Political Ramifications of King Mohammed VI’s Visit to ‘Western Sahara’

Morocco is celebrating today the fortieth anniversary of the Green March amid an unprecedented mobilization of all components of Moroccan society. As is the case every year, Moroccans avail themselves of this opportunity to express their attachment to their country’s territorial integrity. However, what makes this year’s celebration different from previous years is King Mohammed VI’s visit to the so-called Western Sahara.

This much-anticipated visit carries a strong political significance, especially as it comes against the backdrop of attempts made by some countries that are sympathetic to Algeria and the Polisario to deviate from the political process launched by the United Nations in 2007, when the Security Council urged the parties to the conflict to reach a mutually acceptable, political solution.

The recent political tension between Morocco and Sweden is a case in point, and it indicates that Algeria, the Polisario and their allies are working tirelessly to disrupt the political process and prevent the UN from fully discharging its role in helping the parties to the conflict to reach a political solution that is viable on the ground.

This visit comes also following the local and regional elections held in Morocco in September, amid the United Nations’ incapacity to move the political process forward and in the absence of any significant impact of the work of Christopher Ross, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Through this visit, King Mohammed VI seeks to convey a message to the international community that while the United Nations has failed to bridge the gap between the conflicting parties, Morocco is determined to implement its autonomy plan in the Sahara, in line with the proposal it presented to the Security Council in April 2007.

In addition, through this visit, Morocco wants to show to the international community and the world public opinion its steadfast determination to defend its territorial integrity and that its sovereignty over the Western Sahara is not negotiable. The visit mirrors the speech delivered by King Mohammed VI on the thirty-ninth anniversary of the Green March in November of last year, when he said that the Sahara will “remain part of Morocco.”

“The Sahara is not an issue for Saharan people only. The Sahara is the cause of all Moroccans. As I said in an earlier speech: the Sahara is a crucial, existential issue, not just a question of borders. Morocco will remain in its Sahara, and the Sahara will remain part of Morocco, until the end of time.”

The major development projects that are expected to be launched by the Moroccan monarch during his visit aim at turning this region into a major economic hub, providing job opportunities for the youth, and thus putting an end to the rent economy that has prevailed in the region for four decades.

These large-scale projects aim also to turn the region into a bridge between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa, in line with the African policy promoted by King Mohammed VI in recent years. In addition, Morocco aims to create 120,000 jobs in the region over the next ten years, in line with the recommendations of the Economic and Social and Environmental Council (ESEC). In its report made public in 2013, ESEC emphasized the need to involve the private sector in the efforts made by the State to promote the economic and social health of this region.

Rebuttal of Morocco’s exploitation of Sahara’s natural resources

On the other hand, these investments will rebuke the allegations that Morocco is merely exploiting the region’s natural resources, as the King will launch projects worth nearly MAD 140 billion (or approximately US $ 15 billion), as many news reports have pointed out.

In addition, this step confirms what King Mohammed VI said in his Green March speech in November 2014 when he stated that Morocco spends 7 dirhams for every dirham it receives from the southern territory. In doing so, Morocco seeks to neutralize this political card that the Polisario has begun using in recent years along with the human rights.

In recent years, some have started accusing Morocco of exploiting the natural resources of the Western Sahara, and calling on the international community to refrain from buying Moroccan goods exported from this region and not to sign an agreement with the Moroccan government to launch oil exploration in the area.

Swedish lawyer t Hans Corell, a former legal adviser to the United Nations, has played a central role in the promotion of these allegations, prompting some countries such as Sweden to impose sanctions on all companies doing business with companies that operate in the Western Sahara.

However, the allegations promoted by the former UN official are not based on accurate data or field research. They are based on the information provided by the Polisario and Algeria, and on his personal convictions. The thesis of the Polisario supporters is based on a false premise, that most of Moroccan phosphate deposits are located in the disputed areas.

Contrary to common belief on the subject, phosphates extracted from the region represent only 8 percent of Morocco’s total production. In addition, its production, transportation and exportation costs are higher than phosphates produced in other areas of the Moroccan territory.

Even if we assume under the best possible scenario that Morocco’s average annual income from phosphates since 1975 is $1.5 billion, the country’s treasury earned $60 billion worth of income over the past four decades. If we take into account that phosphates coming from the Sahara represent 8 percent of Morocco’s total production, its share of the total income would reach $ 4.8 billion.

The same observation applies to the fishing agreement signed between Morocco and the European Union in December 2013. In an article published last February, the Swede lawyer claimed that this agreement is “illegal” and goes against international law. Accordingly, he called on the Security Council to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice, in line with Article 96 of the Charter of the United Nations, concerning the legality of Morocco in integrating the Saharan territorial waters in the fishing agreement with the EU. He added that if the Security Council is unable to do so, the General Assembly of the United Nations should take the initiative.

Corell’s claim is based on the idea that the funds Morocco receives from its agreement with the EU, do not go to development projects that serve the interests of the Saharawi population.

However, all these allegations, which are based on non-objective considerations, do not stand up to a careful analysis of the facts on the ground. The first fishing agreement between Morocco and the EU was signed in 1995 for a period of four years. The agreement was not renewed between 1999 and 2007 and between 2011 and 2013. This means that the agreement has been in effect between the two parties for ten years. In this regard, even if we assume that since the signing of the first agreement between the two sides in 1995, Morocco has received 40 million euros each year and that this protocol exclusively applies to the Saharan territorial waters, Rabat would have earned a total of 400 million euros.

Based on the above, it appears clear that the financial income Morocco earned from phosphates and fishing coming from the Sahara did not exceed $5.2 billion over four decades. Has Morocco used these funds in projects that do not serve the interests of the Saharawi population as Corell and the leaders of the Polisario claim? Has Morocco exploited the natural resources of the region?

A mere comparison between the state of the Sahara at the time of Spanish colonialism and the present time will suffice to show that the Moroccan government has spent tens of billions of dollars to build entire cities and turn a desert area into a prosperous region. When Spain departed from the Sahara on February 28, 1976, the area lacked the most basic requirements of a decent life. There were no hospitals, no schools, no roads, and no airports. There was absolutely nothing.

For example, while Morocco built thousands of kilometers of regional national and provincial roads in the area, in addition to the highway that will be built between the Laayoune and Tiznit, there was as little as 600 kilometers of roads during the Spanish presence. In addition, the Moroccan government built entire cities from scratch and equipped them with all the necessities of life and wellbeing for their inhabitants, including hospitals, schools, roads, ports, airports, sports, recreational facilities, and facilities for the desalination of sea water.

In addition, one of the most important indicators that shows clearly how the Saharawi population has benefited from the heavy investments made by the Moroccan government at all levels, is the fact that human development indicators in the region outweigh the human development indicators in the rest of Morocco.

In the absence of precise data on the investments made by the Moroccan government to launch an architectural revolution in the Sahara, one can safely say that these investments exceeded many times, if not tens of times, what Morocco earned from the territory’s natural resources. If we may use what King Mohammed VI said in his speech mentioned above, when he stressed that Morocco spent seven dirhams for every dirhams it receives from the Sahara’s natural resources, it can be said that Morocco has spent at least $35 billion over the last four decades to build the Sahara and develop it. This amount of money exceeds Morocco’s external debt estimated at $27 billion.

Based on the foregoing, it is clear that the claim that Morocco exploits the Saharan natural resources is a politicized claim that is not based on accurate and objective scientific data. Its goal is rather to weaken Morocco’s position vis-a-vis international public opinion, which has little knowledge, if any, of the different aspects of conflict.

Therefore, Moroccan officials must build on this unprecedented popular mobilization created on the occasion of fortieth anniversary of the Green March to usher in a new era. They must also break free from improvisation and reaction in dealing with this issue and work to educate international public opinion and the relevant international organizations about the historical and legal facts that prove the legitimacy of Morocco’s position on the conflict.

On the other hand, the mobilization of Morocco’s public opinion and civil society should be permanent and not seasonal. The Moroccan people should be aware that the diplomatic and media battle to defend Morocco’s territorial integrity is still ongoing, and that Algeria and the Polisario and their allies will not remain idle. Quite the contrary, they will leave no stone unturned in order to abort all the efforts made by Morocco to achieve a political and consensual solution to the dispute over the so-called Western Sahara.

Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him @Samir Bennis