Agadir – “Since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara… [many] have been quick to caricature and decontextualize the decades-long dispute while omitting key historical facts,” writes Samir Bennis in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine.
Samir, the co-founder of Morocco World News and a foreign policy specialist, penned the article as a response to Foreign Policy articles by Stephen Zunes and John Bolton, who had offered a truncated and incomplete picture of the Sahara conflict.
At the heart of the article is the exploration of the deep-rooted historical, socio-political, and legal ties between Morocco and its southern provinces. This, Bennis argued, is a nuance that most people miss or conveniently ignore when commenting on the decades-long dispute.
“One audaciously ahistorical conclusion that stands out from Zunes’s and Bolton’s articles is the notion that the conflict’s history started in 1975 and ended in 1991,” he wrote.
Bennis also noted that the self-determination referendum, which pro-Polisario commentators still present as reflecting the UN’s position and the foundation of international law on the Sahara question, is no longer a valid argument in light of recent developments.
From the perspective of the UN Security Council, “peace can only come through negotiations and the achievement of a mutually acceptable political solution,” he pointed out, hinting at the robust UN consensus around a “compromise-based” solution.
Referendum debate and changing legal status
Sidestepping the complex history of the Sahara issue, many mainstream commentators and observers still “systematically” portray Morocco as a villain, an occupying country, and the main force preventing UN efforts to hold a referendum.
Morocco and the Polisario Front are both known to have rejected the terms of the referendum when they did not align with their aspirations. Yet, Bennis showed, the dominant narrative continues to misleadingly accuse Morocco of being the only culprit, the main force behind the “failure” of the UN’s initial agenda.
In addition to its historical, well-documented right to Western Sahara, Morocco has been considerably involved in maintaining security and stability in the Sahelo-Saharan corridor and elsewhere in the region. On the economic front, it has notably and continuously invested in unprecedented development projects in the southern provinces. However, wrote Bennis, “mainstream reports and analyses tend to overlook all these facts.”
More significant, however, has been the change of the legal status of the territory. “One aspect that has been conspicuously absent from this debate is the change in the legal status of the territory over the past 15 years,” Bennis noted, pointing to consistency as an essential aspect of international customary law. While a self-determination referendum might have been the basis for conflict resolution in the early years of the Sahara dispute, the last 20 years marked a change in how the UN has approached the issue.
Keeping in mind the longstanding support of various US administrations for the Autonomy Plan, as well as the change in how the UN discusses the issue, Samir argues that the UN has moved beyond “a solution resulting in a victorious party and a vanquished one.” To support this idea, he points to the “absence of the term “referendum” from all [UN] resolutions adopted since 2007,” and the emergence of “compromise” as the cornerstone of the political process.
As Bennis showed, the fact that UN resolutions have for over a decade called for a “compromise-based” political solution “ gives the compromise-driven approach force of law according to the principle of consistency of practice.”
US – Moroccan diplomacy
In his response, Bennis also drew on the historical ties between Morocco and the US, covering the relationship of the two countries going as far back as 1906. Going back as far as the Algeciras conference, the United States made the commitment to preserve Morocco’s sovereignty, which at the time also included the Western Sahara. By displaying support for Morocco’s sovereignty today, the Biden administration would be honoring the commitment it made over a century ago. Besides, since “Morocco has remained steadfast in its support for the United States,” he argued, “the Biden administration should not fall prey” to the misleading, biased mainstream analysis of the Sahara question”
The US has shown its support for the Moroccan Autonomy Plan going as far back as the Bill Clinton administration, an increasingly popular stance on the global stage. Bennis points out that “since 2018, ‘compromise’ has become the cornerstone of the political process [within the UN],” and that the only way to move forward is “through negotiations that preserve the interests of all parties.”
He also dispelled oft-repeated accusations of Morocco’s alleged “exploitation” of the territory’s natural resources, pointing to the financial reality on the ground. Despite the fact that Morocco receives minimal financial benefit from investment into the region, “It has built cities from scratch,” while also bringing better living standards and higher levels of education to the local population.
Bennis concluded by saying that most Western, mainstream commentators often “fail to acknowledge that the value of the territory for Morocco lies not [in] its natural resources but in its symbolic value for the Moroccan people as part of their homeland that was snatched away by colonial powers… If Biden is to reestablish that prestige and win the trust of U.S. allies, he should start by providing clear support for Morocco.”
Amid an increasingly politicized climate where it is easy to make snap judgements based on a surface-level understanding of any given situation, this in-depth analysis welcomes us to dwell deeper in the history, politics, and the future of Western Sahara. If anything, a more thorough exploration of the complexities of the Sahara question helps to overcome the prevailing “black-and-white” world view, inviting much-needed nuance to the conversation.