1.         Introduction


Perceived historical rights of a people or a political entity on a given territory are nowadays likely to be the prime source of domestic legitimacy – and possibly international legitimacy as well – of any policy aiming at acquiring that territory or holding it subsequently.  As demonstrated most clearly by the Palestinian Question, historical rights are often subjective, ill-defined and conflicting.  Yet they still serve as powerful stimuli for public opinion and cornerstones for policy.


This paper is divided into two parts.  The first part examines the tricky yet vastly important issue of “historical rights” of peoples and political entities on territories.  It endeavors to scrutinize the determinants of historical rights and assess the relative weight of these determinants in the present political context.  After that, the second part applies the findings of the first one to the specific case of the Western/Moroccan Sahara.


2.         Historical rights in perspective


Historical rights may be defined as rights emanating from historical connection of a people or a political entity with a given territory.  Historical rights are different from legal rights.  In fact, they often stand in contradiction to international law.  For instance, A.J.P. Taylor points out that the War of 1859, in which Piedmont and France attacked Austria and thus brought about the unification of Italy, “was a war of uncompromising and unprovoked aggression” that “lacked justification on any basis of international law”; nevertheless, he adds that “no war has been so unanimously approved by posterity.”[1]  This is clearly a case where the historical right of the Italian nation to certain territories under Austrian rule, plus its right to an independent and unified Italy have been generally accepted as superior to the legally indisputable Austrian titles of possession.  In the same vein, though not necessarily with the same degree of international or even domestic approval, Spain is not quite reconciled to the current legal status of Gibraltar, notwithstanding the provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) under which Spain ceded Gibraltar to the British crown.  In other words, the historical Spanish rights to the place are claimed to supersede the corresponding legal British rights.[2]


Here, a caveat is in order.  This paper does not purport to confer certificates of legitimacy that supposedly trump international legality.  However, it does purport to shed some light on certain recurring international phenomena, namely that peoples and political entities may, on historical grounds, lay claim on territories to which they may not have a clear legal title – if any at all – and occasionally find international sympathy to those claims.  Hence, acknowledging that perceived historical rights do produce political results but at the same time adopting a neutral stance on specific claims based on such rights, the paper will examine the various pillars on which historical rights may claim to rest.


One can identify three such pillars in international practice: rule, ethnicity, and origin.  There is a fourth pillar that may play an enabling role to the other three, namely proximity or adjacency.  We shall examine these pillars in turn.



Perceived rights of territorial possession based on past rule over a territory are an early occurrence in interstate relations.  Thus, sixth-century[3] East Roman emperor Justinian embarked on a costly and in the long run ruinous attempt to recover Rome from the Ostrogoths because, though the center of the Roman Empire had by then irrevocably shifted to Constantinople, Rome had to be ruled by Romans as in the past.


Wars based on dynastic claims were common until well into the modern era.  The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France raged for more than a century over the dynastic rights the English kings asserted over France.  The eighteenth century witnessed the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).  In these two wars the competing dynastic claims over the Spanish and the Austrian throne respectively were essentially overshadowed by the greater international drama that involved the management of power relations between the major European states of the time.  Still, those dynastic claims did play a substantial part in the outbreak, the conduct and the final settlement of the wars in question.


Since the French Revolution and the rise of nationalism, historical rights based on past rule have been generally transferred from rulers and dynasties to nations and states.  In other words, nowadays it is more customary to claim “national” or “state” rights over a territory, instead of “royal” or “dynastic” rights.  Of course, when hereditary kingdoms are involved, the concept of dynastic rights still retains its potency.  Thus, from time to time the Hashemite dynasty of Jordan airs aspirations of regional leadership or mentorship and sees fit to remind everyone that the dynasty once ruled the area comprising Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.[4]


Territorial rule is the single most important defining characteristic of modern states.  Hence it is no surprise that states are notoriously reluctant to part with territory and fiercely assert their sovereignty claims even on territory that has been conferred to them virtually by accident.  The Azerbaijani stance on the Nagorno Karabakh issue is a case in point.  Nagorno Karabakh is a mountainous, mainly Armenian-inhabited enclave within Azerbaijani territory.  In 1923 the Soviet leaders decided to incorporate this territory to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan as an autonomous district.  In the late 1980s, in the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Nagorno Karabakh sought to secede from Azerbaijan.  The Azerbaijanis would not let go; the whim of a former Soviet leadership had transmogrified into an Azerbaijani historical right to the area.  The result was a ferocious war in which Azerbaijan lost not only Nagorno Karabakh, but also substantial territories of Azerbaijan proper – incidentally, the Armenians are none too keen on returning those.  Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now presumably preparing for a second round of conflict.[5]


The attitude is frequently the same regarding territories a modern state had ruled in the past.  This can happen even if the rule had been rather tenuous and not exactly consensual.  The Chinese stance over Tibet is a case in point.  The Chinese Empire asserted suzerainty over Tibet for centuries.  Following the collapse of the imperial regime, the Tibetans drove away the former imperial garrison and Tibet became de facto independent in 1913.  This state of affairs ended in October 1950, when the newly consolidated Communist regime in Beijing launched a campaign of re-conquest and forcibly asserted the perceived Chinese historical rights in the area.[6]  It is worth noting that Chinese public opinion supports wholeheartedly the re-imposition and maintenance of Chinese rule in Tibet.[7]  In other words, the assertion of Chinese historical rights over Tibet enjoys huge domestic legitimacy in China.


A few more things need to be said about past rule as generator of historical rights.  To start with, past rule does not in itself guarantee historical rights that are viewed as legitimate internationally, or even at home.  Colonial rule is a case in point.  The European colonial powers used to rule vast colonial empires, sometimes for centuries, and they do tend to retain cultural or even political ties with their former colonies.  Nevertheless, nowadays decolonization is deemed irreversible.  Neither the ex-metropolises nor the ex-colonies consider that past colonial rule has endowed the former with any historical right to re-impose their rule on the latter.  In the relatively few instances where a metropolis has refused to decolonize, the retention of its rule is based either on the ethnic composition of the territory in question (see below), or on sheer legal rights acquired one way or another.  Thus, the treaty ending British colonial rule in Cyprus in 1960 allowed the United Kingdom to retain sovereign military bases comprising about 3 percent of the island.


The absence of past rule on a given territory is sometimes used as an argument to reject historical claims on that territory.  For instance, in an analysis of the China-Taiwan issue, it is pointed out that “China never really rules Taiwan”; even though this statement is not directly linked to the issue of Chinese historical rights over Taiwan, it does not seem to serve any other purpose than as a counter to those perceived rights.[8]  However, as the mere incidence of past rule does not suffice to substantiate legitimate historical rights, so the absence of past rule does not in itself suffice to negate historical rights that are otherwise perceived as legitimate.


This is especially true in the case of imperial collapse.  The deceased or dying empire may give birth to newly independent states with no prior international existence but still with every legitimate historical right to exist.  Thus, when Austria-Hungary finally disappeared in 1919, the fact that there had been no independent Czech or Slovak state before then could not negate those nations’ right to acquire statehood over their areas of inhabitance.


Moreover, the successor states of a former empire may engage in disputes and conflicts over the imperial inheritance.  These may rage for decades or more.  In the meantime, certain nations or states may claim to have yet unfulfilled historical rights over certain territories, especially as a result of the ethnic makeup of these territories (see below), irrespective of whether they have actually ruled them.  To point out to such claimants that they have never exercised formal rule over the coveted territories would be meaningless to them; as far as they are concerned, their historical rights are in no way prejudiced.


This is a very important point to make, because satiated nations that have for centuries had an independent statehood and thus ample opportunity to pursue their own perceived rights and interests, find it quite difficult to grasp the mindset of relatively young states located in regions formerly dominated by empires.  Take the example of South-Eastern Europe, also known as Balkans.  Almost a century after the formal settlement of the Ottoman inheritance in 1923, substantial elements of many nations in the region continue to regard their national unification as unfinished business.  To cite one example among many, in 1999 it was pointless to remind Albanians that Kosovo had never been ruled by Albanians as an Albanian-majority state.  Similar situations are encountered in the former Soviet Union and in former European colonial empires.



In the previous section we already encountered the issue of historical rights related to ethnicity.  The fact that a certain ethnic group has been dwelling on a given territory is regarded as a very potent source of historical rights, both domestically and internationally.  “We live (or have been living) here, therefore the territory is ours”; so the argument goes, and many people abroad will tend to agree.


After that, the logic of the situation can unfold inexorably.  People normally prefer to be governed by people whom they do not consider foreigners.  Since the late eighteenth century this preference has been increasingly regarded as a right.  An obvious corollary is that national or subnational groups (e.g. tribes) that have acquired statehood will endeavor to expand their political jurisdiction so as to include ethnic kinspeople who happen to be under the political jurisdiction of other ethnic groups.  This is the well-known phenomenon of irredentism.


Although nowadays the term has acquired a rather pejorative flavor, one should not forget that irredentism has been a prime motivator of international political behavior for the last two centuries.  Whether one likes it or not, and irrespective of the dictates of international law, people have been willing to go to war to achieve what they believe is their national unification and they have frequently found much international sympathy to their cause.  This has been the case from the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832), through the aforementioned War of 1859, all the way to the Kosovo War (1999).  In these wars the degree of international legitimacy varied, but the overall story was the same: the inhabitants of a given territory, or at least the majority of them, claimed their historical right to an independent existence and garnered considerable international support in the process.


Sometimes, when one is seeking national unification, it is important not to overstep the limits of one’s ethnic presence.  Doing so can be disastrous in terms of domestic legitimacy and thus ruin the whole project.  One example is the Greek campaign in Asia Minor in 1919.  Initially all was well, since the Greek troops were stationed close to the Aegean coast and were quartered among solid masses of Greek population that had been dwelling in those territories for millennia.  However, things started turning sour when, for military reasons, it was deemed necessary for the Greek army to advance to the hinterland.  Although the Greeks encountered ample evidence of ancient and medieval Greek presence in the newly conquered areas, it was obvious that Hellenism had been long extinct from those areas and they had become thoroughly Turkish.  This robbed the Greek army of its sense of purpose and wrought havoc to its morale.[9]  In other words, a war in pursuit of perceived historical rights based on ethnic presence on a given territory enjoyed domestic legitimacy; beyond that, the war was viewed as a pointless exercise or even sheer aggression and its domestic legitimacy evaporated.


Of course, the aforementioned line of reasoning creates a host of problems.[10]  To start with, the ethnic composition of territories is rarely unmixed.  Consequently, members of an ethnic group may well be found far away from its main areas of concentration, albeit in relatively small minorities.  Thus, two related questions arise.  First, where does an ethnic group draw the territorial line where it deems that its ethnic historical rights cease to apply?  Second, when can a minority count on international support in turning its perceived historical rights into statehood?  The first question is one of domestic legitimacy and the second is one of international legitimacy.


As far as historical rights are concerned, the answer to these questions might seem to hinge upon the degree of ethnic presence in a given territory; the greater the presence of an ethnic group somewhere, the more likely is it that the group will claim historical rights and will find international support for them.  An examination of the relevant international practice demonstrates that ethnic groups can be quite self-indulgent when claiming historical rights over territories, whereas the rest of the world is probably not so easily convinced, especially after 1945.  A significant local majority is probably a prerequisite for international legitimacy; however, as the still rather undecided case of Kosovo proves, it might not quite suffice.  Domestic legitimacy can be gained with far less.  The self-styled “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” is a case in point.  At the time of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus (1974) the Turkish Cypriots were a mere 18 percent of the overall population of Cyprus, with Greek Cypriots constituting 80 percent.  This ratio applied throughout the island, so the Turkish Cypriots were nowhere approaching parity with the Greek Cypriots, let alone majority.  This is probably one of the main reasons why the Turkish Cypriots have been able to achieve virtually no degree of international legitimacy for their self-styled republic – it is recognized only by Turkey.  On the other hand, the Turkish invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus, the violent ethnic cleansing of the Greek Cypriots from the occupied areas, and the proclamation of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” enjoy full domestic legitimacy both in Turkey and in Turkish-occupied Cyprus.


Not only is the ethnic composition of certain territories mixed, it can also fluctuate as a result of migration and differential birthrates.  This is a recipe for the emergence of perceived historical rights that are in conflict with one another.  Kosovo once again provides a very dramatic example.  The Serbs have for centuries considered that area the cradle of their civilization, the symbolic importance of Kosovo being accentuated by the Serb defeat at the hands of the Ottomans in the homonymous battle (1389).  As far as the Serbs are concerned, they possess inalienable historical rights over the territory.  Be that as it may, during Ottoman rule there was massive Albanian immigration into Kosovo, radically altering the ethnic makeup there; when Serbia finally acquired Kosovo in 1913, two-thirds of its inhabitants where ethnic Albanians.  By the 1980s, higher Albanian birthrates and Serbian emigration had further shifted the ratio to 9 to 1 in favor of the Albanians.  It was no accident that the Kosovo Albanians came to assert their own historical rights over the territory.


When migration is centrally planned or at least encouraged, it falls under the rubric of colonization.  As Machiavelli has pointed out, colonization is one of the safest ways to retain a conquest.[11]  The results of colonization may vary considerably.  At the one end of the spectrum, colonists and natives amalgamate and create new nations, as has basically happened in Latin America.  At the other end, the two ethnic elements remain more or less separated, maintaining a majority-minority relation.  This can go all the way from overwhelming colonist majority (e.g. United States and Canada), to big colonist majority (e.g. New Zealand), to somewhere around parity (e.g. ethnic Han Chinese in Tibet and Xinjang), to big native majority (e.g. South Africa), to overwhelming native majority, with the colonists concentrated into small enclaves (e.g. the Portuguese in India).  Colonization has sometimes been accompanied by ethnic cleansing of the colonized territories, making it simultaneously more effective and more controversial.  At any rate, irrespective of whether colonization is accompanied by ethnic cleansing, the natives – provided any of them actually live to tell the tale[12] – normally view colonization as an unjust distortion of the ethnic makeup of the colonized territory.  One of the most well-known cases is that of Argentina regarding the British ethnic cleansing and subsequent colonization of the Falkland/Malvinas islands in the nineteenth century.


However, the very case of the Falkland/Malvinas islands demonstrates the problems associated with colonization and historical rights.  In due course the colonists develop a sense of belonging to the colonized territories and claim their own historical right to remain there and to rule the land as bona fide natives – the American War of Independence (1776-83) shows that this sense of belonging can go very far indeed.  Furthermore, barring conflict between metropolitans and colonials, the above-described logic of solidarity to one’s ethnic kinspeople applies to this case as well; as the colonials will cling on their colonies, so the metropolitans will find it difficult to abandon them.  Perceived historical rights emanating from ethnicity are the most common reasons why a colonial power might even today try to retain colonial possessions in the face of active opposition – with varying success.  In 1982 the British went to war with Argentina for the sake of the Falkland islanders, who wanted to remain dependent on the United Kingdom instead of joining Argentina; the British victory ensured that the United Kingdom would retain the islands – or be saddled with them despite the heavy cost of their defense.[13]  Spain insists in retaining the predominantly Spanish-populated North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, on the basis of its perceived historical rights there.  In the same vein, Portugal desperately tried to cling on its colonial enclaves in India, the most famous of them being Goa, until the Indian army made short shrift of the Portuguese colonial garrison in December 1961.[14]  In almost all these cases, one can see the same pattern repeating itself: pursuit of perceived historical rights enjoys enormous domestic legitimacy, but the so-called international community has remained by and large undecided.[15]



Origin is a very special and fairly rare source of historical rights.  A group, ethnic or political (e.g. a ruling dynasty), may trace its origin from a certain territory, later abandoned for various reasons.  This origin can be construed as generating a historical right of that group over that territory, namely a right to return there and assume political control over it.


Ever since “the return of the Heraclids”, i.e. the invasion of the Dorian Greeks on southern Greece circa 1100 BC[16] such movements, though few and far between, have commonly created upheaval, not least due to the powerful emotions they are associated with.


The return of formerly enslaved African-Americans to their continent of origin and the foundation of Liberia on African soil in the nineteenth century is a case in point.  The newcomers immediately imposed themselves as the dominant elite, separating themselves from and suppressing the locals – a situation that lasted until 1980.[17]


The most well-known example of forceful claim of perceived historical rights based on origin is the return of the Jews to Palestine.  The Jews longed for centuries to return to their place of origin and felt perfectly entitled to assume political control of Palestine.  Of course the Zionist slogan “for a people without a land, a land without a people” deliberately obscured the existence of the Palestinian Arabs, who in the meantime had acquired their own historical rights over Palestine.  The whole world has been witness to the bitterness of a conflict that pits against one another two kinds of historical rights, namely those based on origin versus those based on ethnicity.  Incidentally, judging from the broad international support for a two-state solution of the Palestinian Question, both sides’ historical rights have been endowed with international legitimacy.




Proximity is not a generator but an enabler of historical rights.  It stands to reason that one should first come close to a territory, ideally next to it, and only then begin to try to realize one’s perceived historical rights over that territory.  For instance, the Iberian Reconquista was a very gradual process; it took the Spaniards seven hundred years and the Portuguese more than five hundred, with many ups and downs, to reverse the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.  More recently, from 1832 to 1922, Greece kept asserting its perceived historical rights over one Ottoman province after another, leapfrogging from the southernmost tip of the Balkan Peninsula all the way to the entrances to Ankara and managing to claim Cyprus in the process.


The obvious counterexample proving that proximity is not a necessary enabler of historical rights is of course the Falklands/Malvinas war.  Although territories mutually accessible by sea can in a sense be considered “adjacent”, a distance of 12.500 Km from the United Kingdom and 5.500 Km from the nearest British base (in Ascension Island) made the islands a very faraway land as far as the British were concerned.  Still, the Falklands/Malvinas war is probably an exceptional case, triggered more than anything by the Argentine decision to resort to force.  A major reason why the former metropolises have not attempted to reverse decolonization wherever it has taken place is that most of the former colonies are simply too far away.


This concludes our discussion of the various pillars that historical rights can be claimed to rest upon.  We shall now attempt to reach some conclusions as to their relative impact on the legitimacy of those perceived rights, both internationally and domestically.

Conclusion: historical rights and legitimacy


One thing the above analysis has shown is that there is no guarantee of international goodwill when one is pursuing perceived historical rights.  Sheer national interests will likely trump historical arguments, however plausible the latter may be.  However, public opinion in third countries may conceivably be swayed by arguments of this kind and occasionally influence government policy.  This is a major reason why one has to seek the elusive international legitimacy of one’s cause.


It seems that the best guarantor of international legitimacy for one’s perceived historical rights over a territory is a strong ethnic presence coupled with consistent, consensual rule at some point in history.  This is what arguably accounts for the overwhelming international legitimacy of the concept of a Jewish state in Palestine (though its actual borders are disputed), or of the “one China” concept, namely the idea that China and Taiwan should eventually be unified (though there is no consensus on the actual timing, method and terms of unification).  To be sure, even this may not prove enough, as shown by Russia’s inability to get the rest of the world to recognize its annexation of Crimea; but it is about the best one can do in normal circumstances.


The degree of the three aforementioned elements may vary: the ethnic presence can range from Kosovo-Albanian proportions to a mere sizeable minority which achieves the occasional local majority; the consistency and the consensus of the rule may also range from very high to fair; even the very concept of the rule may range from full sovereignty to lesser degrees of political control.  International legitimacy could also vary accordingly, though there is clearly no guarantee for that.


The above analysis also showed that, in contrast to the intractability of international legitimacy regarding perceived historical rights, domestic legitimacy is far easier to achieve.  Still, domestic legitimacy does not necessarily translate into forceful action; it may merely translate into a latent wish to realize the perceived historical rights at some undefined moment in the future.


In the case of Western/Moroccan Sahara domestic legitimacy did lead to forceful action: Morocco has emerged victorious in a war against the Polisario Front and is currently controlling about 80 percent of the territory, leaving the remote border areas as a buffer zone.  It is high time we applied to that case the conceptual tools developed in this section.  These tools may not be as sharp as one would wish.  However, it is evident that in the realm of historical rights one needs a compass rather than a chisel or a drill, and a compass is arguably at hand.


3.         Historical rights in Western/Moroccan Sahara


The Western/Moroccan Sahara conflict has many aspects, touches upon a number of political issues and has broader international ramifications.[18]  Still, historical rights are at the heart of the conflict, at least as far as the Moroccan side is concerned, and in the present paper we shall confine ourselves to an analysis of these perceived rights.  In the first part of this section we will examine why Morocco believes it has historical rights over the area.  In the second part we will deal with the perceived domestic and international legitimacy of those rights.

The generators of perceived historical rights


To start with, it has to be pointed out that one of the three pillars of historical rights analyzed above, namely ethnicity, is virtually absent from the conflict.  This is because there are no meaningful ethnic differences between the inhabitants of Morocco proper and those of Western/Moroccan Sahara.  Ever since the advent of Islam in the Maghreb at the late seventh century, the ethnic composition of that region has largely been an amalgam of Arabs and Berbers.[19]  Morocco proper and Western/Moroccan Sahara are no exception.[20]  Arab migration into the Western/Moroccan Sahara began at least at the time of the Islamic conquest and intensified by the era of the Almohad dynasty (circa 1147-1269).[21]  Nevertheless, as in Morocco proper, the Berber identity does survive in Western/Moroccan Sahara and, although Arabic has conclusively won the linguistic battle in the area, the Berber Amazigh language is still spoken by some tribes alongside Arabic.[22]


The point to make is that, ethnically speaking, there is no separate Sahrawi nation.  Throughout the Maghreb and especially in rural areas the main socio-political point of reference has traditionally been the tribe.  The Western/Moroccan Sahara being basically a desert, survival outside a tribe was impossible, hence tribal affiliations remained very strong for centuries.  Recently the advent of urbanization has somewhat changed that.  According to Professor Ahmed Herzenni, whose knowledge and understanding of Western/Moroccan Sahara is hard to surpass, the current socio-political system of the area can be described as “semi-tribal”; the tribes are no longer the sole point of reference, but on the other hand they will not wither away and will continue to play an important socio-political role.[23]


Although there is no Sahrawi nation, the specific geographical, social and political milieu of the area has created a Sahrawi cultural identity.[24]  Still, it must be stressed that the Sahrawi cultural identity is not confined to the borders of Western/Moroccan Sahara but extends to areas of Morocco proper, Mauritania, Algeria, and even the Azawad region of Mali.  This is both a matter of nomadic movements and tribal relationships that cut across state borders.[25]


In view of the above, Polisario cannot really base its claims of independent statehood on ethnic diversity, and Morocco does not base its claims over Western/Moroccan Sahara on ethnic kinship.  Instead, Morocco invokes historical rights based on its centuries-old consensual rule of that territory.


These rights are weaved around the concept of the oath of allegiance or bay‘ah.  The celebrated medieval scholar Ibn Khaldûn defines the oath of allegiance as


a contract to render obedience.  It is as though the person who renders the oath of allegiance made a contract with his amir, to the effect that he surrenders supervision of his own affairs and those of the Muslims to him and that he will not contest his authority and that he will obey him by (executing) all the duties with which he might be charged, whether agreeable or disagreeable.[26]


Obviously, this is a principle of political organization different from the one of territorial sovereignty.  Whereas sovereignty is a matter of drawing exact geographical limits of a realm, the bay‘ah is a matter of moral authority over a community, irrespective of whether this community resides within or beyond a supposed territorial border.  The corollary is that whereas in territorial states it is harder to argue that territorial expansion (or contraction) is legitimate, basing one’s rule on community allegiance may well lead to expansion or contraction of the area under political control.[27]  One may argue the respective merits and drawbacks of the two systems.  At any rate, reflecting the triumph of the West over the rest of the world, contemporary international law is based on the concept of sovereignty.  Nevertheless, the bay‘ah has for centuries been the organizing principle in vast areas of the world and can be perceived as having created historical rights in the process.[28]  As far as the Moroccans are concerned, this is definitely the case with regard to the Western/Moroccan Sahara; the Sahrawi tribes have been consistently rendering the bay‘ah to the sultans (nowadays kings) of Morocco, hence the Moroccan historical rights over that territory.


Some sources might give the impression that this bay‘ah was an isolated act of certain Sahrawi sheikhs who, hard-pressed by the European advance to the area during the late nineteenth century, sought succor from the Moroccan sultan – the only internationally recognized non-European independent ruler in Northwest Africa.[29]  This was not the case.  The bay‘ah was a centuries-old practice connecting the Western/Moroccan Sahara with the Moroccan central authority or Makhzan.


This bond was first created by the Almoravid dynasty (circa 1056-1147), itself of Saharan origin (see below).  The Almoravids, a product of a remarkable social-engineering project based on refined Islamic teaching in the western extremities of the Sahara desert,[30] established themselves in Morocco and from their capital at Marrakech came to rule an empire that at its height comprised present-day Mauritania, Western/Moroccan Sahara, Morocco proper, northwest Algeria and the greater part of the Iberian Peninsula.[31]  In the process, the Almoravids obtained the allegiance of the Sahrawi tribes.[32]


The next link in the chain was the Almohad dynasty.  Though their rule did not extend to Mauritania, there is evidence that they did control at least parts of the Western/Moroccan Sahara.[33]  It should be remembered that the Almohads originated from the Atlas Mountains and thus had no connection, tribal or other, with Western/Moroccan Sahara.[34]  Thus, if they indeed received the bay‘ah from the Sahrawis, this might be of importance.


In the next few centuries things were not so clear-cut, at least in the present author’s opinion.  The next evidence-backed instance of a Moroccan dynasty receiving the bay‘ah from the Sahrawis was that of the Sa’di sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603), who was assisted by the Sahrawis in his conquests in present-day Mali (1578-91).[35]  This is also quite important, because by that time Morocco crystallized as a political entity, managing to retain its independence from both the Ottomans and the Europeans.  In other words, one can claim definite historical links between what is presently known as Morocco and what is presently known as Western/Moroccan Sahara.


After that, the pledge of Sahrawi allegiance to the sultans of Morocco becomes fairly consistent, despite long distances and lengthy periods of relative anarchy both in Morocco proper and in Western/Moroccan Sahara.  In 1678 the Alawi sultan Mulay Ismail (1672-1727) visited the Sahara region as far as the borders of present-day Mali to receive the bay‘ah and consolidate political control.[36]  In 1757, following thirty years of instability since the death of Mulay Ismail, the Sahrawi notables pledged allegiance to the newly enthroned sultan Sidi Mohammed Ibn Abdallah (1757-1790).[37]


The process continued throughout the nineteenth century despite the obvious weakening of the Makhzan due to increasing European pressure.[38]  It did not cease even after Morocco lost its independence in 1912.[39]  This demonstrates that the Sahrawi bay‘ah to the Moroccan sultans was consensual.  Ibn Khaldûn states disapprovingly that “people were forced to render the oath of allegiance to anybody who seized power”,[40] but in the case of Western/Moroccan Sahara the remoteness of the area and the general plight of the Makhzan ruled out any coercion.  Simply put, the Sahrawis wanted to be and remain subjects of the Moroccan sultan.  This could be because they deplored anarchy,[41] because they considered themselves bound by religion to render the bay‘ah to someone,[42] because they wanted support against European incursions,[43] or for any other practical or metaphysical reasons, but the fact remains that they consented to Moroccan rule.  The consensus was reciprocal, as demonstrated by the fact that the Moroccan sultans were maintaining an official correspondence with the Sahrawi tribal sheikhs and involved them in decision-making when the opportunity arose.[44]  After Morocco regained its independence in 1956, and with the Spanish still in Sahara, the Sahrawis kept rendering the bay‘ah to the Moroccan kings; the last such instance, and a highly publicized one, was on 3 November 1975, when Khatri Ould Sidi Said Joumani, president of the Sahrawi tribal council (Jemaa), rendered the bay‘ah to king Hassan II.  The tradition continues to this day, with various socio-political groups of the Western/Moroccan Sahara (tribal sheiks, religious leaders, elected representatives, etc.) rendering the bay‘ah to the king of Morocco.


All this constitutes the foundation of the Moroccans’ belief in their historical rights over Western/Moroccan Sahara.  Apart from that, one might occasionally come across the issue of origin as a generator of historical rights.  Thus, one might be told, as the author was told by Sahrawi sheikhs at Laayoune in April 2014, that three royal Moroccan dynasties, namely the Almoravids, the Sa’dis and the currently ruling Alawis, have originated from the Sahara; in this sense, the incorporation of Western/Moroccan Sahara to Morocco is merely the return of a dynasty to its birthplace.  This is technically correct, in the sense that all these dynasties (plus the Marinids – circa 1258-1420) had a connection with the Sahara desert.  However, none of the three can claim to have originated from the present-day Western/Moroccan Sahara: the Almoravids are commonly associated with Mauritania, whereas the Sa’dis and the Alawis trace their origins in the present-day Draa-Tafilalelt region, in southeast Morocco proper.


Before concluding, a brief note on the historical-rights enabler of adjacency and its application to the case of Western/Moroccan Sahara.  That territory and Morocco proper are, of course, adjacent.  However, the elongated shape of both these lands means that the distances involved are considerable (about 2.700 Km from the northeastern tip of Morocco proper to the southwestern tip of Western/Moroccan Sahara) and the Sahara desert has always been a formidable barrier to communication.  Still, modern transport and communications technology has gone a long way to mitigating these obstacles, making geographical adjacency more of a reality than in the past.

The issue of legitimacy


The incorporation of Western/Moroccan Sahara to Morocco has always enjoyed overwhelming legitimacy among the Moroccans.  Already in 1957, the year after Morocco recovered its independence, Moroccan irregular forces attacked the Spanish in Sidi Ifni and Spanish Sahara.  Faced with Spanish defeat, the French quickly stepped in to redress the balance.  The war formally ended in April 1958 with Spain ceding to Morocco some territory around Tarfaya (immediately to the north of present-day Western/Moroccan Sahara), but guerrilla forces kept roaming in the desert until 1960 and were finally incorporated in the Moroccan army only in 1962.[45]  The Green March (6 November 1975), in which the Moroccan king Hassan II marched just inside Spanish Sahara at the head of more than 300.000 unarmed Moroccans, is solemnly celebrated every year in Morocco.  Finally, in 6 November 2014, while this paper was being completed, king Mohammed VI delivered a very tough anniversary speech in which he declared, among others, that “Morocco will remain in its Sahara, and the Sahara will remain part of Morocco, until the end of time”.[46]


In the Western/Moroccan Sahara itself, life is more or less normal nowadays.  The author has witnessed hundreds of people strolling in downtown Laayoune at about 10.00 pm., hundreds of people camping and swimming at the shores of the Atlantic near the Laayoune port, children hitchhiking at the Laayoune – Laayoune Port highway, no military personnel at the Laayoune airport, and fewer policemen in the greater Laayoune area than in downtown Athens; he cannot be convinced that Western/Moroccan Sahara is under military occupation.  The Sahrawi sheikhs profess their loyalty to the king of Morocco and declare that “Sahara is Moroccan”.[47]  As to the local people, while some of them publicly complain about the slow pace of the democratic reforms in Morocco,[48] they still send their children in droves to Morocco-run schools in Sahara.[49]  Thus, one can reasonably assume that Moroccan rule does not lack domestic legitimacy in Western/Moroccan Sahara.


On the other hand, the Moroccan cause has not fared very well in terms of international legitimacy.  With the exception of relatively few experts, the Moroccan point of view is barely known internationally, let alone approved of.  The international attitude toward Morocco re the Western/Moroccan Sahara issue ranges from the open hostility of the African Union, through the cautious approach of the European Union, to the tacit support of much of the Arab League, but no one has openly come out in favor of Rabat with a de jure recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in the disputed area.  In contrast, the Polisario has done clearly better in this respect, its self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) being recognized by probably more than forty UN members.[50]  Early victories and defeats in propaganda wars can be difficult to reverse; since the early 1970s the Western/Moroccan Sahara issue has been framed in terms of decolonization of a given territory, isolating it from its historical background; hence Morocco has been facing an uphill struggle in its quest for international legitimacy.[51]


4.         Conclusion


The concept of historical rights is vague.  It does not tell the whole story of an international dispute, for it often leaves aside its legal aspects.  But it is there.  For better or for worse, it is bound to retain its potency for the foreseeable future, endowing territorial claims with domestic legitimacy and perhaps with international legitimacy as well.


In the specific case of Western/Moroccan Sahara, the perceived historical rights of Morocco could make all the political difference in the world.  In the absence of those rights, Morocco’s actions in the former Spanish Sahara are little more than sheer aggression.  In the context of those rights, Morocco’s actions can well be considered legitimate attempts to restore a national integrity interrupted by Spanish colonization.



Constantinos Koliopoulos*

 Assistant Professor of International Politics and Strategic Studies, Panteion University; Professor of Strategic Studies, Hellenic National Defense College.  I wish to thank Professors Ahmed Herzenni, Sotiris Roussos and Yiannis Stivachtis for their valuable insights.  Of course I bear sole responsibility for the views and possible mistakes contained in this paper.


[1]               A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 104, 112.


[2]               Cf. “Q&A: Gibraltar row”, BBC, 26 November 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-23576039.


[3]               All dates are A.D. unless otherwise stated.


[4]               See, for instance, “Hashemite Sovereignty in Post-Saddam Iraq?” Hurriyet Daily News, 31 January 1999, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=hashemite-so….


[5]               Cf. “Medvedev momentum falters in Nagorno Karabakh”, Strategic Comments, vol. 17, comment 27 (August 2011).


[6]               For a contemporary account of the Chinese invasion coupled with useful background information, see Fred W. Riggs, “Tibet in Extremis”, Far Eastern Survey, vol. 19, no. 21 (Dec. 6, 1950): 224-30.


[7]               See, among others, Christopher I. Beckwith, “Review of The Status of Tibet: History, Rights, and Prospects in International Law, by Michael C. van Walt van Praag”, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 47, no. 3 (August 1988): 627.


[8]               Bernice Lee, “The Security Implications of the New Taiwan”, Adelphi Paper 331 (London: Oxford University Press for The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1999), p. 14.  The quotation appears in the margins of the main text and actually is not to be found in the text as such.  It appears to have been inserted in order to counter Chinese arguments about China’s historical rights over Taiwan.  Incidentally, the statement is by and large refuted by the text itself, which points out that since 1683-4 the Chinese imperial authorities had been appointing officials to govern Taiwan, though the island did not become a formal imperial province until 1885; Lee, “The Security Implications of the New Taiwan”, p. 14.


[9]               See, among others, Demetrios Ambelas, Independent Division, 2nd edition (Athens: Constantine Tourikis Publications, 1997 reprint), pp. 10-12 [text in Greek].


[10]             The cynic might say that these problems are more difficult in theory than in practice.  Though scholars might be troubled by them, public opinion may disregard them and carry over the political practitioners in a maximalist approach to issues of historical rights based on ethnicity.


[11]             Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 3.


[12]             For instance, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands were exterminated by the Spaniards at the time of Columbus’ discoveries.


[13]             Lawrence Freedman, “The War of the Falkland Islands, 1982”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 61, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 196-210.


[14]             For a contemporary account of the Indian invasion of Goa that also describes the quixotic Portuguese attempts to recover the landlocked Indian enclaves of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, see Margaret W. Fisher, “Goa in Wider Perspective”, Asian Survey, vol. 2, no. 2 (April 1962): 3-10.


[15]             Goa and the other Portuguese enclaves in India are a notable exception, in the sense that their incorporation into India has been internationally accepted for decades.  Still, at the time of those events there was no such international consensus; see Fisher, “Goa in Wider Perspective”.


[16]             The Dorian Greeks were supposedly descendants of the mythical demigod Hercules.


[17]             Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun (New York – Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), pp. 213-19.


[18]             For an analysis, see Constantinos Koliopoulos, “The Western Sahara conflict: Security implications and a possible way out”, in Grigorios Tsaltas, Eirini Cheila, Constantinos Koliopoulos (eds.), Sécurité &Coopération en Méditerranée: Défis &Opportunités – Security & Cooperation in the Mediterranean: Challenges & Opportunities (Athens: Piotita, 2013), pp. 27-44.


[19]             Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History [transl. Franz Rosenthal, ed. and abr. by N. J. Dawood] (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. 7-8.


[20]             Incidentally, in both areas one can find obvious sub-Saharan ethnic influences, chief among them being the Haratine.  The Haratine are a black, Arabic-speaking indigenous group living in south Morocco proper and also in Western/Moroccan Sahara and Mauritania; see Thomas K. Park, Historical Dictionary of Morocco, new edition (Lanham, MD & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1996), pp. 43, 64-5, 83-4, 187, 270.


[21]             Ahmed Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes: Historical Process and the Bond of Allegiance”, in Abdalhak Azzouzi (ed.), Moroccan Yearbook of Strategy and International Relations, 2013 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013), pp. 440-3.


[22]             See, for instance, Mohamed Dahmane, “Social Life in the Southern Provinces”, in Azzouzi (ed.), Moroccan Yearbook of Strategy and International Relations, 2013, p. 419.


[23]             Personal communication, April 6, 2014.


[24]             See, among others, Mohamed Cherkaoui, Morocco and the Sahara: Social Bonds and Geopolitical Issues, second edition (Oxford: The Bardwell Press, 2007), pp. 67-176; Dahmane, “Social Life in the Southern Provinces”, pp. 417-34.  A salient characteristic of the Sahrawi culture is the exalted position of women.


[25]             Abdelhamid El Ouali, Saharan Conflict: Towards Territorial Autonomy as a Right to Democratic Self-Determination (London: Stacey International, 2008), p. 57; Dahmane, “Social Life in the Southern Provinces”, pp. 417-30; Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes”, pp. 435-9.


[26]             Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah, p. 166.


[27]             Park, Historical Dictionary of Morocco, pp. 4-5.


[28]             The legal arguments for the connection between bay‘ah and sovereignty have been raging at least since 1974, when the UN General Assembly asked an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal status that the then Spanish Sahara had had at the time of the Spanish colonization; see Koliopoulos, “The Western Sahara conflict”, pp. 28-9 and the sources cited therein.


[29]             Cf. C. R. Pennell, Morocco since 1830: A History (London: Hurst, 2000), pp. 102, 114-5, 126-7.


[30]             Ronald A. Messier, The Almoravids and the Meanings of Jihad (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010).


[31]             Park, Historical Dictionary of Morocco, p. 242.


[32]             Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes”, pp. 445-6.


[33]             Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes”, 446-7.


[34]             Allen J. Fromherz, The Almohads: The Rise of an Islamic Empire (London – New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010).


[35]             Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes”, p. 448.


[36]             Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes”, pp. 448-9.


[37]             Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes”, pp. 449-50.


[38]             Pennell, Morocco since 1830, pp. 102, 114-5, 126-7; Mohamed Dahman, “Saharaoui Society through Jurisprudence Cases”, in Azzouzi (ed.), Moroccan Yearbook of Strategy and International Relations, 2013, p. 401-2; Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes”, pp. 454-7.


[39]             Qassim al-Hussaini, “The Historical Dimension of the Moroccan Sahara through the Rihla (Travel) of Ma’ al-Aynayn”, in Azzouzi (ed.), Moroccan Yearbook of Strategy and International Relations, 2013, pp. 411-15; Abbas al-Jirari, “The Role of the Ulema of the Moroccan Sahara in Consolidating National Unity”, in Azzouzi (ed.), Moroccan Yearbook of Strategy and International Relations, 2013, p. 473.


[40]             Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah, p. 155.


[41]             Ahmed Chikhi, “The Sufi Heritage in the Sahara: A Component of Diversity and Unity in Hassani Culture”, in Azzouzi (ed.), Moroccan Yearbook of Strategy and International Relations, 2013, pp. 372-3; Dahman, “Saharaoui Society through Jurisprudence Cases”, p. 382.


[42]             Bouzidi, “Moroccan Roots of the Sahara Tribes”, p. 448.  As the aforementioned analysis of Ibn Khaldûn makes clear, the bay‘ah has always had a strong religious content.  The descent of both the Sa’di and the Alawi dynasties from the Prophet Muhammad has obviously been an asset in this respect.


[43]             Pennell, Morocco since 1830, pp. 102, 126-7; al-Jirari, “The Role of the Ulema of the Moroccan Sahara in Consolidating National Unity”, p. 471.


[44]             Hassan Khattabi, “The Moroccan Sahara Question: A Nation’s March for the Completion of the National Territorial Unity”, in Azzouzi (ed.), Moroccan Yearbook of Strategy and International Relations, 2013, p. 165; al-Hussaini, “The Historical Dimension of the Moroccan Sahara through the Rihla (Travel) of Ma’ al-Aynayn”, p. 413.


[45]             I. William Zartman, “The Politics of Boundaries in North and West Africa”, The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 3, no. 2 (August 1965): 164; El Ouali, Saharan Conflict, pp. 84-5.


[46]             “HM The King Delivers Speech To The Nation On 39th Anniversary Of Green March”, Agence Maroccaine de Presse, 06 November 2014, http://www.map.ma/en/discours-messages-sm-le-roi/hm-king-delivers-speec….


[47]             Author’s meeting with Western/Moroccan Sahara sheikhs, Laayoune, April 5, 2014.  At least one of those sheikhs was a former Polisario fighter.


[48]             Public discussion after author’s address at a Laayoune NGO named “Center for Strategic Thinking and Defense of Democracy”, April 6, 2014.  So much for Western/Moroccan Sahara being a police state pure and simple.


[49]             Cherkaoui, Morocco and the Sahara, pp. 81-121.


[50]             It is quite difficult to come up with reliable data as to which states currently recognize the SADR, especially since more than thirty states have revoked or frozen their recognition.  The best the author could come up with was http://www.worldstatesmen.org/SADR_relations.doc, a compilation of unreliable resources (e.g. Wikipedia) that puts the states currently recognizing the SADR at forty four, while also listing forty states that had formerly recognized it but not any more.


[51]             Greece has been facing a similar problem vis a vis the FYROM.  The dispute over the latter’s name has increasingly come to be regarded as whimsical Greek bullying of a weak neighbor.  This facile view ignores not only the historical background of the issue, but also the very real Greek security concerns stemming from the revisionist territorial designs over the Greek province of Macedonia associated with the invention of a non-existent “Macedonian” nation.