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Why Morocco Supports Spain’s Unity in Catalonia Referendum

Rabat – As tension mounted in Catalonia after a local independence referendum received a crackdown from Madrid, Morocco expressed its official support of Spain’s Unity. Some have connected the kingdom’s stance to the conflict in the Western Sahara, but one political analyst has a different explanation.

For decades, Morocco and Spain have been at odds over the kingdom’s dispute with the separatist Polisario Front. Madrid has long held a position that was regarded by Moroccans as hostile to what they see as the kingdom’s territorial integrity.

For some, the Spanish hostility had roots in the rich history of conflict between the sides, including over Spain’s continuous “occupation” of lands Moroccans believe are theirs, such as the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and the Chafarinas Islands.

According to this reading, Madrid tried to divert Morocco’s attention from those lands and keep the kingdom focused on Western Sahara by providing support for the separatist Polisario Front.

In the 1970’s Spain also reportedly encouraged Mauritania to claim parts of Western Sahara and supported Algeria to be an active player in the conflict, according to a document released by Wikileaks.

In Spain, Polisario has a sizeable following among Sahrawi students, activists, and politicians. Some Polisario’s leading members hold Spanish nationality, including Khadijetou Ould El Mokhtar Sidhmed, an organization representative recently deported from Peru.

The Iberian kingdom is also home to several local pro-Polisario NGOs.

Things started to change however when the Socialists came to power in Spain in 2004. Economic considerations, especially after the 2008 international crisis, and Spain’s increasing reliance on its partnership with Morocco to fight terrorism and counter unwanted immigration were also key factors behind Spain’s change of position regarding the issue.

In contrast with its standpoints in the past, Madrid declares today that is in favor of a “lasting” and “mutually agreed-upon” solution to the conflict, and that is keen to preserve the strong relations with Morocco.

But was the Western Sahara dispute the reason Mustapha El Khalfi said late September that the kingdom backed Spain in its rejection of the Catalan referendum?

Samir Bennis, Morocco World News’s senior analyst, says that Morocco’s pro-unity stance and its own territorial dispute are unrelated.

“Morocco’s support to Spain is in line with its foreign policy, which rejects secessionist movements and defends the sovereignty of states and their territorial integrity,” says the analyst.

Bennis explains that this position has remained unchanged, giving as an example Morocco’s refusal to recognize Kosovo and its denunciation of the recent independence vote in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan.

On Thursday, El Khalfi said that Morocco stands with the Iraqi government in its rejection of the referendum which he said threatens the “security and territorial integrity” of the country.

The other reason why Rabat is backing Madrid in the ongoing tension with the Catalan government, Bennis continues, is that Morocco respects the Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighborliness concluded with Spain in July 1991.

The treaty put a premium on the defense of each country’s sovereignty, stresses the analyst.

By supporting the position of the Spanish government, Morocco is honoring this agreement, which clearly stipulates that both countries respect the sovereignty of each and “refrain from interfering in its internal affairs.”

While Morocco has made its position clear, Algeria, which has long justified its backing of Polisario by emphasizing people’s “right to self-determination,” has refrained from commenting on the crisis. Polisario, Algeria’s protégé, has also remained silent.

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