Will Biden reverse Trump policy on Western Sahara?

US-led forces are currently carrying out war games in Morocco, the periodic “African Lion” exercises which this year also involve troops from Tunisia and Senegal. The games are taking place near the disputed region of Western Sahara, which Morocco is trumpeting this as a re-affirmation of US recognition of its claim to the territory. Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani said on Twitter ahead of the exercises that the event “marks the consecration of American recognition of the Moroccan Sahara.” (The Defense Post, Africa News, June 15)

The Trump administration last year formally recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Moroccan diplomatic recognition of Israel as a part of the so-called Abraham Accords. But Spain, the disputed territory’s former colonial ruler, is opposing Morocco’s current push for international recognition of its claim. Just before the war games opened, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya called US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging him to reverse Washington’s recognition of Moroccan rule in Western Sahara. (Morocco World News, June 12)

The United Nations officially designates Western Sahara a “non-self-governing territory,” and the US is now alone in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty there. Some 40 countries currently recognize the the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), proclaimed by the Polisario Front rebels who are seeking independence for the territory. The SADR is based at Tindouf, just across the border in Algerian territory. (Al Jazeera, June 13; Yabiladi, May 26)

This appears to have been at issue in last month’s crisis at Ceuta, Spain’s increasingly militarized holding on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. In mid-May, some 8,000 migrants entered the enclave, swimming in or climbing over the border fence, after Moroccan border guards apparently allowed them to pass. Morocco’s government explicitly stated that this was retaliation for Madrid allowing Polisario leader Brahim Ghali to enter Spain for medical treatment after he contracted COVID-19.

“What did Spain expect from Morocco, which sees its neighbor hosting the head of a group that took up arms against the kingdom?” said Morocco’s human rights minister El Mustapha Ramid in a Facebook post. Madrid, in turn, accused Morocco of “blackmail,” describing as “unacceptable” the use of minors “as an instrument to breach Spain’s territorial borders.” (DW, June 1; DW, May 20; Reuters, May 19)

During Ghali’s stay in a hospital in the city of Logroño, a Spanish prosecutor sought to have him arrested on war crimes charges originating from Moroccan authorities. But Spain’s Supreme Court turned down the prosecutor’s request for an arrest warrant, citing lack of evidence. Ghali has since returned to Algeria. (Al Jazeera, AFP, June 2; Reuters, June 1)

Map: Perry-Castañeda Library

  1. EU supports Spain’s changed stance on Western Sahara

    The European Union has endorsed Spains decision to change its stance on Western Sahara. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez sent a letter to King Mohammed of Morocco on March 18 expressing his support for Morocco’s plan to allow Western Sahara to be an autonomous region under Moroccan sovereignty. Algeria recalled its ambassador from Madrid in protest at Spain’s decision. (Jurist, Al Jazeera)