The curse of resources

In times of economic crisis and rising unemployment in North Africa, Western Sahara's natural resources have become fiercely contested treasures. The new balance of power resulting from recent political developments in the region could lead to a renegotiation of the conflict. By Susanne Kaiser

By Susanne Kaiser

It was little more than a rumour: during Mohammed VI's visit to Tunis at the end of May, there was allegedly a diplomatic row between the Moroccan King and Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki. The quarrel was apparently triggered by Tunisia's criticism of Morocco's undemocratic practices concerning Western Sahara and its poor relations with neighbouring Algeria. That was how the Tunisian online journal reported the story, citing undisclosed "diplomatic sources". A denial from the presidential palace followed immediately.

It may only have been a rumour, but it adds to recent indications that cogs may be turning in the dispute over Western Sahara, a 40-year conflict that has been characterised for the past quarter century by political deadlock. Unlike the Middle East conflict, the conflict over Western Sahara is one of the forgotten crises of our times.

And yet it writes similar stories of expulsion and divided families, oppression and marginalisation, new settlers and generations living their lives in refugee camps. There are narratives of discrimination, the torture of prisoners, human rights abuses, terrorism and a barrier that cuts into the heart of the territory and renders free movement impossible. There are also tales of leaders who appear to have no interest in solving the conflict and of a powerless and apparently penniless international community that can only look on but not take action. Yet there is one key difference between Western Sahara and the Middle East: Western Sahara's earth is rich in minerals and its coastline is rich in fish, making it a sought-after territory. It is a classic tale of the curse of natural resources.

The conflict is being fought out mainly by Morocco and the former rebel group Frente Polisario on behalf of the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" (SADR). Several more parties are actually involved, each of them pursuing its own murky interests: Algeria, Mauretania, Spain, France and the USA. The clearest indication of how gridlocked the situation has become is the UN mandate MINURSO (United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara), which has been untiringly renewed year after year since 1991, despite never having achieved any political results.

Resources versus identity and self-determination

At the heart of the conflict lies the income from valuable resources such as phosphates, fish and crude oil, which the Moroccan state claims for itself and which become fiercely contested treasures in times of economic crisis and rising unemployment. The region's geostrategic location also plays a role. For the Sahrawis, however, much more is at stake: identity, a common bond, freedom of movement and the right to self-determination in their own state.

For Morocco, the financial and logistical expense of the occupation pays off because the income from the rich fish stock, the sale of fishing licences to the EU, the looting of some of the world's largest phosphate deposits and the mass export of tomatoes and salt bring huge sums of money into the state coffers, create jobs and contribute a major share of Morocco's gross domestic product.

Children near the Dakhla refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria (photo: UNHCR/D. Alachi)
Marginalised and forgotten by the world: many Sahrawis have been living in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, since the mid 1970s. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are just under 120,000 refugees in the camps; the Algerian government puts the figure at well over 150,000

Apart from that, considerable oil and gas reserves are thought to be situated along the 2,200-kilometre coastline. European energy companies, including the French company Total, bought extraction licences years ago. With this in mind, Morocco is willing to live with its negative image on the issue. The Sahrawis are rarely granted a share of profits or even jobs, which tend to go instead to Moroccan settlers.

A wall across the desert

To protect its easy income, Morocco began building a three-metre-high sand wall (known as the "Berm") across the desert in the early 1980s. It divides the Moroccan-occupied and administered part of Western Sahara from the "Free Zone" controlled by the Polisario liberation movement. The barrier extends from the region bordering Morocco, Algeria and Mauretania in the north along a length of some 2,500 kilometres to the southern end of Western Sahara. Along its entire length, the sand wall is guarded by soldiers and secured by landmines.

The Sahrawis call it "Al-Jidar", the wall, another reason why it has often been compared to the Israeli barrier or the Berlin Wall. The "Berm" makes it impossible for families living in the separated areas to see their relatives on the opposite side – and that applies to almost all Sahrawis, as virtually every family was torn apart during the armed conflict with Morocco, which lasted from 1975 to 1991. Stories of limbs and relatives lost to landmines have engraved themselves on the Sahrawi collective memory.

In the "Free Zone", those expelled from their homes have settled in refugee camps around Tindouf at the westernmost tip of Algeria since the mid-1970s. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR estimates the numbers living in the camps today at just under 120,000, whereas the Algerian government puts the figure well above 150,000. That means that several generations have known no other home than these camps. The names of the conglomerations of tents and shacks remind them at least of the places on the Atlantic from where their parents and grandparents were expelled: Laayoune, Smara, Ausert, Dakhla.

Pawns of the powerful

It is on their shoulders that the powerful states are carrying out their scrimmage for money, influence and political interests. For a long time, for example, the USA was persuaded by Morocco's argument that the annexation of Western Sahara and the erection of a sand wall served American interests, namely in the fight against communism (the Polisario rebels) during the Cold War and now in the war on terrorism (the Polisario rebels).

This is why Morocco was caught unawares in April 2013 when the Obama administration presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council mandating MINURSO to monitor human rights violations in the region.

In view of the reports on internment camps and torture in prisons, such a move appears more than necessary. But Morocco responded by putting joint troop manoeuvres on hold, the USA withdrew the proposal, and so MINURSO remains the only UN peace mission without a clause on human rights.

Map of north-western Africa showing Morocco, Algeria and the disputed territory of Western Sahara (source: DW)
One of the world's forgotten conflicts: when Spain withdrew from the territory known as Spanish Sahara in 1975, both Morocco and Mauritania tried to annex it. A war ensued with the Polisario Front, which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the following year. Morocco, which controls approximately 70 per cent of Western Sahara, refers to the region controlled by the Polisario Front as the "Free Zone"

No referendum in sight

Nor has there been a referendum allowing the inhabitants of Western Sahara to vote on the future form of their state, which along with the repatriation of displaced persons is the actual purpose of the mandate. The referendum has always fallen at the hurdle of discussions over territorial borders and the question of who is entitled to vote: only Sahrawis or also Moroccan settlers, who are striving for a statistical majority?

Supported by Algeria in their opposition to Morocco, the leaders of the Polisario Front are no exception to the rule of personal power interests being served in the region. They face criticism and accusations from within their own ranks that they are rebels who have grown old and made themselves all too at comfortable in the diaspora and are no longer interested in solving the conflict.

Resistance is forming in the young generation of Sahrawis in particular. The most prominent opposition grouping is the "Youth Movement for Change", which accuses the old guard of focussing too much on Algeria and accepting corruption, power retention and haggling over posts.

Morocco fears for its sphere of influence

One sign of hope for change did appear on the horizon in April 2014. Shortly before passing the new MINURSO resolution, France declared it would abstain from voting on the human rights clause. Although this is in line with France's traditional stance since 1980, Morocco interpreted the decision as a political affront and followed up with diplomatic consequences.

Morocco's nervousness indicates that Rabat is anticipating upheaval. The balance of power in the region has shifted as a result of current political processes such as the democratisation of Tunisia, the extremely fragile stability in Algeria, the threat of civil war in Libya and uprisings by minorities. This could lead to a renegotiation in the Western Sahara conflict.

That being said, an independent republic seems to have moved even further out of reach: as long as all influential parties in the conflict are prepared to live with the current stalemate, there can be no progress in this matter. As ever, the Sahrawis bear the brunt.

Susanne Kaiser

© 2014

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/