In Part I of “Surrendering the Sahara,” we discussed the history of Morocco’s Green March (annexation) of the Western Sahara, the international reaction, and Spain’s acquiescent foreign policy. Here, in Part II of this discussion, we will deal with 1) the role of great powers, specifically as concerns U.S. strategy, and 2) the all-important issue of resources (including rare earth minerals), in the region.
U.S.-Moroccan Relations and Spanish Irrelevancy
In the 1970s, Soviet alignment of Algeria and the Polisario Front led to U.S. support of Moroccan irredentism, although U.S.-Moroccan ties have outlived the USSR by several decades now. Morocco enjoys good relations with the U.S., including a free trade agreement, and was the largest purchaser of American arms in Africa and the Near East in 2019:
The biggest customer for American arms in 2019 in the MENA region has been Morocco, which has agreed deals worth some $10.3 billion, almost all of it going on the Royal Moroccan Air Force.
There has been talk of the U.S. establishing a permanent base in Morocco to replace the one at Rota, Spain, should it close. Crucially, and accounting for Spanish nervousness over these strengthening ties, neither Ceuta nor Melilla fall under the NATO umbrella. No NATO country is required to react to Spain should these cities be attacked by Morocco, which is not a NATO member (See Spain’s Geopolitical Subordinationism: Reflections on the NATO Summit in Madrid)
In December of 2020, Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The “Proclamation on Recognizing the Sovereignty Of The Kingdom Of Morocco Over The Western Sahara” reads:
The United States affirms, as stated by previous Administrations, its support for Morocco’s autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory. Therefore, as of today, the United States recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory and reaffirms its support for Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara territory.
In this context, the African kingdom officially recognized Israel, a country with which it had already been maintaining friendly-relations military cooperation. It has also shown interest in purchasing Israeli weapons, as well as Iron Dome technology.
On this point, Joe Biden’s Presidency is in continuity with that of Trump’s, showing support for Morocco’s plans for the Western Sahara. On the 8th of March, 2022, during her visit to Rabat, the Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman “noted that we continue to view Morocco’s autonomy plan as serious, credible, and realistic, and a potential approach to satisfy the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara.” It is worth noting that the words “serious, credible, and realistic” are not only those that the Trump administration used, but also, according to the Moroccan Ministry of Exterior, very nearly those invoked in the letter it received from the Spanish government as well.
U.S. geopolitics clearly places a premium on the neighborhood of the Western Sahara. José Manuel Otero Novas, Minister of the Presidency and Education in the 1970s, serving under Spain’s first democratically elected head of government, Adolfo Suárez, claimed that during his tenure, a CIA communiqué was intercepted making it clear that if Spain did not join NATO, the U.S. would continue strengthening separatists in the Canary Islands (specifically the “Movimiento por la Autodeterminación e Independencia del Archipiélago Canario” or MPAIAC). Crucially, whatever strategic importance the Canary Islands might have, also applies to the nearby Western Sahara.
Assuming Otero Novas is telling the truth, supporting a transition away from Spanish sovereignty did not end up being practical in the case of the Canary Islands—in the case of the Western Sahara, however, it is understandable that, for the U.S., rule by a close ally like Morocco should be preferable to an independent state. The two regions, one island, one desert, are comparable to the degree that both would require a generation of social engineering—to convince Canary islanders that they are not Spaniards, and to convince Saharawis that they are Moroccan. The latter, however, is not necessary, as Morocco is pursuing a policy of demographic colonialism.
Another reason for U.S. support of Moroccan expansion is to suppress the alternative: The Polisario Front, which is hostile to the US, would presumably be prominent in an independent Western Sahara. In addition, for the U.S., it is preferable that the strategically important Atlantic entry into Africa should consist of one rather than two sovereign entities with which to negotiate. Of course, this is likely to cause tensions with Spain, particularly as concerns where the Moroccan maritime border of the Western Saharan coast is to end, and where that of the Canary Islands is to begin.
For its part, the Spanish Right has generally distinguished itself from certain elements of the Left by trying to align with U.S. geopolitics, as highlighted by its recent disagreement with Podemos when this party tried to block Spanish sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia. As for the Socialist party (PSOE), the majority partner of the country’s current ruling coalition, it is very much aligned with U.S. foreign policy, to the point of apparently sacrificing Spanish interests. These interests are at odds with the U.S., as well as with French and Italian projections in the region. They could, of course, be harmonized, or balanced, including with Morocco, but that requires skilled diplomacy.
Regarding U.S. influence on the region, crucially, on the 2nd of October 2020, Washington signed a military agreement with Morocco. In this context, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper went so far as to say that “in many respects, the Kingdom is the first friendly country of the United States of America.” As mentioned above, Morocco has acquired a great deal of American arms, including Lockheed Martin’s F-35s, updating its military with 5th generation fighters. If we compare these to the Eurofighter Typhoon, in whose development Spain played an important role, it seems the latter is slightly inferior, albeit also lighter. Crucially, the F-35 is more able to evade radar than the Eurofighter. Morocco is also updating its F-16s. For its part, Spain is participating in the development of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and 6th generation jet-fighters.
More important, perhaps, then the acquisition of advanced arms, however, is the proposal that Morocco consolidate military cooperation with the U.S. by promoting joint investment projects in the North African country, leading to technology transfer and building up the kingdom’s strategic autonomy. This idea has been put forward by Adeltif Loudyi, the Moroccan Deputy Minister for National Defense. It has been reported that Morocco is already receiving U.S. RQ-4 technology for the manufacturing of unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and attack.
Apart from arms sales and joint exercises, the October 2020 agreement extends to issues of cyber security. Consequently, the NSA (U.S. National Security Agency) is to be present at the Ksar es-Seghir naval base, near the Spanish city of Ceuta. This is all balanced somewhat by U.S. interest in Moroccan rival Algeria, which U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited in October of 2020 to discuss expanding military cooperation, partly in order to displace Russian influence in the region.
Resources and the Balance of Power
We may turn to the issue of resources, which are, in a sense, the skeleton key to understanding much of the above. It is not only strategic placement that makes the Western Sahara a prize worth harnessing to a reliable ally. The territory is also extremely resource rich. In 2010, it was discovered that the seafloor of the Canary Islands contains plentiful reserves of cobalt, rare earth minerals, copper, tellurium, platinum, nickel, and vanadium, as well as other resources, including hydrocarbon reserves.
Importantly, much of the mineral wealth in question seems to be found near volcanoes, all of which are within Spain’s exclusive economic zone, with the exception of Mount Tropic, which is 50 miles away from its edge. Morocco and Spain have both asked that the UN extend their maritime territory to include this volcano, but no decision has been reached yet. (To give an idea of the quantity of resources in question, it has been speculated that the Tropic seamount could contain enough cobalt to manufacture 277 million electric cars.)
Crucially, extending its sovereignty over the Western Sahara expands Moroccan waters and strengthens its case in claiming resources farther into the sea.
Given the development of underwater mining and the importance of these materials to various industries, the above sets the Canary Islands up to be highly important going forward. Europe is generally not rich in rare earth minerals, which makes these deposits extremely valuable.
However, the EU has its own, internal balance of power, and it may well be that it is in some countries’ interest to maintain this balance, which is best served by purchasing some of these resources through Morocco, rather than significantly enriching a fellow Member State like Spain.
The way things have developed in the Western Sahara seems to indicate that there exists a broad, informal consensus, at least among the U.S. and many of its allies, to strengthen Morocco and support its regional ambitions, to the detriment of Spanish geopolitical importance, resource exploitation and, possibly, to the point of making Spain’s non-peninsular territories vulnerable.
We may ascribe U.S. support for Moroccan designs to various causes, including: 1) the desire to maintain a certain European balance of power; 2) the sense that an independent Western Sahara, and the future exploitation of resources around the Canary Islands, would give Spain too much power over the strategically important entry from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean, making it preferable that this be balanced by a stronger Morocco; 3) the important role Morocco plays as a part of the Arab world, including in normalizing relations with Israel, and; 4) the lack of trustworthiness which the current Spanish government inspires, consisting of a coalition that includes Podemos, a party whose orientation is generally anti-American. It remains to be seen whether the next government of Spain will reverse policy and be capable of securing the country’s interests.
The above goes to show that, despite the wide economic gulf between the western Mediterranean states, Moroccan diplomacy has by far exceeded that of Spain, and that the size of an economy is not a determining factor in deciding a country’s importance to larger players. It is also the case that Spain’s political class includes a significant faction whose purpose is quite straightforwardly to advance global consensus over and against national interest.