Worsening Algeria-Spain Relations Spell Trouble for Western Sahara

On Wednesday, the eighth of June 2022, Algeria announced it was suspending a decades-long ‘friendship treaty’ with Spain. The cooling of relations between the two countries, separated by only 150 kilometers of the Mediterranean sea, has major ramifications for peace and stability in the region of Western Sahara, a country contested by Morocco and an Algeria-backed independence movement headed by an organization known as the Polisario. Western Sahara came under formal Spanish control after the 1884 Berlin Conference, which saw the major colonial powers of Europe make a ‘scramble for Africa’ as they carved the continent between themselves. Though only a minor presence in Africa compared to the likes of Britain and France, Spain retained its hold over the region, a stretch of sparsely-populated desert on the coast of North-West Africa, until the death of Francisco Franco in the 1970s when the international pressure to decolonize led to a Spanish withdrawal. Since then, Spain’s position on the complex matter of Western Saharan sovereignty has been one of neutrality. However, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has recently begun to disavow neutrality, instead choosing to adopt a more Rabat-friendly approach.

Immediately after the Spanish withdrawal in 1975, Western Sahara was claimed by Morocco to the north and by Mauritania in the south, while the Polisario argued and fought a guerrilla-style war for self-determination. Morocco occupied most of the territory after Mauritania relinquished its claims in 1979. The Polisario, representing and descendant from nomadic Sahrawi-Arab tribes, have since found refuge in the country’s more inhospitable regions and in refugee camps set up in nearby Algeria. Armed conflict between the Polisario and Morocco has abated since a 1991 ceasefire, but recent developments and the failure to arrive at a workable solution for the government make this peace a tenuous one.

According to Jacob Mundy, Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University, the pledge made by King Hassan II of Morocco in the 1970s, amid the growth of anti-monarchical sentiment in north Africa, to gloriously “reclaim” Western Sahara has since been etched into national memory. Western Saharan independence has been deemed unacceptable. Foreign observers like the UN note Morocco’s historical ties to the region but do not consider them to be significant enough to merit affording outright sovereignty to Rabat. The claims of the Polisario on Western Saharan sovereignty are more convincing if the concept of self-determination, the right of a people to freely choose their own government without external interference, is to hold true. The conflict has seen immense human suffering on both sides, with tens of thousands of Sahrawis being driven out of their lands and into Algerian refugee camps, while similar numbers of Moroccans have faced expulsion from Algeria.

Prime Minister Sánchez recently asserted that a Moroccan-led solution was the “most serious, credible, and realistic basis” for change in Western Sahara and referred to a “new phase” in relations between Spain and the Kingdom of Morocco. Spain’s decision to alienate Algeria, a chief exporter of fossil fuels into the country (Algeria supplied 40% of Spanish imported natural gas according to Euronews) and a long-time rival of neighboring Morocco, has not proven popular for Pedro Sánchez domestically. However, Rabat has displayed a willingness to use the flow of migration as a political weapon in recent times, letting thousands of migrants leave Moroccan shores for Spain.

While the Western Saharan independence movement remains sheltered in Algeria, it remains imperative for the international community not to turn their backs on the ordinary people facing the consequences of an unresolved territorial dispute. In 2020, Jared Kushner, senior advisor to President Trump, traded US recognition of Moroccan claims on Western Sahara for Morocco’s recognition of the state of Israel. Moroccan domination of Western Sahara is likely to produce the most injustice, and it is unfortunate for the Sahrawi people that powerful nations like Spain and America appear only to be hastening it.