Off of Africa’s northwest Coast, a long causeway leads from the Moroccan city of Dakhla to a fisherman’s wharf packed with dozens of heavy-duty ships. Men in red overalls soaked in fish innards come and go, carting with them the catch of the day— sometimes crab; sometimes mussels; sometimes 3.5-pound sea bass. Nearby, the fluffy white sand and calm waters of this ocean-front Western Saharan city have been a well-kept secret of European and Australian wind surfers for nearly a decade. The trickle of tourists pales in comparison to cities in the north like Fez and Marrakesh, where visitors from around the world flood the streets to indulge in heavenly cuisine and unique textiles.
The Western Sahara, a region that’s been locked in a four-decade battle for sovereignty, has long been off the radar of even the most intrepid travelers. The region, which is known to some as “Africa’s last colony,” is at the heart of ambitious development plans by the Moroccan government, which is seeking to boost investments, create jobs, and appease the indigenous Sahrawi population that has long sought independence. “When we do an urban development plan, we do it for the people,” said “Wali” Hamid Chabar, governor of Morocco’s southern-most region, part of the disputed Western Sahara. “Sustainable development cannot happen if you focus on some and leave a segment of the society behind. A development plan that only caters to the elite will not help anyone.”
Shortly after Spanish colonists began to withdraw from Western Sahara in 1975, the region was annexed by Morocco (and briefly, by Mauritania as well), making it the world’s largest and most populated “non-self governing nation,” according to the UN. Morocco says the Western Sahara has always been an integral part of the kingdom and Sahrawis are just as much Moroccan as the rest of its citizens. However, Sahrawis, backed by the Polisario Front liberation movement, have since called for independence from the rest of Morocco, claiming that they are living under occupation. In 1976, as Moroccan forces clashed with Polisario fighters in a bloody guerilla war, the rebel group and its supporters were virtually pushed out of the Western Sahara and into Tindouf, Algeria, where as many as 90,000 people are still living in refugee camps today.
Not all Sahrawis chose to leave the disputed territory, and many have since returned from the camps—the population of the Western Sahara now reaching over 530,000. While clashes between pro-autonomy activists and Moroccan forces still occur in spurts, the region has remained relatively calm since a 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire—with other regional conflict and turmoil often stealing the Polisario’s thunder.
But when Tunisians sent their longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing into exile in 2010, and millions of Egyptians took to the streets to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, the Moroccan monarchy paid close attention. Within months, the young King Mohammed VI proposed sweeping constitutional reforms with substantial human rights guarantees (although with no limits to his own powers). One significant change recognized Amazigh, the Berber language, as one of the kingdom’s official languages. The new constitution also placed prohibitions on torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearances.
Only six months later, despite efforts to placate the opposition, Morocco’s Islamists achieved a historic victory in the legislative elections, signaling discontent even close to the seat of power. Today, Sahrawis living in the disputed territory continue to sound alarms over unfair treatment and persecution, saying that little has changed since the constitutional amendments were implemented. The government has since redirected its efforts toward economic development as a means for extinguishing any discontent. “Hundreds of our Sahrawi people are missing or were taken into custody by the police without reason and we don’t know anything about them,” says Khalili Elhabib, a Sahrawi human rights lawyer who spent 16 years in a secret northern Morocco prison.