The West has ongoing concerns with the Middle East: Irak, Syria, Iran, Turkey and, of course, Palestine/Israel. Sometimes even Europe as such shares these concerns, when it is capable to disentangle itself from the routine of its squabbles.
However, there is a quadrangle of the Arab world that leads a relatively quieter existence, the Maghreb, with the exception of Libya. The EU has a positive relationship to the three main countries of the region –Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco –, albeit one deprived of much strategic thinking. And yet, there would be scope to make of an enhanced relationship a counter-model to the conflictual and weak relationships it entertains in the Middle East quagmire. Without forgetting that Russia and China do not seem to be particularly active in that quadrangle, for the time being.
But, to attract a strategic interest from Europe, a political threshold, a critical mass, has to be attained. To that end, hopes were raised when the Union of Arab Maghreb was founded in Algiers in early 1989. The shared values of the three main countries – Libya and Mauritania playing second fiddle – their common political options on most, albeit not all, issues and, most importantly, their economic complementarities were there for all to see. Indeed, several studies have attempted to quantify the potential impact of an effective UAM, which the World Bank had evaluated, in its time, at an additional GDP growth of 2 to 3% year. This would have gone a long way in absorbing the annual manpower inflow, which is a clear destabilizing factor in all of the three countries.
Sadly, the UAM has turned out to be a still-born project, although it keeps existing on paper. The key reason for this turn of events is the dispute over the Western Sahara territory. Let us give it a closer look.
A former Spanish colony, and still a “non-autonomous territory” for the United Nations, it has been taken over by Morocco in 1975-76, following the Madrid Agreement of 1975. In 1976 the Polisario independence movement, supported by Algeria, proclaims the Saharaoui Arab Democratic Republic. The population of this territory speaks the “hassanya” version of arabic and is ethnically the same as that of southern Morocco and of Mauritania. For centuries, but not always, its tribes have given allegiance (bayaa) to the sultan of Morocco. Proof of this was the Friday high prayer that, in those periods, would be said in the name of the Moroccan sultan.
Besides each side’s nationalist claims there are, of course, underlying economic reasons as the territory is rich in phosphates and iron ore and its waters in fish and, most likely, in oil and gas. All of which would give significant leverage to the government of an independent country, far beyond what it could claim on the basis of a population of a few hundred thousand. However, it is certain that a Moroccan retreat would unleash a tremendous crisis in this country and a possible regime change. This is why this hypothesis is entirely inconceivable for Morocco and thus, quite clearly, one that the West is definitely disinclined to take into consideration. At the other end of the spectrum, Algeria – the sponsor of the Polisario and the country where it has its basis in Tindouf – had made of this issue a ‘cause celèbre’ in its own public opinion. In the old days this was warranted by geostrategic considerations and, above all, by the country’s stance as a champion of Third World causes within the Non-Aligned Movement. But much time has gone by, in particular the tragic years of the Algerian civil war in the ‘90s, from which the country emerged thanks to the firmness of its army. An army for which the sponsoring of the Polisario cause is an additional, useful factor justifying its extensive powers and privileges.
Against this intricate background the international community is lulling itself by providing, since 1991, a United Nations peace-keeping force (MINURSO) theoretically charged with the organisation of a referendum of the Saharaoui people. The UN Secretary General has also appointed a personal representative that should facilitate a settlement among the parties. The referendum, to be preceded by a now-stalled census, is, however, a highly impractical undertaking as the eligible population is spread over the WS territory, Morocco, and Algeria (Tindouf). The census process is also hampered by the issue of eligibility per se, as the parties cross-question the belonging of each potential voter to the original WS population.
It is, therefore, evident that a settlement could only be reached through a political compromise. An evidence that, after many years, has been recognized by Morocco, but not by the Polisario nor Algeria. It is also evident that the two main parties to such a compromise should be the two neighboring States. Unofficial attempts at this were made several times, notably by the Algerian President M. Boudiaf in 1992 – murdered the same year – and by the present Algerian President Bouteflika and the Moroccan King Hassan II who were to meet in 1999 when the king died a few days before the planned meeting. A sinister fate seems to hover.
Where does Europe stand in all this? For decades the EU has been providing food aid for the Tindouf Saharaouis , much of which appears to be monetized through informal channels. In recent years it has been feared that some youth in this refugee population were attracted by the Daesh (Isis) rhetoric and Tindouf is certainly well placed geographically in that regard. On the other hand, the European Commission has been having some legal headaches in getting approved the agricultural agreement and, most importantly, the renewal of the fisheries agreement with Morocco as the Polisario has attempted to challenge their applicability to WS.
On the whole, European Member States – notably France and Spain – do not seem keen to get directly involved in this issue, preferring to leave it to the unending rituals of UN diplomacy, where, however, the United States episodically shows signs of wanting to deter it.
But it should be clear to European decision-makers that there can be no serious policy vis-à-vis the Maghreb without settling this dispute. Given the continuing stalemate, it would be appropriate for the EU to offer its services as a facilitator, at the right time. And, as this could come about at a juncture marked by a new leadership in one of the two countries, attention should be paid to next spring’s presidential elections in Algeria where it is not certain that the ailing incumbent will stand again for office.
Photo: The border between Mauritania and Western Sahara (credits: David Holt)