IN THE SAHARA, rain is said to bring good luck. So negotiators from the United Nations should be encouraged by a recent downpour in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara. On December 5th they will gather in Geneva to try, yet again, to resolve the differences between Morocco, which rules two-thirds of the territory, and the Polisario Front, a nationalist movement that controls the other (mostly inhospitable) third. Since Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975, upon Spain’s withdrawal, Polisario has fought for its independence.
Expectations for the talks, the first between Morocco and Polisario in six years, are low. The main goal is an agreement that more talking is needed. But even that may be a tough sell. Polisario insists that Morocco must at last hold a referendum on independence in Western Sahara, which it promised to do as part of a UN-backed ceasefire in 1991. Morocco says a vague autonomy plan that it produced in 2008 should be the basis for negotiations.
Pressure from Donald Trump’s administration helped to restart the talks. In March America made the renewal of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, conditional on political progress. Neither side in the conflict wants to see the peacekeepers go, lest the result be more war. The Trump administration has also been more willing than its predecessors to press Morocco. When John Bolton, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, was involved in past UN efforts to find a solution in Western Sahara, he thought the kingdom negotiated in bad faith.
Many observers have reached the same conclusion. For years Morocco has sought to normalise its control of Western Sahara. It has convinced thousands of Moroccans to move there by offering generous subsidies and demanding no taxes. Some think the newcomers now outnumber Sahrawis. The kingdom is also spending billions of dollars in the territory to win over locals. After a recent facelift, Laayoune is adorned with fountains, squares and, more usefully, new schools and clinics.
The strategy is not working. Despite the influx of investment, the region still lacks jobs and a good university. “Morocco has invested in the territory, but not the people,” complains a Sahrawi student. Local councils, held up by Morocco as evidence that the region is self-governing, are regarded with contempt. “All these Sahrawis who defend Morocco have good jobs and nice houses,” says a resident of Laayoune. Meanwhile, the police forcefully suppress pro-independence protests. Those who publicly support Polisario say they are denied jobs.
Morocco’s efforts to claim Western Sahara have also faced legal setbacks abroad. The territory under its control is rich in phosphates and its waters teem with fish. But in February a South African court ruled that a shipment of phosphates from Western Sahara should be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to Polisario. Days later the European Court of Justice ruled that an EU-Morocco fishing agreement did not apply to the territory. The UN still lists Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory”. This has deterred foreign investors.
The prospect of independence still looks dim for Polisario, which is based in refugee camps in Algeria, a supporter of its cause. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis live in the camps; some have spent their whole lives there. Many young Sahrawis see war as the only way to change the status quo. But the Moroccan army is much stronger than Polisario, and it is unclear if Algeria would go to war to help the group.
There are other reasons for Polisario to consider compromising on full independence. Although it would have fish and phosphates (and, perhaps, oil), an independent Sahrawi state might struggle to maintain current living standards, which are supported by Moroccan investment. It might also find it difficult to police the territory, which is the size of Britain but home to just a few hundred thousand people. Neighbours have been destabilised by smugglers, jihadists and war. Sceptics point to South Sudan, an oil-rich territory that won independence and then imploded, as a cautionary tale.
But Morocco would have to move first—and concede a lot more—before Polisario even considers autonomy. The kingdom would probably have to allow Western Sahara to have its own government, a separate police force and more control over its natural resources. International guarantees would be needed. Even then, some question whether autonomy could work under Morocco’s half-baked democracy. “Look at their regime,” says Mhamed Khadad, Polisario’s outspoken liaison to MINURSO. “It would not be like autonomy in Britain or Spain.”
At least, for the moment, the two sides are talking. But America’s brinkmanship over MINURSO may eventually backfire. Both sides would probably give up the blue helmets rather than make real concessions. A return to shooting cannot be ruled out, though for now it seems unlikely.
Source: The Economist