Spain’s Western Sahara Indecision Nets Harsh Rebuttal From Algeria

Early June saw Algeria ramp up its retaliatory measures against Spain as the dispute over the Western Sahara continues to escalate. Algeria announced a suspension of trade in products and services with Spain, just one day after also suspending a friendship and co-operation treaty the two countries signed 20 years ago. These actions were prompted after Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez spoke to the Spanish parliament, outlining his decision to side with Morocco, rather than Algeria, in the debate about the Western Sahara’s future. Algeria’s strong reaction to this decision indicates the difficulty Spain faces in managing relations between the two sides.

One former Algerian official told Reuters that Algiers had received Spain’s decision as an indication that the country no longer intended to preserve good relations with Algeria. Statements from the Algerian government accusing Spain of giving its support to the “illegal and illegitimate formula … advanced by the occupying power [i.e., Morocco]” and of acting “in violation of its legal, moral, and political obligations” back this interpretation.

The Spanish government, on the other hand, expressed regret about the recent breakdown in relations, releasing a statement that it continues to regard Algeria as a friendly country and that Spain has “complete readiness to keep and develop the special co-operation relationship between our two countries, to the benefit of the people of both.”

Thus, Spain is left between two regionally important countries. Algeria’s actions show that it is willing to stomach not only political and diplomatic losses but also economic losses over Western Sahara’s future. Spain’s recent commitment to Morocco, meanwhile, looks set to be tested. It is now clear that if Spain wants to be involved in resolving the Western Sahara conflict, it must do so with the understanding that may gravely endanger relations between the involved parties. Sánchez should therefore consider all his options carefully and commit only to decisions he feels are both in line with Spanish values and conducive to peace, avoiding hasty commitments to a course of action that could cause long-term diplomatic repercussions.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty Spain has exhibited regarding the Western Sahara suggests a lack of resolve. After Spain, the former colonial power, left the Western Sahara, Morocco annexed the region. Since that takeover, Algeria has supported an independence movement in the region calling for a referendum on the Western Sahara’s future. Spain has traditionally tried to avoid angering either side, but a diplomatic dispute was sparked last year when it agreed to allow Brahim Ghali, a key figure in the Western Sahara’s self-determination movement, to be treated for COVID in Spain. In response, Morocco recalled its ambassador and relaxed border controls, releasing a sudden stream of migrants into Spain. A floundering Spain thus publicly endorsed the plan calling for Western Saharan autonomy within Morocco, mending relations with Morocco but prompting a backlash both in Algeria and also domestically. Over 70% of Spaniards back independence in the Western Sahara (including over 80% of the Prime Minister’s own supporters).

The sudden policy reversal shows that Sánchez is willing to risk Spanish public opinion, Algerian relations, and Western Saharans’ right to self-determination to pursue relations with Morocco. The hostile Algerian response is understandable in the face of such a clear expression of favor. At the same time, however, Spain’s pursuit of three drastically different approaches within the last three years implies that this was a desperate and hasty capitulation to Moroccan relations, not a measured policy response. That Sánchez is so seemingly cavalier about a problem Spain played a part in causing in the first place is a sign of the Spanish government’s lack of interest in considering the human and moral costs of its actions.