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Trump administration recognises Moroccan annexation

The US government no longer supports self-determination for Western Sahara

by: Sarah-Marie Thomas

Just a few weeks before leaving office, Donald Trump – infamous for his impulsive and ill-considered political decisions – announced the US government’s recognition of Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara in return for Morocco establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. This has brought one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts back to the fore.

Piece of street art in San Sebastián, Spain. Photo courtesy of the author.

The territory of Western Sahara, situated on the northwest coast of Africa and bordered by Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania, was colonised by Spain in 1884. Morocco and Mauritania however, claimed historical ties to the region, whereupon Spain handed the territory to them in 1957. The transition of colonial power took place despite a ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) who judged the claims to be unsubstantial and supports independence and self-determination for the Sahrawis, the indigenous people of Western Sahara.

While Mauritania withdrew from the territory in 1979, Morocco still controls about 80% of it, consequently, Western Sahara is often referred to as ‘Africa’s last colony’.

In opposition to Moroccan occupation, the Polisario Front emerged with Algerian support as the legitimate representation of the Sahrawi people, recognised by the United Nations (UN). In 1976, they formed a government in Algerian exile, named the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

Sixteen years of fighting between the Moroccan military and the Polisario Front only came to an end through a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991, yet plans for a referendum for self-determination never became reality.

Until today, the status of the territory is unsolved, but Morocco’s annexation is not accepted by most countries.

A palace in Morocco. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Postiglioni via Pexels.

Recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and opening a consulate on the territory marks a turning point for US policy on the matter, which had previously supported self-determination via a referendum for the Sahrawis. In the presidential proclamation, it now says: ‘The United States believes that an independent Sahrawi State is not a realistic option for resolving the conflict and that genuine autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only feasible solution’. Thereby it now supports the Morocco autonomy plan, which the Kingdom of Morocco presented to the UN in 2007. It grants the Sahrawis limited self-government under overarching Moroccan control.

The Trump administration took this decision in return for Morocco joining the ranks of four Arab nations that have previously opened diplomatic relations with Israel.

For example, Israelis of Moroccan origin can now take direct flights to their homeland.

While some people regard the new US standpoint on the disputed territory as beneficial for the development of Western Sahara’s economy and infrastructure, the indigenous Sahrawis fear even greater exploitation of their natural resources. The region is rich in fish stocks and phosphate deposits. Oil and gas deposits are suspected, too. For relatively resource-poor Morocco, control over Western Sahara provides them with clear strategic and economic advantages compared to its primary security threat and powerful neighbour Algeria. Morocco is also being paid by the European Union for fishing access to Western Saharan waters.

The UN already stated that US recognition of the annexation will not change their position on the territory.

Experts agree that it will not lead to other states recognising Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara.

Oubi Bechraya, the European representative of the Polisario Front said that the move ‘will not change an inch of the reality of the conflict and the right of the people to self-determination’.

Nevertheless, Trump’s decision was a big symbolic win for Morocco and could potentially lead to further hostilities in the region. Only recently, Moroccan security forces entered UN-monitored zones and violated the 1991 ceasefire agreement, raising concern among international observers.

Further military action and tensions could destabilise the already fragile region, while the relationship between the US and Algeria is likely to deteriorate.

President-elect Biden could theoretically reverse the decision as soon as he takes over office, but so far he has not positioned himself on the subject - so it remains to be seen how long-lasting Trump’s decision ultimately is.