If there was an annual competition for ‘World’s Most Forgotten Conflict’ there are two places which most years would stand a chance of winning – Nagorno Karabakh, and Western Sahara. Perhaps not this year.
The 2020 war between Azerbaijan and the Armenian minority in Nagorno Karabakh is fresh in the memory, and now the long simmering conflict in Western Sahara has reached a critical point. In December, the USA recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over all of the disputed territory and, although not officially related, in return, Morocco normalised relations with Washington’s closest ally in the region – Israel.
This may have extinguished what little hope those fighting for independence from Morocco still had, although it’s likely some form of guerrilla warfare will continue.
The region is disputed territory comprising 266,000 square kilometres of land, 80 per cent of which is controlled by Morocco. It includes the coastal routes along the Atlantic Ocean which connect Morocco to Mauritania. The rest, to the east, and bordering Algeria and Mauritania, is held by the Polisario Front – the main armed independence group. The 650,000-strong population are known as Saharawis, meaning ‘desert inhabitants’ (a reminder of their nomadic heritage) – most of the territory is indeed sand. They are a mixture of people with Arabic, Berber, Amazigh, and Black heritage who speak a dialect of Arabic called Hassaniya. What they are not though is Moroccan.
Western Sahara was formerly a Spanish colony (Spanish Sahara) but after brutally suppressing an anti-colonial uprising in 1970, Madrid abandoned it in 1975 having already conceded parts to Morocco. Saharawi nationalists were hardly about to exchange one colonial overlord for another and proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic with its capital-in-exile in Algeria. The same year war broke out.
Morocco laid claim to Western Sahara as soon as it won its own independence in 1956, expressing a desire to create a Greater Morocco and claiming the territory as part of its ‘southern provinces’. This was a relatively new stance given that historically, Rabat accepted that the lands were outside its jurisdiction. However, tribal leaders had long accepted the religious authority of the Moroccan sultan in his religious capacity – a fact that Morocco uses to justify its claim.
Despite its vastly superior firepower and troop numbers the Moroccan army was continually harassed by the Polisario Front, which at its height had 15,000 men. Operating in pick-up trucks, they appeared out of the desert to strike at Moroccan positions before dispersing to merge back into a mostly sympathetic Saharawi population. Morocco’s solution was to build a 2,700-kilometre-long sand barrier, mined on both sides, and patrolled by tens of thousands of troops to keep the guerrilla fighters out of the Moroccan controlled territory. It is the longest continuous minefield in the world and has physically divided many of the Saharawi people. The fighting continued until 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire and called for a referendum in Western Sahara. That has yet to happen.
We wrote about Western Sahara's struggle for independence in the June issue of Geographical. Read it here: The Saharawi people of Western Sahara are still waiting for a homeland. Tensions are now rising among the young
Last November the Front announced it would no longer abide by the terms of the ceasefire and blocked a key trade route between Morocco and Mauritania. Rabat sent troops into a UN-patrolled buffer zone to reopen the road and the Front responded with rocket attacks along the border. There have been regular exchanges of fire along the barrier.
Morocco will not give up its claim of sovereignty, especially now that in addition to the phosphates under the sand, and the fishing grounds in the Atlantic, there is the prospect of offshore oil and gas resources. Although the current generations of Saharawis will not stop dreaming of self-government, their hopes of living in an independent state look impossible for the foreseeable future. In 1975 about 125,000 of them escaped the initial Moroccan military offensive and now live in refugee camps in Algeria. Many have been granted citizenship and are slowly merging into the state. Algeria’s support for the Saharawi has long angered Morocco which fought a short border war with Algeria over the very place where the refugees are now housed – Tindouf province.
These may be the last sparks of a 50-year insurrection, or it could lead to a serious uptick in violence, further destabilising the region. Assuming the Biden administration does not reverse the US decision to recognise sovereignty the move is a major diplomatic victory for Rabat. Most Middle Eastern, African, and EU countries do not support the decision, but Washington’s global influence is such that it may have sealed the Saharawi’s fate.