German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is spending the early part of this week in Morocco. He wants to talk about energy, but his hosts have put a different issue on the agenda.
The Moroccan capital Rabat is the site of bilateral German-Moroccan talks
The Western Sahara is an important region for a variety of reasons.
The prevalence of sun makes it an ideal location for solar energy facilities, and the area is rich in phosphate. The disputed territory is also the subject of a tug-of-war between Morocco and the Algerian backed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which wants it to become an independent state.
When German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrived in the Moroccan capital on Monday for the first day of a three-day visit, he was confronted with the issue. He chose his words with care.
“The main thing is that everyone involved places their faith in negotiations and dialogue,” Westerwelle said. “What we want to communicate to our partners is the message of non-violence.”
Westerwelle is having to tread lightly
Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri interpreted that statement as an expression of support for his government's position vis-a-vis the Sahrawi national liberation movement Polisario and its Algerian backers.
“You have heard the German Foreign Minister, who said appeals to violence, such as those unfortunately issued by Polisario and Algeria, will not lead to a solution,” Fihri said. “We greatly value the statement that negotiations are the most important thing.”
But it is unclear whether dialogue will be sufficient to resolve a conflict that has existed for decades.
Morocco and Algeria both have interests in the region
The Western Sahara was part of Spain's African colonies from the late nineteenth-century until 1975, when the Spanish withdrew, and both Morocco and Mauritania tried to annex the territory.
That drew resistance from Polisario, the nationalist movement for the Sahrawi, an Arab-Berber ethnic group of over 250,000 people, who claim to be the original inhabitants of the region.
By 1979 a campaign of violent resistance by Polisario, with the backing of Algeria, had forced Mauritania from the Western Sahara. Morocco, however, expanded its control, and in 1991, a UN peace-keeping mission succeeded in establishing a ceasefire.
The UN has recognized SADR as a representative of Western Saharans, and a referendum was planned to let them decide between independence or remaining part of Morocco with increased autonomy. That referendum has been stalled, though, for the past two decades.
The future of the Sahrawi is up in the air
Morocco voted for Germany to be given a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council. Now Rabat would like a political favor in return.
“We consulted with Germany before we presented our autonomy plan, a plan of compromise that fulfills the criteria of the UN Security Council,” Fihri said.
But Polisario and Algeria would like to see an independent Western Saharan state, and Westerwelle was careful not to throw clear support in one direction or the other.
“We are not taking sides in this question,” Westerwelle said. “We're a conversation partner, and above all, we place our faith in the mediating role of the United Nations.”
Indeed, in Morocco, Westerwelle is more interested in talking economics than politics.
Here comes the sun
Morocco is one of the few countries in the Arab world that doesn't produce oil, and Rabat is investing heavily in solar energy. That represents a convergence of influence with Germany, which has enormous technical expertise in that area.
Solar energy is becoming more important in the Middle East
So Westerwelle's visit is also an opportunity to drum up some business in a country that has traditionally been oriented more toward Spain and France.
“We Germans have top technology, and I'm thinking especially of solar-energy technology,” Westerwelle said. “And in cooperation with Morocco, we can use this solar technology particularly well. That also represents a major chance for German companies to do business.”
Underscoring the tight connection between economics, energy and politics is the fact that the head of Morocco's ONE power utility, Ali Fassi Fihri, is the Moroccan foreign minister's brother.
Morocco is currently engaged in a massive solar-energy project that will cost $9 billion (6.6 billion euros) and hopefully provide 38 percent of the country's energy needs by the year 2020.
On its own, Germany has invested 43 million euros in solar energy in Morocco, and the European Union has pumped many millions more into the project.
As Westerwelle is experiencing first-hand, involvement in Moroccan politics is tricky business. But the rewards are potentially very great.
Author: Marc Dugge (jc)
Editor: Michael Knigge