Spain Changes Its Stance On Independence Of Sahara At Expense Of Sahrawis

Spain’s president (prime minister) Pedro Sánchez has announced a “new stage” in relations and now backs Morocco’s proposal for the Western Sahara territory: limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

This decision breaks a 46-year-old consensus. Regarding the Sahara independence till now Spain was bound to active neutrality. As Ali Lmrabet from Politics Today says, “it was not supposed to lean towards either Morocco or the Polisario Front independence fighters.”

For Morocco, the question of Western Sahara is a top priority since it controls 80% of Western Sahara, which the UN considers a “non-autonomous territory”, as AFP states.

Many analysts state that the decision is to appease their Moroccan neighbor, which often threatens to open its borders to allow a flood of Moroccan and sub-Saharan migrants into Spain, especially into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Spain has also obtained the return of the Moroccan ambassador to Madrid.

It is speculated that Rabat has committed itself to stop claiming the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Nevertheless, there isn’t a formal statement about this. What has been picked up in the joint Spanish Moroccan declaration at the end of the meeting with Sánchez in Rabat, is that Morocco seems to back down on its claims to the territorial waters of the Canary Islands. As Ali Lmrabet thinks, article 6 of the declaration “seems to indicate that Morocco will review the two laws that allow Moroccan territorial waters to overlap with those of Spain.”

The decision is also believed to have been prompted by the U.S. policy of recognizing Western Sahara as part of Morocco. Back in 2020, former US President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory after it mended ties with Israel. As a result, Morocco and Algeria broke off relations and Rabat has since stepped-up efforts to have other world powers support it.

Where the conflict began

Between 1958 and 1976, the Saharawi people’s territory was known as the “Spanish province in Africa.” As analyst Lmrabet describes, when Morocco captured the Sahara after the Green March launched by King Hassan II in 1975, it fought with the Polisario independence movement.

Then the Polisario had a long-armed struggle for independence from Morocco before reaching a ceasefire in 1991 brokered by the UN on the promise of a referendum on self-determination. In 2020, the Polisario returned to fighting Morocco, Euronews confirms.

Relations between Spain and Morocco turned sourer when Madrid allowed Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front independence movement, to be treated in Spain after contracting COVID19. Weeks after Ghali’s hospitalization, more than 10,000 migrants surged into Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta as Moroccan border forces looked the other way, in an incident seen as meant to punish Madrid, AFP explains.

Now, the Polisario has announced a “break” in contact with the Spanish government over its “instrumentalization of the Western Sahara question in shameful bargaining with the (Moroccan) occupier”, the movement wrote in a statement.

This decision has also affected relations between Spain and Algeria, which is pro-independence and has long supported the Polisario. Algeria is one of the main suppliers of natural gas to Spain (29% according to the Corporación de Reservas Estratégicas de Productos Petrolíferos (CORES), while other sources point to a 40%). Since Sánchez’s decision, state-owned energy giant Sonatrach warned it could increase the price of its gas sales to the country. Algeria has also recalled its ambassador to Madrid for consultation.

Algeria has demanded “frank clarifications” from Spain before its envoy returns to Madrid. As Middle East Monitor picks up,, “the return of the Algerian ambassador to Madrid will be decided by the Algerian authorities within the framework of prior and frank clarifications to rebuild seriously damaged confidence on the basis of principles that are clear, foreseeable and consistent with international law,” said Amar Belani, Algeria’s special envoy in charge of Western Sahara and the Maghreb countries.

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