The Battle Over Western Sahara

A 40-year struggle for independence in southern Morocco is heating up thanks to a bold new development plan.

A Sahrawi man rides a camel at the 35th anniversary celebrations of their independence movement for Western Sahara from Morocco, in Tifariti, southwestern Algeria. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

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.

Since 2006, the Moroccan government has been pushing for an autonomy plan to resolve the conflict. As part of the proposal, it suggests offering returned refugees from the Tindouf camps incentives for resettling in the Western Sahara. However, negotiations have stalled on this issue and no agreement has been reached until today.

One of the sharpest grievances of the Sahrawis is unemployment. The rate in Western Sahara is twice the national average (9 percent), and many in the southern provinces complain that the government lures northerners to the Western Sahara with promises of subsidized housing and other perks. The government denies these claims, while acknowledging that job creation is of the utmost importance to ease regional tensions. We are focusing on political participation and economic development,” said Youssef Amrani, Morocco’s deputy foreign minister, in an interview. “Job creation is our biggest challenge today. We must meet the expectations of younger generations.”

According to the Center for Regional Investment in Oued Ed-Dahab-Lagouira, the southern provinces, the government is focusing on tourism development as one of the key pillars to boosting employment in the region. In June, it announced a tourism development project worth $623.5 million, which includes 21 projects along the 414 miles of coastline in the southern provinces.

The government points to investments of $2 billion in schools, hospitals and infrastructure as a means to serve the local community. In Laayoune—considered the capital of the Western Sahara—the government is spending some $90 million on recreation and education centers, including public parks, libraries, theaters and a desperately needed university, the first in Western Sahara. It has also opened a museum in Dakhla, showcasing Sahrawi culture and history. Still, human rights activists for the Sahrawi community argue that the Moroccan government continues to alienate the economic prosperity of the south and stifles any celebration of Sahrawi culture, which bears greater similarities to neighboring African customs than that of the north. They say healthcare is in a dismal state in the south, and the university is long overdue.

Officials with the Polisario maintain that the Moroccan government is looking to monopolize Western Saharan resources, while giving little back to the indigenous community. Fishing is a coveted industry in the region that employs more than 40,000 people in the Dakhla region alone. In 2011, a decision by the European Union parliament to cancel a $46 million deal allowing trawlers from EU countries to fish in Moroccan waters prompted the kingdom to immediately ban all European fishing boats from its shores. European legislators said they wanted to wait until the interests of Western Sahara trawlers were considered before agreeing to the deal. This past July, the dispute was resolved and a new four-year agreement worth $53 million a year was signed between the EU and Morocco, sparking sharp condemnation from the Polisario, who called the accord “illegal.”

“We need to ensure that local, natural resources are turned to benefit local populations. That way we avoid any of these feelings of resentment,” said Driss Guerraoui, secretary general of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, a Moroccan government advisory board.

The Polisario believes that fisheries and phosphates are the key industries that could make an independent Western Sahara economically self-sufficient. The price of phosphate, a key ingredient in fertilizer, has soared some 300 percent since 2007. The Boucraa mine in Western Sahara has an estimated output of 2.5 million tons per year—a fraction of what Morocco, the world’s largest phosphate exporter, produces annually. However, officials with the Polisario point to international law, which prohibits any occupying forces from exploiting the natural resources of the land unless it is with the consent of the native population. As the Polisario’s ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Yeslem Beisat, put it recently: “We will never.”