I accompanied scores of delegations of Congressional staff, journalists, and prominent think tank members to Western Sahara over the course of 14 years between 2003 and 2017. The purpose of these trips was to let delegation members see for themselves what Morocco was doing to develop the territory and let them speak directly with Sahrawis about their views of what was necessary to resolve this enduring legacy of the Cold War.
I was especially interested in having members speak with Sahrawis who had experienced life in both the Moroccan Sahara and the Polisario-run refugee camps in southern Algeria. Some of them had returned to Morocco as early as the late 1980s and some had literally just arrived. This variety allowed the delegation members to have a sense of how matters had evolved in both the camps and the Moroccan Sahara over time. Conservatively, I estimate that I have personally interviewed several hundred of these former Sahrawi refugees and hundreds of other Sahrawis who never left the Moroccan Sahara after the Spanish withdrawal in 1975.
I am not going to get into detail on all the topics covered in those discussions. Instead, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the conversations – their views on what was necessary to resolve the problem.
If anything has delayed a solution to the problem in Western Sahara more than the indifference of the international community, the intransigence of Algerian and Polisario demands, and the questionable resolve of Moroccan authorities to take greater political risks to advance their own interests, it is the willingness of Sahrawis themselves to be over reliant on others to find solutions to their problems.
As they will attest, I very often insisted to my Sahrawi friends that the solution to their problem needed to start with them. My repeated encouragements to pay more attention to “facts on the ground” as a critical element in reaching a solution became, over time, something of a comedic topic for my usual contacts in Rabat and were also, I think, never fully digested by my Sahrawi friends in the south.
Throughout the 14 years of my visits, I was always struck during the interviews by how often our Sahrawi hosts made appeals to the delegation to encourage the United States to step in and fix the problem. It often dominated the conversation. It was invariably the reply when I asked Sahrawis at the end of each interview session what message they would like the delegation to take back to Washington. There was a prevalent view, at all levels of Sahrawi society, that the United States, as the world’s preeminent power, could resolve this issue in short order if it so desired. This was often accompanied by the view that Moroccan authorities in Rabat were best suited to persuading the US to intervene on their behalf.
There was little evidence to indicate that Sahrawis were ready to assume responsibility for their own future. Long years of coerced submission to external authorities, first from Madrid then later Algiers, Tindouf, and Rabat had created a sense of dependence and suffocated a sense of initiative among too many Sahrawis. Indeed, initiative, especially political initiative, was feared and commonly discouraged by those in charge of their daily lives on both sides of the border.
For many years, Morocco largely ignored development in its southern provinces, and when it finally woke up to the need to address the issue, it created a welfare state in the region, which, among other negative consequences, also reinforced this sense of dependence on others. Gradually however, along with steady and very real improvements in the quality of life and genuine efforts at sustainable economic and social development, a renewed sense of initiative began to return, even if limited in scope and mostly confined to civil society organizations devoted principally to social affairs.
On the other side of the border in the Polisario run refugee camps in southern Algeria, the situation was, and still is, significantly worse. The refugees in those camps are almost wholly dependent on relief aid from the international community for their daily survival. Some remittances arrive from Sahrawis abroad and there is also a fairly substantial trade in smuggling and contraband of all sorts, from the relatively benign to the positively dangerous. But the one thing they have in common with their families in Morocco was the sense of dependence on others. Also in the camps, there is a near total lack of political initiative of any kind. Any attempts at political organization in the Polisario camps are met with energetic suppression by their own leadership and Algeria’s as well.
The only serious initiative to resolve this problem in the last two decades did indeed originate in Washington. I have covered this topic ad nauseam here previously and so won’t detail it again, except to say that the formula of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty has always depended on the outcome of a robust negotiation between Sahrawis and Morocco. No such negotiation can meaningfully occur unless and until Sahrawis themselves assume responsibility. I argued earlier in this series that Algeria and the Polisario should not be allowed to forestall such negotiations indefinitely and that the time had come for the negotiations to begin with Sahrawis in Morocco’s southern provinces who have waited long enough for the autonomy that Morocco promised in 2007.
Those of you who have read the first three articles in this series are aware that I have been encouraging Morocco to move forward in this direction and to begin now to lay the groundwork for that choice with potential allies in Washington to prepare for a new US Administration that will assume office next January. However, I do not assume that Rabat will embrace this counsel without further encouragement. Rabat has been reluctant to take risks in Washington since even before the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House.
It is time for Sahrawis themselves to make their voices heard in both Rabat and Washington. If Rabat embraces the initiative I have been encouraging, it would be well advised to flood the zone in Washington with these authentic voices. There is no shortage of articulate, persuasive, well informed, and well-meaning voices, full of goodwill, in the Moroccan Sahara. Many of these voices have been freely elected to local public office and also are present in an increasingly robust civil society and emerging entrepreneurial class in the Sahara.
Again, if Rabat is willing to embrace a new initiative it needs to ensure that Sahrawi voices are central to its presentation in international capitals. The authenticity of their experience is critically important.
What is also critically important is Rabat making clear that it also is committed to moving past the current stalemate and is unwilling to continue to settle for a status quo that may satisfy the international community, but whose inherent instability poses unacceptable risks to Morocco. This will require preparing the ground beforehand (as I have previously outlined) as well as engaging the new US Administration early and often at the very highest levels of Moroccan authority. Overcoming the entrenched assumption that Morocco is just as content with the status quo as the international community will pose a difficult hurdle to overcome. Better to persuade Washington to join the initiative, just as Washington once persuaded Rabat to join its initiative, than to struggle to gain reluctant cooperation in Washington by simply moving forward alone and without discussion. Specifically, an early visit to Washington by King Mohammed VI to meet with President Biden (yes, that is my prediction for the November election) would go a long way to smoothing this path forward.
If Rabat remains reluctant to undertake new initiatives to resolve this matter on the basis that it proposed in 2007, these same Sahrawi voices will need to make themselves heard in Rabat as well as foreign capitals.
If Rabat is reluctant to organize visits to the region to hear from Sahrawis who want to move on from the long stalemate that has kept them separated from their families on the other side of the border, then they need to make these arrangements themselves. And if Rabat is unwilling to organize Sahrawi representations in foreign capitals, again Sahrawis will need to take the initiative and assume this responsibility. There is also no shortage of Sahrawis with considerable wealth in Morocco’s southern provinces who could easily defray the costs such visits entail. What has been lacking until now is the political will, the political vision, and the political organization that would allow Sahrawis to take their destiny in their own hands.
One can hope that Morocco will see the benefits of proceeding along these lines. Stealing a march on Algeria and the Polisario at the outset of a new Administration in Washington will allow Rabat a clear advantage in fixing the terms of any settlement. This is especially the case if Morocco can present a firm position to Washington along the lines of a settlement proposal that, after all, was originally Washington’s idea. Washington would have to struggle to come up with good reasons to defend why Rabat should not proceed to implement a solution that Washington proposed over 20 years ago and has repeatedly endorsed since.
Even if it agrees with such a new initiative by Morocco, Washington may decide it prefers to slow roll implementation. However, even there the advantage goes to Rabat as it bargains about the scope and pace of specific steps in a plan of implementation.
Finally, I would not rule out the possibility, difficult though it might be, of Sahrawis and their friends convincing Washington to persuade an otherwise skeptical and reluctant Rabat to move ahead with such an initiative. After all, the last breakthrough on this issue also originated in Washington and it was constructed on this very idea. Perhaps a new Administration in Washington can be persuaded that this issue has dogged US-Moroccan relations long enough and needs to be addressed with greater purpose, in keeping with the original bargain struck between Washington and Rabat.
In future articles in this series I will return to this theme, as well as a discussion of selling a new initiative in the international community.
Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP