Ever since the end of the Cold War, the bilateral relations between the countries of the Maghreb and the non-member States have not ceased to diversify, offering as they do a wide array of agreements, notably with the United States of America and the European Union. The new regional and international reconfiguration grants the Sahara conflict dimensions that go beyond the framework within which they have been confined for thirty years now. In fact, driven by the principles of globalisation at the economic level, and by purely security-oriented considerations at the level of stability, the different actors (intervening parties) will rather have to opt for a set of new strategic partnerships.
In 1998, Stuart Eizeinstat, American Vice-Secretary for economic affairs, proposed to the Maghreb States an economic partnership which, right after the September 11 events, came to be reinforced at the level of policy and security. The fact of the matter is that the struggle against terrorism dictates here the principles of bilateral cooperation. Indeed, the aid granted to Morocco came as a result to move up from 20 million dollars in 2004 to 57 million dollars in the year 2005. The status of a "preferential ally, non-member of the Atlantic Alliance" would also allow Morocco to take part in several US-led programmes in the area of defence.
The development of these relations equally touches upon Algeria, which has experienced the setting up of multi-national firms upon its soil (the hydrocarbon sector). Later on, a military alliance between the United States and Algeria came to shape up for the purpose of combating terrorism. "The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership" (TSCTP) that was started in 2004 came to confirm the US commitment on the military plane with a wider States that comprises eight African countries: Tchad, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The Sahel space is integrated within the American strategy of struggle against terrorism, which hence requires that there be a convergence of points of view and objectives with the concerned Maghrebi States.
In parallel with its Maghreb policy with the United States, the region of the Maghreb is naturally tuned to the European continent. The historical, economic and cultural ties that unite the Maghreb States to certain European States, notably France and Spain, have always favoured the interests of the last two States with the Maghreb. The signing up of a series of partnership agreements with the European Union comes to confirm the European anchorage in the Maghreb. The partnership with Europe is of a political, economic, financial, social and cultural order. It aims above everything else at the creation of a free-trade zone.
However, the interest that the foreign great powers have for the Maghreb leaves no doubts about their positions in connection with the question of the Sahara. They all converge upon a more pronounced rallying around the Moroccan thesis. The United States, no more than France or Spain, would not accept an independence of the Sahara that would threaten the stability of the region. Besides, the United States has not hesitated to urge Morocco to "make a proposal for a global as well as a credible autonomy."
In point of fact, the development of relations of Maghrebian States with the foreign powers has relegated to secondary position the South-South horizontal cooperation. In their preference for trade exchange with the West, countries of the Maghreb have forgotten, as it were, that their economies are complementary on more than one front. One is perfectly entitled to note here that the conflict over the Sahara is one of the reasons behind the lag registered in the areas of Maghreb integration, and the incapacity of the institutions in place, notably the AMU (Arab Maghreb Union), to function in normal way.
On the economic plane, "the loss of earnings, that is, what the Maghreb loses as a result of the breakdown of the Arab Maghreb Union would amount to 2% of the average annual GDP of each of these countries: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. On average, inter-Maghreb exchanges represent no more than 2% of the foreign trade of each country."
At the universal level, the United Nations has learnt quite a few lessons during the last few years, considering the fact that the parties in conflict have proved to be obstinate in pitching camp, so to say, on their positions and to privilege nothing more than their own theses. From now on, the principal actors are invited to assume their full responsibility by engaging in direct negotiations that are very likely to lead to a solution that will be acceptable by the whole of the intervening parties. The United Nations even threatens to dismantle the Mission of the United Nations for Organising a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) "if the latter did not accomplish its mandate; or if the parties involved turned out to be incapable of progressing towards a political solution." In this connection, the United Kingdom notes that no "UN mandate ought to be considered as an ad infinitum mandate."
In fact, ever since its creation in 1991, the MINURSO has cost the UN budget no less than 45 million dollars a year. Besides, the different Security Council
Resolutions, coupled with the renewal of the mission to be undertaken by the MINURSO, have henceforth had no positive effects on the question of the Sahara. Some observers note in this regard that the Sahara conflict is rather the pure product of the Cold War as well as the outcome of the ideological cleavage witnessed at the time. The principle of people's right to self-determination, very much in vogue in the Sixties and warmly defended by Algeria, loses its weight, as a matter of fact, in the face of the present situation of the conflict.
One hence perceives the perspectives what possibilities the Moroccan initiative on the autonomy of the Sahara opens up in this respect. The impact of this initiative will not fail to have positive incidence over the Maghreb region as well as on the international community. Having put an end to a long series of procrastinations of a juridical and political nature, and above all the impossibility of putting in place a hypothetical referendum, Morocco has the merit of proposing a more realistic approach, one which takes into the fold the particular interests of both the direct and indirect actors' parties to the conflict.
The persistence of this old-age conflict, viewed within the logic of regional integration and the interdependence of economies at the planetary level, goes against the real interests of the Maghreb States. Do not these countries have an interest in some form of regional grouping? What about economic development and social welfare? Everything seems to point to the fact that such a status quo cannot be had for the time being at least.
Today, the Polisario Front no longer plays a major role in the Sahara affair. The United States, no more than the European Union or the UN Security Council, do not have this movement established as a matter of priority on the agenda of their international action. Definitively, the discussions pertaining to the question of autonomy present the ultimate opportunity to be seized by the parties concerned by the conflict.
Pr. Abdelmounaim Elgueddari