The Western Sahara Conflict

By: Susan Humphrey

Editor’s note: Formating has been altered to MLA. Bibliography can be recieved by request from author.

“One of the most inhospitable places on Earth, the ex-Spanish territory of Western Sahara might seem the least likely tract of real estate to be coveted by anyone. Yet this bleak land on the western edge of the great Saharan desert has been the theatre of one of Africa’s most bitter and intractable wars” (Hodges, 1983: vii).

Tony Hodges, author of one of the most complete and comprehensive studies on the roots of the Western Sahara conflict, could not be more accurate in his writing. “In most of Western Sahara”, he describes, “there appears to be nothing but rocks and stones, stretching interminably over monotonous plains, for mile upon mile” (1983: ix). Located in the north-west corner of Africa between Morocco and Mauritania, Western Sahara is a territory about the size of Colorado and one of the most sparsely population places on Earth, home to slightly under 400,000 people (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 2008). However, since Spain’s withdrawal from the territory in 1975, Western Sahara has been home to a seemingly interminable conflict in which Morocco has laid claim to the territory once known as the Spanish Sahara. Morocco’s annexation of this territory, which it has long seen as an attractive piece of land, was the result of a culmination of Moroccan interests. The combination of the Spanish Sahara’s valuable resources, the historically-motivated territorial ambitions of Morocco, and King Hassan’s desire to divert attention away from pressing domestic issues such as poverty, unemployment and the negative effects of authoritarian rule all led Morocco to make and maintain its claim to the Spanish Sahara. Since the beginning of the conflict, a great number of states and organizations such as Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Polisario, the Organization of African Union, the United Nations, France, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union have all, at one time or in some way, been involved in the conflict and/or attempts at working toward its resolution.

Teresa Whitfield describes the conflict as “the unfortunate combination of territorial ambition in Morocco and studied disinterest from states in the broader international community unwilling to jeopardize relations with a strategically located regional power” (2007: 165). This paper seeks to expand on the ideas presented in this description and will devote itself in part to exploring the complicated relationships and alliances that have been formed by states possessing interests the Maghreb region. However, this paper will also be dedicated to an exploration of the historical context of the conflict which is necessary to fully understand the nature of and reasons behind the series of relationships that have formed, particularly those pertaining to the United States. In sum, this paper seeks to explore the historical background of the conflict and come to understand the reasons behind its prolongation through an examination of the alliances and relationships between the states whose interests have led them to claim a stake in the outcome of the conflict. While the interests and policies of states such as Spain, Algeria and France will be examined, the policies upon which this paper will primarily focus are the policies of the state whose role has, as a result of its global hegemony, been of greatest importance in the Western Sahara conflict – the United States. It will be argued that the conflict has remained unsolved due to an unfortunate combination of selfish international interests and self-interested state behavior on the part of the states involved. With each of the players acting only in the interest of their own state, important international principles such as the right to self-determination, nationalism and freedom have been ignored, the rights of individuals and a nation trampled, and the notion of the common good forgotten. While all parties involved are guilty of such charges, the United States has used its power to pursue its interests with a particularly profound lack of respect for international law, the United Nations, and the responsibility it holds to serve as a model world leader. With players acting in such a way, it is no wonder that so little progress has been made.

The paper proceeds in four sections. The first provides a description of the historical background of the conflict, discussing the colonization of the Spanish Sahara, the rise of Sahrawi nationalism and the violent conflict which arose during the 1970s. The second discusses the more modern developments in regards to the conflict such as the UN-OAU brokered ceasefire, the establishment of MINURSO, and the actions which came out of the appointment of former US Secretary of State James A. Baker as the United Nations Special Representative to Western Sahara. The third section will demonstrate how the competing interests and alliances of the Moroccan, Spanish, Algerian, French and American states have added to the complication of the conflict and are largely responsible for the prolonged stalemate that has resulted. Finally, the conclusion will summarize the argument being made and speculate as to how the conflict may be resolved in the future.

Historical background

Spanish colonization

The inhabitants of Western Sahara, the Sahrawi people, are a sub-group of the beidan, or ‘Moors’, who are “nomads of mixed Berber, Arab, and black African descent who speak a dialect of Arabic known as Hassaniya” (Hodges, 1984: 74). As Arabic speakers, the ‘Moors’ were distinct from the Berber speaking people to the east and north of their territory, as well as from the black Africans to the south of them (Hodges, 1984). Historically, they “were effectively beyond the control of the sultans of Morocco” (Hodges, 1984: 78), largely due to the fact that the Sahrawi people were primarily divided into nomadic tribes that were not very conducive to state or government structures. They therefore had no form of central authority which presided over their tribes and it is for this reason that the Sahrawi people were fiercely opposed to the Spanish colonization and domination of their territory which occurred as a result of the Congress of Berlin (Hodges, 1983). Between 1884 and 1885 this congress was responsible for dividing the land of Africa among the soon-to-be colonial powers, ceding what then became the Spanish Sahara to Spain (Hodges, 1983). Though Spain’s colonial domination lasted until 1976 (Zoubir, 1998), “[t]he Saharawis were among the last African peoples to submit to colonial domination” (Hodges, 1983: 55).

The rise of Sahrawi nationalism

The African decolonization movement began in the following the United Nations’ declaration “that all peoples had the right to self-determination” (Hodges, 1983: 104; Pennel, 2000: 335) in the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, also known as Resolution 1514. While many countries began to relinquish their hold on their colonial territories, Spain demonstrated “no intention of preparing its colonies for self-rule” (Hodges, 1983: 104). The United Nations, however, continued to exert pressure on Spain to begin the process of decolonization by declaring in 1965 that the Spanish Sahara should be “liberated from colonial domination” (Pennel, 2000: 335). In 1966 the UN began to call for a referendum to be held concerning the self-determination of the people of Spanish Sahara. Spain ignored these calls and as time continued to elapse without any signs of the Spanish government’s willingness to surrender its hold, members of the Sahrawi communities began to demonstrate their desire for self-determination. Seeing as “[t]he Saharawis never constituted a nation in precolonial times” this newfound nationalism was a “phenomenon that took root only in [this] latter part of the Spanish colonial period” (Hodges, 1983: 149).

Beginning in Rabat in 1971, a group of students led by El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed had been becoming increasingly frustrated by Spain’s refusal to end its colonial domination. They began to discuss the possibility of liberating Spanish Sahara by force and encouraged others to join their movement. However, the Spanish police began to crack down on their group in May of 1973 and the group of young men fled into the desert where they formally established the first true Sahrawi nationalist movement, the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Ora, commonly known as Polisario (Pennel, 2000). The leaders of the movement declared that they were committed to fighting for “national liberation from all forms of colonialism and the achievement of complete independence” as well as for the “creation of a republican, national regime, with the effective participation of the masses” (Polisario Front, 1975: 42). The movement rapidly grew in popularity among the population of Spanish Sahara, primarily because of “its concentration on the one objective deeply rooted in Western Saharan traditions, that of total independence from foreign controls” (Thompson & Adloff, 1980: 135).

Moroccan claims to Spanish Sahara[1]

Morocco’s claims to the territory of Spanish Sahara extend as far back as to the time of its independence; “Our independence will only be complete with the Sahara!” shouted Allal el-Fassi, leader of the Istiqlal Party, in 1956 (Hodges, 1983: 85). Leaders of the newly independent Moroccan state claimed that Western Sahara had historically been a part of ‘Greater Morocco’ and that they would fight to restore the true boundaries of Morocco, which included Western Sahara. It was not until 1973, however, that Morocco’s King Hassan began to emphasize nationalist ideals by campaigning for the return of the Sahara to ‘the motherland’ through government newspapers (Pennel, 2000). King Hassan took things a step further by calling upon the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to evaluate Morocco’s claims to Spanish Sahara which were quickly deemed null by the ICJ on October 16, 1974. Spanish officials also rejected Morocco’s claims to the territory and persuaded the United Nations to launch a fact-finding mission to canvass the opinions of the Sahrawi people regarding their desire for independence or annexation by Morocco. The UN mission was greeted by crowds “who made it noisily clear that they wanted independence” (Pennel, 2000: 338), causing the UN to rule in favor of Spanish Sahara’s independence on October 14, 1974.

King Hassan, in obvious disagreement with the rulings of the United Nations, responded by launching what is known as the Green March on November 6, 1974. This demonstration involved persuading 524,000 Moroccan civilians to march peacefully across the border shared by Morocco and Spanish Sahara to occupy the territory which they considered to be their ‘Southern Provinces’. The Spanish government, not willing to engage in combat with unarmed civilians, nor looking to break its relations or go to war with Morocco, ordered the Spanish army to retreat and withdraw its forces, sparking a round of negotiations between Morocco, Mauritania and Spain (Pennel, 2000).

The result of the negotiations between the three states took the form of the Madrid Accords, which guaranteed the withdrawal of Spain from the territory by the end of February 1976. Spanish Sahara would then become known as Western Sahara and the administration of the territory would be divided between Morocco (two thirds) and Mauritania (one third) (Durch, 1993; Seddon, 1987). This agreement was the result of a number of economic concessions made by Morocco to Spain including fishing rights along the coast of Western Sahara which “is reputed to be the most valued fishing region in Africa” (Hodges, 1983: 122) and access to Western Sahara’s rich phosphate industry, which is the sixth most productive phosphate industry in the world (Hodges, 1983).

The conflict begins

On the February 28, 1976, the same day on which Spain was to cede control of its territory to Morocco and Mauritania, Polisario declared the independence of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Thousands of Moroccan troops had already marched across the border in the north and a smaller number of Mauritanian troops had arrived in the south and Polisario began to mount a guerilla campaign against them, successfully countering Moroccan and Mauritanian forces to the point where they forced the weaker Mauritanian forces to withdraw by August 1979 (Durch, 1993; Pennel, 2000). Morocco, however, quickly annexed the portion of the territory which had been relinquished by Mauritania, provoking further acts of retaliation by Polisario forces to which Morocco responded by encouraging the settlement of thousands of Moroccan citizens and maintaining a 120,000-strong army to protect its occupied sectors (Zoubir, 1998).

Modern developments

Thus far, this paper has sought to provide important historical context and depth with respect to the nature of the two primary parties involved in the Western Sahara conflict as well as the relationship that exists between them. It has demonstrated the clear and overwhelming desire of Sahrawis for independence and the right to self-determination and has repudiated Morocco’s claims to historical ties with the Western Sahara and its people. In addition, the role of Western Sahara as an increasingly significant part of the Moroccan national landscape has been examined. These three premises form the basis of the context in which the remainder of the conflict has played out and allude to the argument that the actions of Morocco concerning the status of Western Sahara have been unwarranted and unjust. This section of the paper draws on this conclusion by discussing the continuation of the conflict and the reasons behind its prolongation.

The establishment of MINURSO

While the conflict raged on throughout the 1980s, organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) made efforts in attempting to negotiate a ceasefire and peace agreement between the two parties. A breakthrough was made in August 1988 when both Polisario and the government of Morocco agreed ‘in principle’ to a joint OAU-UN ceasefire (Durch, 1993; Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004). On June 18, 1990, UN Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar came forward with a detailed plan outlining the role of the United Nations in Western Sahara. This plan involved the establishment of a ceasefire between Polisario and Moroccan forces, the withdrawal or containment to designated areas of all troops, the creation of MINURSO (Mission des Nations unies pour l’organisation d’un referendum au Sahara occidental), the establishment of a voter Identification Commission and an agreement to hold a referendum on the question of Sahrawi self-determination 24 weeks after the entire process had begun (Zoubir & Pazzanita, 1995).

The Security Council unanimously approved this plan and established MINURSO through resolution 690 on April 29, 1991 (Durch, 1993; Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gamiber, 2004; Zoubir & Pazzanita, 1995). The mission was successful in brokering a ceasefire which was to take effect September 6, 1991 and set the referendum to take place in late January of 1992 (Durch, 1993; Zoubir & Pazzanita, 1995). Both Polisario and Morocco had agreed that the results of the 1974 Spanish census would be used to identify who would be permitted to vote in the referendum, which essentially limited the voters to about 74,000 indigenous Sahrawis who had been residing in Western Sahara when it still been under Spanish rule (Mundy, 2004). However, it soon became clear that Morocco had no intention of supporting this arrangement.

Establishing the electorate and holding a referendum – mission impossible

While Polisario saw the UN referendum as “its best chance to win control of Western Sahara” (Durch, 1993: 411), it became increasingly clear that “Moroccans wanted nothing less than a referendum that would confirm their annexation of the territory” (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004). King Hassan came to realize that the results of the referendum would surely be in favor of Sahrawi independence if the referendum went ahead with a voter roster that was determined by the 1974 Spanish census, and began to demand that an additional 120,000 Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara and Sahrawis now living in Morocco be allowed to vote in the referendum (Durch, 1993). This demand, which would definitively tip the scales of the referendum towards Moroccan integration, led to the commission’s spending nine years and almost $440 million by 2007 in an attempt to establish a voter list which could be agreed upon by both parties (Whitfield, 2007).

As the Identification Commission worked on investigating all 120,000 of King Hassan’s claims, Morocco continued to hinder the efforts of MINURSO “and wait until the UN ran out of patience, money, or both” (Durch, 1993: 418). As outlined by former US Ambassador Frank Ruddy in a speech at Georgetown University, the Moroccan government employed a number of discrediting tactics in an attempt to further impede the referendum process. As Sahrawis needed to be interviewed by MINURSO prior to being added to the voter list and were forbidden by Moroccan officials to interact with MINURSO workers without permission, the Moroccan government arranged for buses to transport Sahrawis to and from MINURSO buildings. On the way home, however, Moroccan officials were ordered to confiscate the receipts the Sahrawis had received from MINUSRO which they needed in order to obtain their voting ballots (Ruddy, 2000). In addition, New York Times reporter Chris Hedges wrote that “Morocco [had] tapped U.N. phones, confiscated voter documents … and denied others the right to enter registration centers” (Ruddy, 2000: 552). By May 1992, Morocco had made 97 of the total 102 ceasefire violations and often obstructed UN patrols and vehicles, sometimes at gunpoint (Durch, 1993). In order to cover its tracks regarding these disgraceful tactics, Morocco “spent $1.2 million total to high-powered Washington-lobbyists with friends in high places” (Ruddy, 2000: 552) to ensure that the United States would continue to lobby in its favor at the United Nations, keeping it from looking as though Morocco were sabotaging the referendum.

With tactics like these being employed by Morocco, the referendum was continuously postponed until it was suspended indefinitely in 1996 (Ruddy, 2000). It became clear that while there were other issues at hand that needed to be dealt with, the issue of voter eligibility, “long highlighted as a likely bone of contention in the best of circumstances, became the issue used, successfully, by Morocco to bring the referendum process to a dead halt without having to pull out of it entirely” (Durch, 1993: 430). Morocco’s inconsistent position then led to the conflict being stalemated as Morocco refused to participate in or recognize the results of a referendum based on the 1974 Spanish census and Polisario refused to include non-Sahrawi Moroccan settlers and Sahrawis living in Morocco on the voter list. As the entire mission depended on the full cooperation of both parties, the state of affairs in the 1990s led much of the international community to believe that the conflict would remain unsolvable until both parties agreed to some degree of negotiations.

Change of leadership: enter James A. Baker

As the status of Western Sahara slipped further into limbo and the stalemate between Morocco and Polisario continued and intensified, the appointment of Kofi Annan to the position of Secretary General of the United Nations came as a relief to many. Replacing Egyptian Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in January 1997, Kofi Annan made the resolution of the Western Sahara conflict one of his top priorities. He soon appointed former US Secretary of State James A. Baker III to be the United Nations’ Special Envoy to Western Sahara and assigned him the task of re-assessing the possibility of holding a referendum (Whitfield, 2007; Zoubir, 1998) or, better yet, to see if a political compromise could be reached regarding an autonomy agreement, steering both parties away from a “winner-take-all” approach (Mundy, 2004; Theofilopoulou, 2006). However, Baker found that both Polisario and King Hassan were still in favor of a referendum and he managed to successfully broker the Houston Agreements which got the referendum process back on track (Dunbar, 2000; Theofilopoulou, 2006). Unfortunately, Baker’s initial success was short-lived as following the Identification Commission’s completion of identifying voters in 1999, Morocco appealed close to 79,000 of the voters who were deemed ineligible to vote, essentially forcing the Identification Commission to re-start its entire voter identification process (Theofilopoulou, 2006). Kofi Annan began to express his doubts about being able to hold a referendum and encouraged Baker to further investigate the possibility of a political compromise (Mundy, 2004).

The Baker Plan I: a ‘third way’

The possibility of seeking a compromise, a ‘third way’, with respect to the Western Sahara conflict has long been discussed by conflict specialists and scholars. The majority of proposals consider the idea of the territory either formally becoming part of Morocco while maintaining a degree of autonomy or the idea of dividing the territory so that Morocco would control a portion and Western Sahara would form a state within the remainder (Mundy, 2004). The possibility of granting Western Sahara autonomy within the Kingdom of Morocco has been viewed as being the more realistic compromise of the two and it was this idea that James Baker pursued in 2000.

In his draft “Framework Agreement on the Status of Western Sahara”, known as the ‘Baker Plan’ and presented to the Security Council in June 2001, Baker outlined the possibility of Western Sahara becoming an autonomous Moroccan territory while exercising internal governance through an assembly and elected executive (Mundy, 2004; Theofilopoulou, 2006; Whitfield, 2007). This agreement would lead to a final status referendum which would be held five years after the implementation of Baker’s proposal, though the voter list would be extended to all individuals who had resided within Western Sahara the previous year (Mundy, 2004). While negotiations between Baker, Morocco’s new king, Mohammed VI, and Polisario were held between 2001 and 2002, both parties rejected the proposal, unprepared to accept anything short of a settlement program with a decisive referendum on self-determination (Mundy, 2004; Theofilopoulou, 2006).

Following the failure of the ‘Baker Plan’, Baker met once again with the Security Council to discuss possible methods of action. He stressed the fact that “[a] solution would not be found unless the United Nations required one or both of the parties to do something they did not want to do” (Whitfield, 2007: 182) and challenged the Security Council to decide whether they wanted to resolve the conflict or extend the status quo. Baker laid out four options before the Security Council, calling on them to decide on which one the United Nations was willing to pursue: (1) To implement the settlement plan and referendum without the parties’ concurrence; (2) To revise the initial ‘Baker Plan’, taking the parties’ concerns into account; (3) To explore the possibility of a division of territory; (4) To terminate MINURSO, seeing as neither party was prepared to negotiate or compromise in a way in which they had never done before (Mundy, 2004; Theofilopoulou, 2004; Whitfield, 2007).

By July of 2002 the Security Council had reached its decision and had adopted resolution 1429 “which invited Baker to pursue his efforts to find a political solution and expressed its readiness to consider any approach that would provide for self-determination” (Theofilopoulou, 2006: 11). Baker then began to work on preparing a new document, the “Peace Plan for Self-Determination for the People of Western Sahara”, which became known as the ‘Baker Plan II’, proposal which was believed to be one that “no reasonable person could turn down” (Theofilopoulou, 2006: 11; Whitfield, 2007: 183).

The Baker Plan II

While not expected to completely satisfy either of the two parties, the Baker Plan II differed from Baker’s initial proposal in several ways. The most important difference was regarding the eligibility of voters; unlike the first Baker Plan, which included anyone who had lived in Western Sahara the year prior to the referendum on the voter list, the Baker Plan II provided three different criteria which could be met in order to place an individual on the voter list. The first was to have been included on the UN Identification Commission’s list from December 30, 1999, the second was to be on the UN High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) list of Western Sahara refugees from October 31, 2000, and the third was to be able to prove one’s residence in Western Sahara prior to December 30, 1999 (Mundy, 2004; Theofilopoulou, 2006). In addition, the Baker II plan further described what was meant by the autonomy of Western Sahara autonomy, clarifying the points which had been questioned by Polisario and attempting to ease many of their worries.[2]

Regardless of these attemps by Baker’s to level the playing field and give both sides the chance to win the referendum, the plan was greeted with reservations by Morocco and was completely rejected by Polisario. However, things took a turn for the unexpected on July 11, 2003 when Polisario suddenly announced that it would accept Baker’s most recent proposal, an announcement which was quickly followed by Morocco’s definitive rejection of the proposal (Mundy, 2004). Unable to achieve full-fledged support for the implementation of the peace plan from either of the parties or the UN Security Council, Baker announced his resignation on June 1, 2004, believing that he had done all he could to resolve the Western Sahara conflict (Theofilopoulou, 2006). Polisario saw Baker’s resignation as a major setback while Morocco “held up Baker’s resignation as a trophy” and attributed it to the “tenacity of Moroccan diplomacy” (Whitfield, 2007: 186).

The current situation

Since Baker’s resignation in 2004, the conflict has continued in much the same way. In a “Report of the Secretary General on the situation concerning Western Sahara” dated April 13, 2007, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon discussed Morocco’s continued attempts at putting forward a plan concerning autonomy for Western Sahara within the Kingdom of Morocco while Polisario leaders continue to press for the right of self determination (UN Secretary General, 2007a). A second report of the Secretary General, dated October 19, 2007, outlined the same positions of both Morocco and Polisario, though demonstrated a setback in the resolution of the conflict; on September 7, 2007, the government of Morocco held Parliamentary elections and included voting in the occupied territory of Western Sahara. Polisario condemned theses actions and continued to call for a referendum on self-determination (UN Secretary General, 2007b).

In the Secretary General’s report on April 14, 2008, the conflict was described as having become increasingly hostile; “On 6 November 1997, in a speech to mark the thirty-second anniversary of Morocco’s “Green March” into Western Sahara, King Mohammed VI of Morocco stated that the Kingdom would spare no effort to ensure the success of the negotiations within the framework of the Kingdom’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (UN Secretary General, 2008: 1). In addition, Polisario held its twelfth congress from December 14 to 18, 2007 where its members “discussed policy options, including a possible return to armed conflict” (UN Secretary General, 2008: 1). Morocco had since reported violations of the ceasefire agreement which was brokered in 1991. Finally, the report described a series of elections held by Polisario in the refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria for a new ‘Saharan parliament’ and discussed the convening of its inaugural meeting in Tifariti which occurred in conjunction with the thirty-second anniversary of the proclamation of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic. Morocco voiced a strong opposition to these events and threatened actions by “adequate means”, including “air strikes”, to halt the activities (UN Secretary General, 2008).

As these three reports have indicated, the situation in Western Sahara continues to deteriorate over time while demonstrating increasingly little possibility of being resolved in the near future. Both parties fundamentally disagree on key issues and have proven to be unwilling to compromise their positions and negotiate in new, though admittedly, difficult ways. However, it has also become clear that Morocco has been the main reason behind the resulting stalemate. Having originally agreed to a ceasefire and the validity of the 1974 Spanish referendum in determining the eligibility of voters for the referendum, Morocco has reneged on both of these commitments, largely as a result of the lack of serious pressure it has faced from its allies and international bodies such as the United Nations.

However, Morocco and Polisario are not completely alone in their responsibility for the actions and uncompromising positions they’ve adopted. A number of states possess significant interests in the Maghrebi region, both inside Morocco and Western Sahara, as well as in the region in its entirety. These states have all played important and influential roles throughout the duration of the conflict and have, as will be argued, led to the prolongation of the conflict in Western Sahara through their support for the positions and actions of both opposing parties.

International Interests – Morocco, Spain, Algeria, France and the United States

The interests of Morocco, Spain, Algeria, France and the United States are consistently driven by history, valuable resources, economic gains, political relationships and security concerns. The following section of this paper will examine the interests of each state individually and demonstrate how the interests and actions of the parties involved gave no incentive for Morocco and Polisario to reach a compromise and in fact “worked against the creation of a mechanism more directly engaged in implementation of the settlement plan” (Whitfield, 2007: 178).


As has been previously discussed, Morocco has, since its independence, made claims to Western Sahara, insisting that the territory which it occupies today was a part of the kingdom of ‘Greater Morocco’ prior to Spanish colonization. As a result, both King Hassan and King Mohammed VI have promoted nationalist ideals which encourage their citizens to consider Western Sahara as their ‘Southern Provinces’ and to lobby for their return. While this argument concerning territorial integrity may seem like a compelling one, many scholars have claimed that prior to Spanish colonization, the Sahrawis “were effectively beyond the control of the sultans of Morocco” (Hodges, 1984: 78). Instead, they point to the presence of extremely valuable resources as the most persuasive reason behind Morocco’s unremitting claims to the territory.

Western Sahara is home to large amounts of titanium, vanadium, and iron, though it is its great supply of phosphates and fish that are most appealing to outsiders. Due to the fact that “[t]he 400-mile long Western Sahara coast is one of the richest fishing zones in the [world]” (Zoubir, 1998: 151) and that its phosphate stocks “put Western Sahara on the world mineral map” (Hodges, 1983: 126), it is easy to see that “minerals and fishing constitute two primary reasons for Morocco’s attachment to Western Sahara. This is the chief reason why Morocco has spent considerable amounts of money on developing the territory, attracting Moroccan citizens, and winning the hearts and minds of the Sahrawis still living there” (Zoubir 1998: 151). In addition, the conflict over Western Sahara “has, since its beginning in 1975, served as a catalyst for national unity and resolve. It has helped the King mobilize the entire population and the opposition parties around the throne. It has also helped him justify the economic hardship suffered by Moroccans” (Zoubir, 1998: 160), diverting their attention from such pressing domestic issues as poverty, unemployment and the authoritarian rule of the monarchy. For these reasons Morocco’s commitment to the territory has only increased and has demonstrated that it “has no intention of ever leaving Western Sahara” (Zoubir, 1998: 149).


Spain’s “position on the question of Western Sahara is, to say the least, quite ambiguous” (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004: 9). On one hand, Spain demonstrates a significant amount of sympathy for the state in which Western Sahara finds itself, partly because of its failure to begin the process of decolonization as had been mandated by the United Nations. Spain resisted pressure from both the OAU and the UN to hold a referendum regarding the self-determination of the Sahrawi people and instead proceeded to sign the Madrid Accords, relinquishing the territory to the administration of Morocco and Mauritania (Durch, 1993; Zoubir, 1998). It was this act which eventually led to the conflict that has plagued the international scene for over thirty years and therefore Spain feels a certain responsibility to show some degree of support for peace plans regarding the autonomy of Western Sahara (Naylor, 1993).

On the other hand, Spain possesses a great interest in the resources of Western Sahara, which was clearly demonstrated in the access to resources that it required from Morocco in order to guarantee its signing of the Madrid Accords. After all, it was “Spain’s determination to establish fishing rights in the Atlantic off north-western Africa [that] was the main motivation behind its early acquisition of footholds along the Saharan coast” (Thompson & Adloff, 1980: 125). In addition, Spain has had to maintain positive relations with Morocco due to its desire to ensure its control over the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, located along the northern border of Morocco, and to protect the interests of the thousands of Spaniards who live and work within Morocco (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004).

To further complicate matters, Spain also possesses and interest in improving its relations with Algeria, perhaps as a way to challenge the strong relationship that exists between France and Morocco and/or in an attempt to achieve greater stability in the Maghrebi region (Whitfield, 2007). This causes Spain to align itself more closely with Polisario and encourage the brokering of a referendum as Algeria is Polisario’s greatest supporter in the region. These complicated interests and alliances have led to Spain’s “double-track policy with regard to Western Sahara” which has “consisted of supporting the peace plan and the right of the Sahrawis to self-determination” (Zoubir, 1998: 159), while continuing to maintain friendly relations with Morocco, often through the supply of arms (Zoubir, 1998).


Algeria has never laid claim to any part of the territory of Western Sahara. “Rather, it [has] consistently supported the Western Saharans’ right to self-determination and it [has] voted in favor of all the UN resolutions advocating a referendum” (Hodges, 1983: 190). Algeria has consistently demonstrated that it will not tolerate a violation of the Sahrawi people’s right to independence as the notion of self-determination had become a cornerstone of their policy and political philosophy since fighting for their own independence against France.

President Boudemienne began to formally support Polisario when “he became aware of the depth of the Saharawis’ nationalist aspirations and greatly disturbed by Hassan’s attempts to redraw Morocco’s frontiers in defiance of their will” (Hodges, 1983: 190). He viewed Morocco’s attempts at annexing Western Sahara to greatly resemble the claims that Morocco had previously made with respect to parts of the territory of Algeria and feared the possibility of a resumption of Morocco’s expansionist tendencies (Hodges, 1983; Zoubir, 1998). The competitive relationship that existed between Morocco and Algeria is another factor to be considered, as both countries have often rivaled one another to be the dominant power in the Maghreb.

However, Algeria’s support of Polisario and the Sahrawi people was not limited to political backing and cooperation – it took on a more human form when they allowed refugees from Western Sahara to settle within their borders. In 1976, the UNHCR estimated that over 50,000 Sahrawis had fled the violence in Western Sahara and were living in refugee camps scattered throughout the Tindouf region of Algeria. By 1983 there were approximately 100,000 refugees living in a total of 22 camps administered by the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (Hodges, 1984; Zunes, 2004), and by 2004 the number was estimated at 165,000 (UNHCR, 2005). In addition, Algeria also “granted military, diplomatic and logistical assistance to Polisario and the SADR” (Zoubir, 1998: 150), including the sale of Soviet-made weapons (Hodges, 1983; Thompson & Adloff, 1980). As Western Sahara’s lone regional supporter, it was only “the Algerian government that supplied Polisario” (Pennel, 2000: 343) with weapons and therefore there was a large profit to be made by Algeria through this monopoly.


“France’s interest in Western Saharan decolonization was connected directly to its postcolonial relationships with Algeria [and] Morocco” (Naylor, 1993: 31). While Algeria had initially been the focus of French relations in the Maghreb from 1962 to 1975, factors such as Algeria’s nationalization of hydrocarbon resources and balance of trade difficulties led to the end of France’s favorable relationship with Algeria (Naylor, 1993). At the outbreak of the conflict in Western Sahara France claimed neutrality, though it soon became clear that their position was developing into one which clearly favored Morocco. France rapidly became Morocco’s largest arms supplier apart from the United States (Hodges, 1983) and offered extensive political support to Morocco, especially at the United Nations Security Council (Zoubir, 1998). “The French made it clear that they would not hesitate to use their veto power at the UN Security Council should the UN decide to impose a solution that is not acceptable to Morocco” (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004: 40), and it is this steadfast support for Morocco which has been partially responsible for the deadlock that has weighed down the United Nations Security Council. As France, along with the United States, has consistently “blocked the Security Council from implementing any kind of enforcement mechanism” (Zunes, 2004: 288), the conflict in Western Sahara has come to an impasse, as previously described.

France’s support for Morocco stems from the significant cultural, economic and political interests it has in Morocco. Over 40,000 French citizens still reside in Morocco following the end of French colonial rule (Naylor, 1993) and France seeks to maintain a positive post-colonial influence in the country, in part to protect the interests of these French citizens who live and work within Morocco’s borders. Economically, Morocco is France’s third largest export market in Africa (Hodges, 1983) and its control of Western Sahara’s phosphate supply and fish-rich coastline is of great interest to French enterprises (Naylor, 1993). In addition, French oil giant TotalFinaElf signed a contract with Morocco in 2001 which gave them the right to explore for oil off the coast of Western Sahara (Whitfield, 2007).

Following the events of September 11th, the Maghreb has become an increasingly important area of interest for Western countries seeking to protect themselves and combat the forces of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. As a result, countries like Morocco, whose governments have committed themselves to helping fight terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, are being embraced by leading Western nations like France (Zoubir, 1998). Much of France’s positive relationship with Western-friendly Morocco has been “motivated in no small part by fears of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism” (Whitfield, 2007: 172) and the regional ramifications that could occur if it is not combated.

United States

Relations between Morocco and the United States “have always been friendly and based primarily on political and strategic considerations – an orientation that has been confirmed by the Saharan war” (Thompson & Adloff, 1980: 300). Historically, Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of the United States in 1777 (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004) and was the state with whom the United States signed its first foreign treaty in June of 1786 (Pennel, 2000). Convinced in part by the large amounts of military and economic support which was being offered by the United States to Western-friendly states, Morocco aligned itself with the West during the Cold War, expanding an already strong and useful relationship with the US. This is part of the explanation as to “why the United States has since the inception of the [Western Sahara] conflict sided with Morocco, especially because the conflict arose at the height of the Cold War’s expansion to sub-Saharan Africa … American fears about the emergence of a pro-Soviet state in a strategic area intensified US determination to support Morocco” (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004: 14). In addition, Morocco has proved to be a valuable ally to the United States with respect to the Middle East; its government has adopted a positive stance regarding the state of Israel and has consistently supported peaceful negotiations throughout the duration of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Furthermore, Morocco sent 2,000 troops to assist the United States in the first Gulf War in 1991, an action which has not been forgotten by US foreign policymakers (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004).

Morocco’s adoption of such policies has been looked upon favorably by the United States and has led to Morocco’s gaining an increasingly privileged relationship with the US, as well as to an expansion of American interests in the region. Such friendly relations between the two countries have led the United States to value both Morocco’s strategic location in the Mediterranean and the resources it controls; the US Sixth Fleet has enjoyed access to Morocco’s ports, which has been extremely valuable for warships on their way to the Middle East, and its energy companies have seized the opportunity to further integrate themselves into the region, as exemplified by the contract signed by US oil company Kerr-McGee in 2001 which gave it rights to explore for oil off the coast of Western Sahara (Whitfield, 2007). With respect to economics, the United States has sought to establish a single economic region and increase economic integration in the Maghreb in order to facilitate and improve US trade with the region. American administrations have responded favorably to the increases in free-market reforms that have been made by launching the Einzenstat Initiative, a US-North African partnership, in 1999 (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004), as well as by establishing a free-trade agreement with Morocco in 2004 (Whitfield, 2007). The enormous economic gains that are to be made by the United States in the area have led many to believe that “[t]he main US interest in the Maghreb is economic” (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004: 6), though security issues have also come to play a major role in US policy in the Maghreb.

Since 9/11 the priorities of the United States have been centered on combating terrorism and aiding in the spread of democracy and stability around the world. Much of its attention and efforts have been focused on al-Qaeda, believed to be responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon, which has led the US military into Iraq and Afghanistan. However, many members of al-Qaeda were ‘born’ during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which motivated large numbers of Arabs from North Africa to travel to Afghanistan in order to assist their Muslim brothers in the war against the Soviet Union (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004). These “Arab-Afghans”, as they are known, have since returned to the Maghreb, increasing the need for the United States to have reliable allies who will dedicate themselves to combating terrorism and radical Islam in the region. Morocco’s importance has therefore increased in the eyes of the US as King Hassan has continued to pledged his commitment to assisting the United States in this struggle (Whitfield, 2007; Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004), while consistently attempting to depict Morocco as a modern, “stable and constructive force in the region” (Whitfield, 2007: 172). In the context of the Western Sahara conflict it is therefore easy to imagine how American relations with Morocco – “a guarantor of US and Western presence in the area – [have overridden] any other regional concerns” (Layachi, 1990: 29).

History, economics and security issues have acted as the primary catalysts for what have been US policies regarding Morocco and the Maghrebi region. Morocco has demonstrated itself to be committed to supporting and promoting the American presence in North Africa and the Near East (Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004), an effort which the United States values greatly. As a result, when it comes to the Western Sahara conflict the United States has not been prepared to sacrifice such a productive and valuable relationship with Morocco by pursuing a policy that favors the freedom and self-determination of the Sahrawi people. Instead, the United States has consistently pursued a policy which has unashamedly favored Morocco over the independence of the people of Western Sahara. Through foreign aid, its role at the United Nations and its supply of military equipment to the Moroccan army, the United States has been the leading cause of the continuation of the Western Sahara conflict.

In hopes of deterring Morocco’s military activities in Western Sahara, many countries have called for sanctions and the withdrawal of foreign aid to Morocco. The United States, however, has continued to provide Morocco with one fifth of all US foreign aid designated for Africa, more than is received by any other African country other than Egypt (Whitfield, 2007; Zoubir & Benabdallah-Gambier, 2004). Through its veto power at the United Nations the United States has time and again blocked resolutions that would punish or create methods of imposing UN resolutions upon Morocco (Ohaegbulam, 2004). It is through the supply of military equipment, however, that the United States has most directly led to the prolongation of the conflict in Western Sahara. Since the mid-1970s the US has been the main supplier of weapons to the Moroccan army, largely because of Morocco’s previous alliance with the West during the Cold War (Pennel, 2000). These weapons were restricted for use only within the borders of Morocco though they have been consistently used during Moroccan military operations in Western Sahara. “U.S.-supplied arms were used in Western Sahara in violation of both the U.S. Arms Export Control Act and a U.S.-Moroccan military agreement signed in 1960 which barred the use of U.S. arms for nondefensive purposes beyond Morocco’s recognized frontiers” (Hodges, 1983: 356). “Even during the short period in 1978 and 1979 when President Carter insisted that the restrictions be honoured” (Pennel, 2000: 343), these weapons continued to be used in Western Sahara. At the outbreak of the conflict in the mid-1970s, the United States delivered transport planes to Morocco to be used specifically for the Green March and increased its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Morocco from $8.2 million in 1974 to $242 million in 1975 (Hodges, 1983). The United States also sent military advisers and provided military training “to wage an imperial war in a postimperial age” (Ohaegbulam, 2004: 114), all of which was meant to help tip the war in Morocco’s favor.

The policy of the United States toward Morocco remained consistent throughout the administrations of Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton. “From the beginning of the conflict in 1975 … U.S. policy has been one of solid support for Morocco. This support was decisive in Morocco’s initial attempt to secure control of the Western Sahara and has remained solid in spite of Morocco’s destabilizing and precedent-setting behaviour for African states and the whole world” (Ohaegbulam, 2004: 113). It is clear that US policymakers “don’t care at all how the Western Sahara turns out or whether international law is respected, except to the extent that the situation has an impact on the stability of the Moroccan monarchy and efforts to promote regional economic development” (Parker, 1993: 97). This kind of behavior on the part of the United States raises ethical and moral questions, primarily because of the traditional values, principles, credibility and responsibility for global leadership of the United States. Speaking to the truth of this statement, US Representative Stephen Solarz claimed that “it would run counter to traditional American values by encouraging Morocco to cling to land and resources that properly belonged to the indigenous population of the former Spanish Sahara” (Thompson & Adloff, 1980: 300-301). As a country that had achieved its independence through struggle against a colonial power, could it not be argued that now, as a world leader, the United States should be the champion of the right to self-determination?

While the second Bush administration has lent more support to the continuing UN-sponsored negotiations than previous administrations have, many believe it to be too little, too late; the longstanding policy of the United States had already “produced repercussions for the international community as well as for the protection of human rights, political stability, and economic development in all of northwest Africa” (Ohaegbulam, 2004: 114). However, even though it has begun to support the peace process, “the United States [has] continued to provide Morocco with substantial economic and military aid. This assistance seems to have dissuaded Morocco from seeking a negotiated settlement of the issue” (Zoubir, 1998: 159), encouraging King Hassan to believe that he might actually be able to win this war. Contrary to this belief, as has been made clear by the incessant fighting and violence that has plagued the area since 1976, the conflict will not be won by either side as a result of military might. By continuing its supply of military and economic funding to Morocco, the United States has been responsible for “prolonging an inherently unwinnable war” (Hodges, 1983: 363) rather than for promoting the stability, democracy and economic growth it so proudly advocates.


Little has changed since the beginning of the Western Sahara conflict – if anything, the situation has only gotten worse; years have been wasted, millions of dollars have been thrown away and thousands upon thousands of Sahrawis have been forced to flee their homes and live year after year in refugee camps. An entire generation of children has never seen their homes in Western Sahara because it is too dangerous to return as the Polisario continues to fight for the freedom and the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people and Moroccan forces continue to retaliate and attack with American and French weaponry. Why? Well, because they can. They have faced no serious threats and been given no incentives and no reasons to cease military operations or relinquish their claims to Western Sahara, claims which were deemed null and void by the ICJ in 1974. Instead, they have received support from a number of states on two distinct fronts: militarily and diplomatically. With respect to the military front, it is an obvious fact that a conflict cannot continue and a war cannot be waged without weapons. With respect to the Western Sahara conflict, Algeria has demonstrated its willingness to continue to provide Polisario with military equipment while France, the United States and to a lesser extent Spain, have maintained their supply of weapons, military funding and training to Morocco. While all four states have been making extraordinary profits from such sales, there has been no shortage of weapons and death along the border between Morocco and Western Sahara.

On the diplomatic front, states like France and the United States have proven to be instrumental in the stalemate which has obstructed the work of the United Nations and other organizations which have advocated for negotiations and peace in the area. The United Nations in particular has played a most central role in the attempts to resolve the Western Sahara conflict, and its active participation has revealed a number of weaknesses that exist within our current system of global governance. It has become increasingly clear that the United Nations and its involvement in international conflicts are strongly influenced if not dictated by the agendas of the five permanent members of its Security Council. In this case, neither France nor the United States has been willing to take action and pressure Morocco into accepting the resolutions passed by the General Assembly; in fact, they have actively prevented progress from being made within the United Nations by using their veto powers to block any enforceable resolutions from being passed. Morocco has therefore experienced no threat of political or economic ramifications and has been able to either ignore what is being asked of them by the UN or has simply failed to comply with agreements it had previously made. Due to the unwavering support of France and the United States within the UN, Morocco’s strategy has simply “been to delay the referendum it realizes it cannot win until the United Nations throws up its hands in frustration” (Ohaegbulam, 2004: 124). The United Nations functions best when it is able to produce resolutions and mandates ‘with teeth’, but without the unified support of the Security Council, such resolutions and mandates are impossible to obtain.

Together, France and the United States have had both the greatest responsibility to push for the resolution of the conflict and the most to gain from Morocco’s continued annexation of the territory. However, it is the United States in particular which shoulders the most significant portion of the blame. As the most powerful country in the world, a state which many feel possesses the responsibility to act in the way in which it asks others to act, the United States has continuously and blatantly ignored international norms like respect for human rights, the importance and validity of nationalism, and the right of people to self-determination. As a nation which prides itself on providing its citizens with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the United States has failed to promote these same ideals abroad, its actions leading instead to the death, persecution and misery of thousands of Sahrawis. American administrations have been too concerned with Morocco’s strategic location, pro-Western orientation, commitment to combating Islamic terrorism and the economic gains that are to be made through trade and the sale of arms to be concerned about practicing what it preaches. As a result, the rights of the Sahrawi people to self-determination and freedom from colonial domination have been denied and the expansionist tendencies of Morocco have gone unchecked. While many say that progress will not be made until Morocco permits a referendum to be held, it would be more accurate and realistic to acknowledge the fact that progress will not be made until the interests and actions of Algeria, Spain, France and the United States change. Algeria must halt all arms sales to Polisario fighters while Spain must cease providing weapons to Morocco and acknowledge its responsibility to support the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people. Both France and the United States must stop providing Morocco with military equipment, act responsibly within the United Nations, and start promoting abroad what they seek to promote at home because liberté, égalité et fraternité seem almost as far away as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the people of Western Sahara.

[1] While Mauritania also made claims regarding the territory of Spanish Sahara, they were only in effect until 1979 and this paper focuses on the claims of Morocco. For more information on the brief claims made by Mauritania see Hodges, 1983.


[2] For further information regarding Western Sahara autonomy in the Baker Plan II, please see Mundy, 2004.

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