Along with the Arab-Israeli conflict, the struggle between Morocco and the separatist Polisario Front over the southern half of Morocco's territory is one of the longest in the history of diplomacy. The United Nations has an office devoted to mediating the conflict and American, European and Arab diplomats have spent decades trying to find a solution.
So whenever someone in authority steps forward with a solution, it is worth paying attention. Is one of the modern world's oldest territorial disputes about to come to an end?
Morocco's King Mohammed VI has just given a surprising and strong speech that could be the key to peace in that ever-volatile corner of North Africa. His words were measured and powerful and established a framework for rethinking this thorny diplomatic conundrum.
In the southern region of Morocco -- which the Sahrawi separatists refer to as "Western Sahara -- the facts on the ground are changing. Billions of dollars in investment has poured in from the king and kingdom's coffers to build airports, marine ports, highways and public housing. The private sector has followed with hotels and offices and jobs. Dakhla, the southernmost major city in Morocco, has gone from being a small Spanish garrison town in 1975 to a bustling city and busy port today. Leaders in neighboring countries point to it as example.
Critics who say that Morocco is stealing the wealth of the southern peoples have got the math backwards. For every dirham that the south produces, seven more dirhams pour in from the north in trade, investment, subsidies and government spending.
The north is showering the south with money, the king said, out of sense of national solidarity. The king said: "The Sahara is not the only cause of the Saharawi [the people of the Sahara]. The Sahara is the business of all Moroccans." As a result of this solidarity philosophy, what was once one of the poorest parts of Morocco (and, indeed, one of the poorest parts of the world) is now equal or slightly ahead of the north on a per-capita income basis. That is quite an achievement in 40 years. While the separatists have built bombs and diplomatic roadblocks, Morocco has built a modern economy in the disputed lands.
The economic miracle could not have been performed by the south alone, but only the sacrifices of the north. The king made this point clearly. "And I say frankly: Moroccans have supported the development costs of the southern provinces. They gave out of their pockets, and levied on the livelihood of their children so that their southern brethren can live with dignity." the king said.
Calls for secession on the basis that the south was somehow economically abused run counter to reality.
The king, with perhaps his strongest words to date on the future of the south: "Morocco will remain in its Sahara, Sahara will remain in Morocco until the end of time."
Then the king announced a vision of devolution, designed to meet his critics more than halfway.He described a new legal framework to allow the southern provinces to be self-governing on local matters, much as individual states in the United States govern on local issues of law and order, education, highway construction and so on.
While the vision is clear and beautiful, the king did not want to dictate the details. Instead, he called for opening a "national dialogue and a responsible and serious debate on different ideas and possible designs in order to develop clear answers to all the questions and concerns of populations the region, and within the framework of national unity and territorial integrity of the country."
The king said he would be willing to negotiate with any party (including the United Nations, the separatists) and cited his meetings with separatist officials in Tindouf, Algeria, when he was crown prince. "I have no problem with that because I was negotiating with Moroccan citizens, and because it was a question of defending the rights of Morocco."
He offered only one precondition: "We must insist on the fact that Morocco's sovereignty over all its territory is immutable, inalienable and non-negotiable."
Short of dividing his country, the king is willing to consider any proposal. "The autonomy initiative is the maximum that Morocco has to offer as part of negotiations to find a definitive solution to this regional conflict."
He urged the American and European diplomats to lay aside certain tired misconceptions. The most common one is that Morocco is somehow a "colonial" power. Morocco reclaimed the lands from Spain, which was the colonial power. The southern region of Morocco has been recognized as part of the kingdom for many centuries. Indeed, that is why Spain returned it to Morocco and not some other nation.
Another misconception is that Morocco, a member state at the United Nations, is diplomatically equivalent to a separatist movement that is runs a one-party dictatorship on borrowed land in southern Algeria. Indeed, the lawlessness present in the separatist camps--drug-running, arms dealing, exploitation and denial of basic human rights outlined in the U.N. Charter--raises serious questions about the future that the Polisario Front offers to the people they seek to represent. This false equivalency simply slows down any negotiated peace and overlooks the other nation-state that must be brought to the table for peace to be made.
The final misconception, cited by the king, is explosive--but peace often requires the saying of hard truths. The king said that as long as Algeria fails to play its part, the conflict will continue.
Algiers may just shrug this off, as another olive branch to ignore. America's first African-American president famously likes to say that he has "a pen and a phone." He should phone Algiers and ask their leaders not to miss this opportunity for peace. Later he could use the pen to sign a peace treaty, much as President Carter did with the leaders of Israel and Egypt. Peace is worth taking another chance.