara to reclaim the territory that, Hassan II asserted, was rightfully Moroccan.
"My Dear people, tomorrow, (...) you will feel the sands that are yours. Tomorrow, you will kiss a soil that is an integral part of your dear country,” said the Moroccan King on 5 November 1975 in a televised speech, as 350,000 Moroccan civilians flooded into the territory holding Moroccan flags, Qurans, and their King’s picture while chanting patriotic slogans.
The March pressured Madrid to settle for negotiations with the Kingdom.
A week later, Spain concluded with Mauritania and Morocco the Madrid accords, in which Rabat acquired the northern two-thirds of the territory, while Nouakchott acquired the southern third.
The agreement also included the proviso that Spain would retain shares in the Bu Craa mining enterprise in the territory. Mauritania renounced all claims to Western Sahara in 1979.
Founded in 1973, The Polisario Front, the Saharawis' self-proclaimed representative, has bitterly condemned the accords, considering them as simply a substitution of one colonial process for another.
On 20 March, Brahim Ghali, the front’s leader, likened Spain’s recent shift of policy in favour of the Moroccan government's position to the Madrid accords that “betrayed and divided the indigenous people of Western Sahara”.
The Algeria-Polisario alliance against Morocco
As Mauritania renounced all claims to Western Sahara in 1979, Morocco remained locked in a decades-long struggle with the Polisario independence movement for control of the territory.
The 16-year-long guerrilla war between Morocco and the Polisario Front ended in 1991, when the UN announced a ceasefire in the province and sent its peacekeeping forces to Laayoune, the biggest city in the disputed territory, to monitor a referendum on the territory’s status.
The vote was set for 1992 but was aborted when Morocco refused to accept any vote that allowed for the independence of the territory, saying that only "autonomy" was on the table.
In 2007, Morocco presented its autonomy plan for the territory, which is supposed to allow Saharawis to run their affairs "democratically", through legislative, executive, and judicial bodies, while Morocco retains control over defence and foreign relations.
For its part, the UN has backed the plan but Algeria and the Polisario Front have so far rejected Rabat's proposal.
Since then, numerous UN-sponsored talks have failed to make a breakthrough, with each side further entrenching its position.
Besides the ‘patriotism’ that fueled the Polisario Front ‘resistance’ against the well-equipped Moroccan army, Algeria played a vital role in backing the separatist movement in its decades-long dispute.
"The move angered the Polisario Front, the Saharawis' self-proclaimed government-in-exile, and its historical ally Algeria, who both advocate for a fully independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the province"
Once Morocco seized the bulk of Western Sahara, Algeria began to provide military support to the Polisario Front and allowed its leaders, as well as many Saharawi refugees to establish themselves on Algerian territory.
Toufiq Bougaada, an Algerian professor of political science at Algiers University, argues that Algerian support for the Polisario Front is rooted in the country’s struggle with colonisation for more than one century.
“To understand Algeria’s support for the Polisario Front, we need to look back in history. Algeria suffered colonisation for 132 years and after gaining its independence it became the defender of colonised people and the castle of revolutionaries," Bougaada told The New Arab.
Considering Western Sahara as the last colony in Africa, “liberating” the territory from Moroccan control became Algeria’s "raison d’être" as a renowned defender of colonised peoples’ rights.
However, post-colonial trauma is far from the only reason behind Algeria’s unlimited support to the Polisario Front. Economic and strategic ambitions also strengthen Algiers’ alliance with the group.
“Having a strategic ally that will provide an entrance to the Atlantic is important for Algeria. Also, Morocco’s invasion of Algerian Sahara in 1963 has put the country in a defensive position, watching for any future military moves that the Kingdom may take against Algiers,” explained Bougaada.
Following both countries’ independence, Morocco attempted to seize a piece of desert territory that French colonial administrators had awarded to Algeria in 1963.
The Moroccan move led to a brief outbreak of fighting between the two countries that was dubbed the “sand war”. After a few weeks, the parties agreed on a ceasefire through negotiations led by Ethiopia and Mali.
Since then the North African neighbours have been on a continuous diplomatic standoff, with border closures and envoys being recalled whenever tensions mount.
During the Bouteflika era, Rabat and Algiers maintained diplomatic niceties despite knocking heads on the Western Sahara conflict.
However, with the Algerian Hirak movement ousting the Morocco-born president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the new Algerian government followed a less diplomatic policy towards its western neighbour.
The rivalry between Algeria and Morocco intensified when the Trump administration convinced Rabat to publicly normalise ties with Israel, in exchange for the American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory.
Algeria considered Morocco and Israel's new friendship a ‘hostile’ move. It cut diplomatic ties and closed borders with Rabat following the normalisation accords.
Last year, Algeria ended the Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline (GME), which was the key gas supplier for Morocco and Spain. Algeria continued to supply gas to Spain through other methods.
Spain caught in the Moroccan-Algerian rivalry
Following Spain’s policy shift on Western Sahara, Algeria has recalled its ambassador from Madrid in protest at Madrid's new position.
Chakib Kaid, Secretary-General of the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "It is clear that Algeria will review all agreements with Spain, in all areas, to see how the relationship evolves in the future.”
Christiane Waked, a Spanish columnist and a political analyst specialising in MENA and Kurdish issues, expects that escalating tensions between Spain and Algeria will affect the economy of both countries, which are linked through export chains, mainly Algerian gas supplies to Madrid.
The Algerian public oil and gas group Sonatrach indicated that it did not rule out a "recalculation" of the prices of gas delivered to Spain in the context of diplomatic tensions between Algiers and Madrid.
Deciding to move against a key gas supplier amidst an international energy crisis raises questions about Spain’s motives.
“Approaching Morocco means moving away, at least as far as the Saharawi conflict is concerned, from Algeria, a key gas supplier for Spain. This change of course is part of a larger geopolitical context," Waked told The New Arab.
"Spain could be also preparing for the post-Ukrainian crisis by re-weaving alliances and ensuring energy sources"
Waked argues that the closure of the Maghreb Europe pipeline has pushed Madrid to diversify its sources of gas supplies and end its dependence on Algerian gas.
“Since January, gas imports from the United States have exceeded those from Algeria for the first time,” explained the Spanish political analyst to The New Arab.
Meanwhile, Spain and Morocco's reconciliation will allow Madrid to cooperate with Rabat in controlling migrants coming from Morocco, who entered the Spanish enclave in record numbers last year.
"Spain could be also preparing for the post-Ukrainian crisis by re-weaving alliances and ensuring energy sources," added Waked.
Also, Morocco’s possible commitment to waive its demand for Ceuta, Melilla, and the Canary Islands, provinces that Rabat considers its own, may have played a key role in negotiating Spain’s policy on Western Sahara, according to Waked.
Spain’s PM Pedro Sanchez intends to appeal to Franco's law of official secrets to classify the negotiations between Morocco and Spain on Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands, according to the latest reports by Spanish media.
Despite Rabat's continual demand for their return, its pursuit to regain control over the Spanish-controlled enclaves has been lukewarm at best, and nothing like its aggressive battle to gain international recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara.
A battle in which the palace, the public, and opposition parties stand unified, with the exception of the Moroccan Marxist party The Democratic Way, which continues to support a "self-determination referendum" in the disputed territory.
Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.
Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma