Moroccan diplomacy, international interests (including those of the U.S.) favorable to Moroccan regional hegemony, and Spanish concessions have cemented Morocco’s pretensions on the Western Sahara.
In this essay, we will explore the recent history of Morocco’s annexation of the Saharan region, the remarkably wanton acquiescence of Spanish politicians, and Spain’s dire geostrategic situation.
The saga serves as a case study for the irrelevance of international law in certain areas and the degree to which a country’s political class can sellout its interests by conforming to certain international arrangements.
In Part II, we will analyze the geopolitical and energy policy implications of the Moroccan annexation of the Western Sahara for Europe.
The Green March and its Antecedents
During what is known as the Green March, on the 6th of November, 1975, Morocco deployed 300,000 unarmed civilians—among whom 25,000 soldiers were embedded—in an operation to occupy what had been Spanish West Africa. The territory in question came under Spanish dominion between 1946 and 1958, at which time it included Cape Juby and Ifni, both of which had been ceded to Morocco (in 1958 and 1968 respectively). It was then comprised of the regions known as Sagui al-Hambra and the Rio de Oro, with a total landmass of about 266,000km2, being home to roughly 155,000 inhabitants.
Five years earlier, in 1970, the UN approved a referendum on self-determination. Spain signed on in 1974, expecting that it would take place the following year. The king of Morocco, Hasan II, for his part, rejected the move, and brought the case to the International Court at the Hague, suggesting the Western Sahara might be deemed “res nullius,” belonging to no one. He also questioned Spanish sovereignty over the North African cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Consequently, the referendum would be delayed until the Hague had ruled on these issues.
A great deal happened in the four years between the UN’s call for a referendum and Spain’s agreeing to it. Morocco suffered two attempts at a coup d’état, in 1971 and 1972; a group of Western Saharan independence fighters, the Polisario Front, was founded in 1973; Spain’s dictator, Franco, fell ill, de facto abdicating most of his responsibilities to the country’s future head of state and heir to the Spanish crown, Juan Carlos.
The Green March in International Context
The Green March seems to have received Saudi Arabian funding and CIA support. Morocco’s decision to move forward with the occupation, which took place soon after Franco’s death in 1975, was supported by the U.S. and France, partly from political expediency: the North African kingdom’s enemies, the Polisario Front and Algeria, were aligned with the Soviet Union.
Spain, for its part, did not react with any vehemence. In this regard, it should be remembered that, although in 1958 the Western Sahara was granted the status of a fully enfranchised province by Spain, the population was generally hostile and the Polisario Front principally targeted Spanish soldiers at the time of its founding.
Furthermore, as Secretary Colonel of the Spanish Saharan Government, Rodriguez de Viguri, told the Spanish newspaper Diario 16 in 1977:
The U.S., through [the] CIA, had put pressure on Spain to cede [the Western] Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania and that cession [was] made “with the intervention of American intelligence agencies.” Rodriguez noted the dependence of Spain on the U.S. for arms.
Wikileaks cables suggest that King Juan Carlos, who Morocco already considered Spain’s representative prior to Franco’s death, did not want to involve himself in the affair, and hoped for a quick resolution. On the 14th of November, 1975, days after the Green March, Spain signed the Tripartite Accords, according to which Morocco, Mauritania, and a local Saharan tribal council known as the Yema’a would administer the territory jointly.
The next month, on the 10th of December, the UN reiterated that the Western Sahara had a right to self-determination. Spain finally left on the 26th of February, 1976. The very next day, on the 27th, Morocco announced that the Yema’s had approved the Western Sahara’s incorporation into Morocco and Mauritania. And the day after this, the Polisario Front declared the creation of an independent Arab Saharan Democratic Republic.
Moroccan Annexation and Colonization
Morocco’s move to have the whole territory administered by itself and Mauritania contradicted the Hague’s decision, when it finally arrived on the 16th of October, 1976—a decision Morocco had opted not to wait for). As far as the UN was concerned, Spain was, and to this day still is, one of the administrators of the Western Sahara, whose responsibility it is to help its people exercise their right to self-determination by way of referendum.
The Polisario Front would continue waging guerrilla warfare from Algeria, specifically from the refugee camp at Tindouf. Mauritania, for its part, was eventually pressured into reneging its claims to the Western Sahara in 1979, leaving Morocco as the only foreign contender for sovereignty over the territory.
Morocco immediately began building a 2,720 km long wall to separate the southern provinces under its control from the area under the Polisario Front. This wall would be completed in 1987, including anywhere between 10 and 40 million mines, secured by 100,000 soldiers.
In 1999, both the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front accepted a future referendum in line with the UN’s position. However, the Polisario Front accused Morocco of delaying this in order that Moroccan colonists, now living in the Western Sahara and making up the majority of its population, might be eligible to vote.
The UN’s plan for a referendum was dubbed the “Baker Plan,” after prominent U.S. statesman James Baker, who served as the UN envoy to the Western Sahara. He would eventually resign in 2004 owing to the long-standing failure to get the referendum organized.
And yet, so far as international law is concerned, a “Non-Self-Governing Territory” like the Western Sahara will change its status only once its people have exercised their right to self-determination, following Resolution 2625 (XXV) of the General Assembly (24th of October 1970). This, then, seems to be an example of international law falling well short of international practice, as things have moved forward regardless. In any case, it has been suggested that the UN’s language pertaining to this conflict has shifted away from an explicit defense of the principle of self-determination (Resolution 621/1988):
Anxious to support these efforts with a view to the holding of a referendum for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara … Requests the Secretary-General to transmit to it as soon as possible a report on the holding of a referendum for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.
Instead of the right to self-determination, it now emphasizes a “mutually acceptable” path (Resolution 1541/2004), a term that did not appear in Resolution 621:
Reaffirming its commitment to assist the parties to achieve a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara … Reaffirms also its strong support for the efforts of the Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy in order to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution.
The Security Council’s position (S/2002/161) with respect to Moroccan exploitation of resources in the region also allows Morocco some leeway. Concerning,
the legality … of actions allegedly taken by the Moroccan authorities consisting in the offering and signing of contracts with foreign companies for the exploration of mineral resources in Western Sahara,
there was some question concerning whether such could be undertaken in strict observance of the interests of the people of the Non-Self-Governing Territory, or not at all. It was concluded by Hans Corell, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, that
while the specific contracts which are the subject of the Security Council’s request are not in themselves illegal, if further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the principles of international law applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories.
Turning to recent developments, and in line with the principle of defending the interests of the Western Sahara, in September 2021, the EU Court annulled EU-Moroccan trade deals that had not counted on the consent of the Saharawis. However, since then, Germany has backed the Moroccan plan for the Western Sahara (following a diplomatic row), highlighting a lack of European coherence in this area.
It is in this context that Spain acquiesced. In 2021, Spain received a request from Algeria to provide the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, with medical treatment for COVID-19. This was done secretly, but Moroccan agents discovered the affair, leading to diplomatic conflict and prompting Morocco to send more than 10,000 civilians to the border with the Spanish city of Ceuta. For its part, Morocco has claimed that Spain’s treatment of Ghali is irrelevant, and that its hostility towards its northern neighbor was due to Spanish unwillingness to accept the recognition of Moroccan power over the Western Sahara by the U.S. (under Trump). The use of unarmed civilians (some of whom were extremely young and had apparently been coaxed by authorities with promises that they would find the footballers Ronaldo and Messi on the other side of the border) is therefore a constant in Moroccan policy, going back to the Green March.
In a remarkable about-face, Spain has since accepted Morocco’s position with respect to the Western Sahara. On the 18th of March, 2022, the Moroccan Ministry of Exterior announced that it had received a letter from the President of the Government of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, in which he accepted the Moroccan claim to the Western Sahara as “the most solid, realistic and credible basis on which to resolve the historic contention.” This means Spain has acted outside international law, abdicating its responsibility, according to the UN, to guarantee the Western Sahara’s exercise of the right to self-determination through a referendum.
Although this represents a break with prior policy, making progressively more significant concessions to Morocco does represent a long-standing trajectory for Spain. In 2007 and 2008, the Socialist head of government, Rodriguez Zapatero, showed himself quite willing to go along with the Moroccan line.
Spain’s reversal would seem to come at the most inopportune time, given the urgent need to get along with Algeria in securing energy. Pedro Sánchez’s behavior is particularly striking in its disregard of Parliament, and even his own coalition partners, acting unilaterally in accepting the Moroccan position. It has been claimed that Spain’s sacrifice of the Western Sahara must be part of a strategy whereby Morocco has relinquished any claims on Ceuta and Melilla, albeit secretly for now. However, during a meeting with Moroccan King Mohammed VI following the above concession, no mention of the two territories was made. Such could have been limited to striking a conciliatory tone, and would thereby have helped Spain’s socialists justify their kowtowing to Moroccan interests at home. That so slight a sign of reciprocity could not be extracted from the Moroccan crown strongly suggests that the Spanish government, for whatever reason, is simply not acting on behalf of its country’s geopolitical interest, and is giving something for nothing. The meeting was further blemished by an upside-down Spanish flag, conspicuously placed behind the Spanish head of government, which some commentators interpreted as a deliberate provocation.
Spain’s Present Situation
One of the major reasons for Spain’s concession is likely to get Morocco to regulate illegal immigration into Spain from its side, which amounts to giving in to blackmail. It has also been suggested by pro-government journalists that Algeria knew and has agreed to Spain’s decisions, that relations will soon normalize, and that a steady energy supply from Algeria to Spain will resume, while Morocco gives up on any further territorial claims. In other words, Spain has lost nothing and its position vis-à-vis Morocco and Algeria, who are both about to reconcile definitively, has never been stronger. Such is the degree of wishful-thinking—or wanton manipulation—required from establishment journalists to make recent developments palatable.
Already towards the end of 2021, Algeria showed its willingness to use the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which runs through Morocco and into Spain and Portugal, as a political chess piece. There are alternatives to transport gas from Algeria to Spain without passing through Morocco, but Spanish alignment with Morocco makes these unattractive for Algeria. Meanwhile, the Trans-Mediterranean pipeline that connects Algeria to Italy provides more flow capacity than the pipeline reaching Spain, and recently, Italo-Algerian energy relations were further strengthened.
Just before the recent NATO Summit in Madrid, Morocco made a show of brutally suppressing a group of migrants attempting to enter Melilla illegally. Combined with Spain’s unwillingness or incapacity to get NATO to explicitly commit to the defense of its north African territories, this leaves the security of these territories under Moroccan discretion, with the presence of migrants posing a permanent bargaining chip and source of pressure on Spain, should Morocco need it.
Spain is adrift at a time when its energy needs are most dire, and precisely when changing geopolitical conditions could have allowed it to strengthen its strategic importance as an entry-point for North African gas to the rest of Europe—leaving the likeliest causes of Spain’s recent policy choices as incompetence or deliberate national sabotage.