Morocco’s Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani and the Polisario’s leader Brahim Ghali were both invited to the inauguration ceremony of Panama’s newly elected president.
Morocco’s prime minister attends the ceremony
Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani arrived in Panama on Sunday, June 30, 2019, to attend the inauguration of the country’s newly elected President, Laurentino Cortizo.
At Tocumen International Airport, located in Panama City, El Othmani was greeted by Panama’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luis Miguel Hincapié.
El Othmani used his official Twitter account to announce the purpose of his trip to the Central American country.
Posting a picture of him alongside the Panamanian official, the Moroccan PM put his visit in the context of Morocco’s efforts to win international support for its “major causes,” a reference to Morocco’s pro-active diplomacy on the Western Sahara question.
“This participation reflects Morocco’s wish to deepen ties with Panama, to revive bilateral relations (…) and launch a formal political dialogue while ensuring that a strategic partnership is established in the service of both countries and their major causes,” El Othmani wrote on Twitter the day of his arrival.
El Othmani told Maghreb Arab Press (MAP) on Monday that the Moroccan government will work on strengthening “ties with Panama,” as the country plays a substantial role in Central America’s affairs.
Ghali attempts to secure support for the Polisario
On Saturday, June 29, 2019, the Polisario’s leader Brahim Ghali flew to Panama City. Upon his arrival, Ghali was received by representatives from the Panamanian National Authorities, according to reports by the Polisario Front’s news agency.
While in Panama City, the leader of the separatist movement, who claims to be the sole representative of the Saharawis aimed at consolidating ties with the Central American country.
Ghali planned to hold meetings with multiple Panamanian officials and heads of state and government.
The tension between the Polisario Front and Morocco has been ongoing for four decades.
Although military confrontation has been largely contained, courtesy of a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement between the two sides, divergences have remained, and sometimes deepened, as to the future of the disputed territories.
While Rabat’s Autonomy Plan for the region to become an autonomous region of Morocco is widely accepted as the only practical solution, Polisario continues to insist on the holding of a referendum of self-determination with the option of independence being among the potential outcomes.
Panama was the first Latin American country to recognize self-styled Saharawis Arab Democratic Republic in 1978. It was also the first to host a Polisario Embassy in 1980.
In 2013, the Panamanian government released a statement announcing the suspension of its recognition of the so-called SADR.
Two years later, the Central American country reinstated its recognition of the self-proclaimed SADR and revived its relations with the Polisario Front. Meanwhile, Panama strove to strengthen its tie with Morocco.
In the old, sometimes exceedingly defensive Moroccan Western Sahara diplomacy, Panama’s stance on the conflict would most certainly be considered a reason for not having normal diplomatic links with the Latin American country.
Rabat used to resort to the “empty chair policy” with diehard supporters of the separatist front.
From defensive to proactive diplomacy
For the past five years, however, Morocco’s proactive approach to diplomacy has come with a special emphasis on advancing the Moroccan perspective in countries that have typically been more prone to support the Polisario’s “Sahrawi cause.”
Morocco’s return to the AU, which still recognizes SADR, as well as King Mohammed VI’s recent call for “frank dialogue” and diplomatic normalization with Algeria and South Africa, have been largely interpreted as ultimate signs of Morocco increasingly privileging diplomatic effectiveness and feasibility over sustaining ideological divergences.
In 2015, Panama opened an embassy in Rabat, while one year later the Panamanian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation chaired the opening ceremony of Morocco’s embassy in Panama City.
Although Panama maintained relations with the Polisario throughout the years, it simultaneously managed to sustain a friendly attitude towards Morocco which continues up until today.
Most importantly, perhaps, news of Morocco and Polisario attending the same event in Panama comes on the heel of epoch-making diplomatic overtures in Morocco’s increasingly robust diplomatic ties with a horde of Latin American countries.
In Moroccan diplomatic circles, Rabat’s perceived resolution to advance its narrative with traditionally pro-Polisario interlocutors means that the North African country now understands the value of engaging in previously uncharted territories.
As opposed to emptying the chair as that comforts each side in its position, Moroccan experts have argued, Morocco is taking its narrative to normally pro-SADR countries in the hope that they may pay attention.
Most recently, the policy has worked magic in Latin America, with Brazil, Colombia, Barbados, and the Dominican Republic all reconsidering their Western Sahara stance.
As El Othmani attended the presidential inauguration in Panama city, his hope, as Nasser Bourita’s had been prior to his recent tour in Latin America, seemed to be that Panama might one day join the cohort of Latin American nations depriving Polisario of their support.