The White House announced today that a fourth Arab nation — Morocco — has agreed to normalize its relationship with Israel. The so-called Abraham Accords have already successfully brought Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan to the table and elicited a wave of support for President Trump in a string of highly-publicized announcements.
In a triumphant tweet, President Trump called the move a “massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East.”
Another HISTORIC breakthrough today! Our two GREAT friends Israel and the Kingdom of Morocco have agreed to full diplomatic relations – a massive breakthrough for peace in the Middle East!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2020
But tucked into the brokered agreement between Rabat and Tel Aviv, is a proclamation from President Trump which recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This a political quid pro quo that will undoubtedly empower Morocco to break the decades-long stalemate with the Polisario Front in the region.
The Polisario Front is a rebel national liberation movement backed by leaders of the Sahrawi people. It seeks to cast off Moroccan control of Western Sahara. The Sahrawis are native to the western part of the Sahara desert which includes Western Sahara, southern Morocco, much of Mauritania, and the extreme southwest of Algeria. They have been pitted against the Moroccan regime since the Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara in 1976.
In issuing the proclamation, President Trump is tacitly supporting Moroccan military action in the region. But such action would cause an international stir. The Polisario Front is recognized by the UN as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people and maintains that the Sahrawi people have the right to self-determination.
The Polisario Front represents the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) a partially recognized de facto sovereign state which claims the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara but only asserts control over the easternmost one-fifth of the territory due in large part to a border wall secured by Morocco.
The wall, or the Berm, as it is known, separates the SADR region of Western Sahara from the western part of the region. It is controlled by the Moroccan military. Since 1991, the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government have been in a stalemate. The Berm — a 1,400-mile border wall flanked with landmines — separates the Moroccan-controlled area of Western Sahara from the Free Zone, or Liberated Territories, occupied by the SADR.
In November, Moroccan troops moved into the extreme southern area of the Free Zone to clear a major highway they say had been blocked by the Polisario Front. The highway, which runs north-south along the coast of Western Sahara, connects Morocco with Mauritania.
A spokesman for the Polisario Front had accused the Moroccan military of firing at innocent protesters during the operation leading to clashes between Moroccan and Polisario forces.
“War has started, the Moroccan side has liquidated the ceasefire,” senior Polisario official Mohamed Salem Ould Salek had told the media, calling the Moroccan operation an “aggression.”
Today’s announcement puts the November operation in a new light. Clearing the road to Mauritania would be the first step in securing a crucial economic supply route from Morocco to the ports of Mauritania and, more importantly, the oil buried beneath the sands of the Western Saharan desert.
The deal seems to also involve the State Department. Last week, the State Department announced that it is breaking ground on a brand new consulate general campus in Casablanca in a demonstration of the “enduring friendship and strategic partnership with the Kingdom of Morocco.”
Morocco is a strong economic player in Africa. It ranks as Africa’s fifth-largest economy and North Africa’s second-largest non-oil economy behind Egypt. But its economy is highly dependent on the import of foreign petroleum. According to the International Energy Agency, Morocco has to import roughly 96 percent of its energy requirements, leading to a cost of billions of dollars annually. While Morocco has been working to aggressively diversify its power production through the implementation of massive solar farms, its reliance on foreign oil is a crippling weakness.
The vast desert of Western Sahara has long been eyed by international oil and gas companies which estimate that the region boasts vast hydrocarbon reserves. Tapping into such reserves would strengthen Morocco’s economy and could elevate the country into a serious regional power.
But, in order to do so, Morocco would need to secure vast areas of Western Sahara as well as the main supply routes, including those that run through the Free Zone into Mauritania.
It appears, at least for the moment, that making “peace” with Israel has earned Morocco the international go-ahead to break it at home.