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Morocco says Spain backs its plans on Western Sahara

March 19, 2022

Madrid says the agreement signals "a new phase in relations." The policy shift comes at a time when relations between the neighboring countries are at a historic low.

A man walks near a building in Western Sahara
The fate of ethnic Saharawis has been in limbo since Spain abandoned Western Sahara in the 1970sImage: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo/picture alliance

Spain announced a major shift in policy Friday, endorsing a Moroccan plan for an autonomous Western Sahara region under Rabat's rule in what Madrid called the beginning of "a new phase in relations."

Madrid says this new phase will be "based on mutual respect, the completion of agreements, the absence of unilateral actions and the permanent transparency of communication."

The announcement comes at a low point in relations, as Morocco continues to seek recognition of its sovereignty over the region, and Spain is attempting to limit fallout from an incident that drew Rabat's ire last year — when a leader of Polisario Front, a Western Sahara independence movement, was allowed to travel to Spain for medical treatment. 

Algeria recalls ambassador to Madrid

But the change in policy angered Algeria, a country which supplies Spain with gas, supports the Polisario Front's aims, and is home to an estimated 176,000 Saharawi who rely on international aid to survive in refugee camps widely considered inhospitable.

Algeria summoned its ambassador to Spain for consultations following Friday's announcement. Algeria state-run television reported. Algiers severed all diplomatic ties with neighboring Morocco in late 2021 over   Morocco's designs on the region.

Rabat's plan for disputed Western Sahara region

The royal palace in Rabat said Friday that King Mohammed VI had received a letter from Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announcing Madrid recognizes "the importance of the Sahara issue for Morocco," and that "Spain considers the autonomy initiative presented by Morocco in 2007, as the most serious, realistic and credible basis for settling the dispute."

The plan envisions autonomy in Western Sahara, which Rabat has regarded as its own since annexing it when Spain abandoned its former colony in 1975. But the Algerian-backed Polisario Front independence movement wants the region to be a sovereign state for the ethnic Saharawi people.

The UN, which still recognizes Madrid as the colonial administrative power in Western Sahara, had previously proposed a Spain and EU-backed plan for a referendum to settle the decades-old dispute. Spain and Morocco faced a serious diplomatic spat sparked when Madrid allowed Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali to travel to Spain for medical treatment last year. Rabat reacted by allowing upwards of 10,000 people to cross its border into the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta, creating a humanitarian crisis.

Rabat also recalled its ambassador to Madrid and has yet to reinstate her. 

The neighboring countries, separated by the Straits of Gibraltar, have extensive trade relations and cooperate closely on migration, defense and energy issues. Spain Friday said the two sides sought to confront "common challenges" together, "especially cooperation in the management of migratory flows in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic."

Spain's government wobbling over Western Sahara issue?

Yet despite the enthusiasm shown by Rabat at the announced shift by Spain's Socialist prime minister, not everyone in Sanchez's coalition government is as pleased. Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Diaz of the far-left United We Can (Unidas Podemos) announced on Twitter that she was "committed to the defense of the Saharawi people and to the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council." 

"Spain has succumbed to Moroccan blackmail and pressure," said Polisario's Spanish delegate Abdulah Arabi. He added that Madrid was "paying a toll" to mend political ties and demanded, "the solution has to be based on the choice voted by the Saharawi people."

Inaction on the international stage after decades in limbo also prompted the Polisario Front to ditch its 1991 ceasefire with the Moroccan government in 2020.

Spanish police fire tear gas at migrants storming the border at the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta
Morocco has leveraged its control of migrant flows as a tool to pressure Spanish policy decisionsImage: Bernat Armangue/AP Photo/picture alliance

Morocco uses migrants to put on pressure

Rabat has been leveraging its ability to influence migration flows to its great advantage in furthering its claims to Western Sahara. Morocco originally abandoned the idea of staging a referendum in 2007, calling instead for greater regional autonomy under Rabat's rule. Though initial support was scant, attitudes have been changing with France, the US and Germany all voicing support of late.

Rabat says the 2007 proposal is the best political solution it can offer. Recently, the UN has stopped pitching the idea of a referendum and instead argued the case for a realistic, mutually acceptable compromise.

Morocco's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation said that Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares had been invited to Rabat later this month and that plans were being made for a visit by Prime Minister Sanchez.

The royal palace in Rabat said Sanchez's letter to King Mohammed VI professed a desire, "to act with the absolute transparency that corresponds to a great friend and ally."

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js/wd (AP, Reuters)