By Guillaume Klein
By Guillaume Klein
RABAT, Nov 03, 2012 (AFP)
Morocco and the UN envoy for Western Sahara, who was spurned by Rabat in May, are back on speaking terms, but analysts say the situation over the disputed territory has noticeably altered to the
The rising importance of the security issue in the Sahel region, where a military intervention could take place against Islamists in northern Mali, is lending weight to the regional influence of Algeria, a supporter of Western Sahara’s independence-seeking Polisario Front.
Christopher Ross’s return to Morocco six months after the kingdom said it had no confidence in the UN envoy came without fanfare. His visit was discussed in the local media but the two parties restricted
their communication to keep the international media at bay.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s representative spent four days in Rabat before going to Laayoune, Western Sahara’s main town, his first time there since taking up the post in 2009.
Beyond the standard meetings with Moroccan officials, he also met a wider range of actors, including political and civil society figures from all sides of the dispute over the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
These developments prove that “the environment has changed radically”, notably in the “new context” of the Arab Spring, said Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a university professor in France and specialist on the Maghreb region. “We are seeing the UN role being redefined,” she added, saying that “the
people (of the sparsely populated territory) will from now on be partners (in the process)”.
Mohsen-Finan said that above all, Ross’s remaining in his post even after Rabat accused him of being biased and partial, followed by his return to the region, was “an affront” to Morocco.
On Tuesday, the Akhbar al-Youm newspaper said Morocco had made “two mistakes” on the Ross issue.
“The first one was when it decided to expressly withdraw its confidence in him without getting a green light from the US, and the second was when it accepted his return as if nothing had happened,” it said.
The UN envoy has returned, but “will certainly not forget the incident”, the newspaper added.
“No one has explained to the public the reasons for (Ross’s) return,” said Abdelfettah Benamchi, head of think tank the Moroccan Centre for Parallel Diplomacy and Dialogue of Civilisations. Rabat “should have stuck to its decision or not taken it in the first place”, he said.
This opinion is not shared by everyone. Mustafa Naimi, a university professor and member of the Royal Advisory Council For Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), said that Morocco is the prime beneficiary of its actions.
Rabat “did what was necessary” to defend its interests and the Ross visit simply appeared to come as an “inaugural tour”, he said. It showed, according to Naimi, Rabat’s “flexibility” at the same time as
involving “stakeholders who will illuminate the issue (for Ross)”.
Ross’s vision for resolving the conflict was based solely on the referendum option, demanded by the Polisario Front, Naimi added. Rabat “put its foot down by saying it could not support” a unilateral approach, he said.
Morocco proposes granting broad autonomy to the former Spanish colony, an initiative backed by permanent UN Security Council member France. But the Polisario Front rejects the proposal and demands “the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination” via a referendum, which Algeria supports.
According to Naimi, much of the conflict’s resolution will necessarily go through Algeria, whose regional weight appears to grow with the increasing importance on the international stage of the security situation in the Sahel.
As Ross visited Rabat, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to try and obtain his support for African military action in northern Mali, whose border with Algeria runs 1,400 kilometres (860 miles) in length.
Northern Mali has been occupied by Islamist militants since earlier this year, prompting Bamako to seek UN authorisation for outside help, most probably a joint African effort, in reclaiming the region.