The issue of Western Sahara has been suspended between the winds of war and vain attempts of dialogue. Since 1975, this dispute has opposed the Alawite Kingdom to the Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, and now weighs on international and regional levels. As a matter of fact, Sahara has been a thorn in the relations between Morocco and Algeria.

The uncertain status of Western Sahara has outlined a radical opposition between the two governments, although the movements of the Arab Spring seem to make Morocco and Algeria go on an important, but weak rapprochement. The international community considers that this rapprochement could be a final solution to the territorial question.

United by the fight against French colonialism, Morocco and Algeria became political and diplomat rivals after their respective independence. In 1963, the War of the Sand was a difficult moment of crisis between Rabat and Algiers. Algeria occupied the territories of Tindouf and Bechar, under Moroccan control in the colonial period, but the lack of a formal demarcation of border regions and the troops of both nationalities, deployed along the lane complicated the military confrontation. Morocco attempted to expand its influence in the areas occupied by Algeria because the strong Algerian soldiers rejected it. After three weeks of fighting, the Organisation of Africa Unity and The Arab League imposed a cease-fire. Unfortunately, tensions between the two States carried on and rekindled the conflict in Western Sahara[1]. The controversy dispute over Western Sahara has its origins in 1975 when Morocco annexed the Western Sahara (known as the Spanish Sahara) when Spain relinquished it. During the process of decolonization in Africa, the Polisario Front (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro), which was born in 1973, managed to impose a right to self-determination in the United Nations. A referendum remains the only ultimate and democratic tool to have independence[2]. The International Court of Justice granted self-determination to the Sahrawi people, but the referendum was postponed. The international impasse urges the King of Morocco, Hassan II, to announce the organization of the “Green March”, between October and November 1975, which was the time of the occupation of the Western Sahara. Rabat took control of Sanguia el-Hamra and the northern part of the Río de Oro. The rest of the area fell within the jurisdiction of Mauritania, which invaded the east side of Western Sahara[3].

While Africa gradually became independent from the Europeans, Western Sahara underwent domestic colonization. The Algerian authorities joined the Polisario Front with weapons and equipment, and displaced refugee camps located in a desert plateau called Hamada, near the Algerian town of Tindouf, to accommodate the Saharawis fleeing the Moroccan Army. The main interest of Algeria is to prevent Morocco – embarked on a policy of territorial expansion, especially in this area that provides phosphates and fossil materials – from having another outlet to the Atlantic Ocean. In the efforts to achieve statehood, the Front established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), in 1976, at Bir Lahlou, a small town located in the northeast of Western Sahara, near the border with Algeria. During the struggles, the Polisario Front fought against the Army of Mauritania – retired after reaching an agreement, in 1979[4] – and of Morocco, which used the same strategy of the War of Sand: the tactic of fortified walls, known as berm, this Dutch word has come to mean “the earthen or sod wall”. The goal was to contain wide areas of the Sahara and reduce the Polisario Front’s freedom to maneuver[5].

In 1991, the cease-fire is signed in advance of the referendum. Thus, the United Nations launched the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara to set the rules for the constitutional referendum: the right to vote and the range of options to choose from. In 2000, the United Nations’ Secretary General, Kofi Annan, assigned his personal envoy, James Baker, to strike the balance between Morocco and the Polisario. Based on Baker’s proposals, the first version of the Baker Plan offered to the people of Western Sahara autonomy within the Moroccan State. Except for defense and foreign policy, all other decisions would be the responsibility of the local government. Morocco accepted the plan, but Algeria and the Polisario Front refused it. There was no trace of the legal status of the area. The Security Council of the United Nations rejected the Plan as well. James Baker proposed another plan (Baker Plan II) which provided for a referendum in four to five years’ time and offered the inhabitants a choice between independence, autonomy or complete integration with Morocco[6]. The Polisario Front accepted the Plan, Morocco opposed the inclusion of the option of independence to referendum. In 2007, Morocco submitted its autonomy plan for Western Sahara entitled Moroccan Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy Statute for the Sahara Region to the Secretary-General, approved by the United States and the European Union. The Plan provided that the Saharan people would manage democratically their own affairs, they would have the financial resources needed to develop the region in all areas and participate actively in the economic, social and cultural life of Morocco. The Polisario Front rejected the plan and also presented to the Secretary-General a Proposal for a Mutually Acceptable Political Solution that Provides for the Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara. This proposal insisted on the exercise of the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination[7].

This strategy, by the new UN mediator, Christopher Ross, was a chance for finding a political solution to the Western Sahara issue. He tried to obtain greater support from interested countries, such as France or Spain, made several trips to the region for consultations[8]. The European Union focused on humanitarian aid, even if the role of the EU in Western Sahara is a problem that cannot be separated from the interests that bind Europe and Morocco. This explains the reason why the Spanish government promotes the dialogue with the Moroccan authorities to resolve the problem of illegal immigration and terrorism, sacrificing the support for the Front. France has always supported the positions of Morocco, because it is its historical ally. As for the US, the Obama administration seems to be moving in a direction of neutrality, because the cooperation with Morocco and Algeria are both functional in attempt to prevent the development of Islamic terrorist organizations in the area, considered endangered by the Washington. According to Ross, the first step to solve the problem is the detente of relations between Algeria and Morocco.

In this conflict, Algeria plays a marginal role. The Algerian National Liberation Movement shows an unconditional support to the Polisario not only because of the leader of the liberation groups, but also because Algiers could take an advantage of the independence of Western Sahara: Algeria would search for an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean and try to enclose south Morocco. Thus, Algeria would become the most powerful State in the Maghreb. The attack on Marrakesh in 1994, led the Moroccan King at the time, Hassan II, to enforce visa requirements on Algerian citizens wishing to visit Morocco. The Algerians responded by taking a similar measure against Moroccan citizens. As a result, the land borders between the two neighboring countries have been closed ever since[9]. The inability to reach an agreement on borders and on Western Sahara troubles both Algeria and Morocco, but it also excludes bilateral or regional economic cooperation through the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) – the organization founded by representatives of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania in 1989 – which sought to coordinate economic, political and security issues between the five founding states[10]. Moreover, the border closure weighs on the management of migration flows from Africa to Europe as the illegal traffic of drug and weapons and the growing presence of armed terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb[11].

Algeria and Morocco have never hidden their rivalry; nevertheless the Arab Spring seems to contribute to a rapprochement of bilateral relations. The overthrow of political regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt should guide Rabat and Algiers to review their strategic role in Western Africa. They should create a new center of power in North Africa – without any international role of States like Egypt or Libya – and achieve a peaceful resolution to the frozen conflict of West Sahara, even if both countries want to control the territory. A never-ending story as long as Algiers continues to uphold the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination and refuses any democratic process of international negotiations between Rabat and the Polisario Front[12].

Federica Fanuli

Master’s degree in Political Science, European Studies and International Relations (University of Salento)


[1] C. Finelli, Marocco – Algeria: le complicate relazioni bilaterali, “Equilibri”, 22 March 2012  http://www.equilibri.net/nuovo/articolo/marocco-–-algeria-le-complicate-relazioni-bilaterali.

[2] I. Panozzo, Il vallo del Sahara (1) – La storia del Frente Polisario, “Limes”, 15 October 2008  http://temi.repubblica.it/limes/il-vallo-del-sahara-1-la-storia-del-frente-polisario/795.

[3] I.K. Souaré, A. El Ouali, M. Khadad, Western Sahara: understanding the roots of the conflict and suggesting a way out, “Institute for Security Studies”, 17 December 2008  http://dspace.africaportal.org/jspui/bitstream/123456789/31034/1/WEST_SAHARASITREP18DEC08.pdf?1.

[4] Western Sahara, “Global Policy Forum”  https://www.globalpolicy.org/security-council/index-of-countries-on-the-security-council-agenda/western-sahara.html.

[5] I. Panozzo, Il vallo del Sahara (2) – Il referendum della discordia, “Limes”, 15 October 2008  http://temi.repubblica.it/limes/il-vallo-del-sahara-2-il-referendum-della-discordia/796.

[6] A. Theofilopoulou, The United Nations and Western Sahara: a never-ending affair, “United States Institute of Peace”, 1 July 2006  http://www.usip.org/publications/the-united-nations-and-western-sahara-never-ending-affair.

[7] Update report – Western Sahara, “Security Council Report”, No. 4, 18 April 2007  http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/update-report/lookup-c-glKWLeMTIsG-b-2687487.php?print=true.

[8] A. Arieff, Morocco: current issues, “Congressional Research Service”, 20 December 2011  http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/180685.pdf; L. Attanasio, I saharawi tornano a sperare, “Limes”, 29 January 2013  http://temi.repubblica.it/limes/sahara-occidentale-i-saharawi-tornano-a-sperare-algeria-marocco-spagna/41793.

[9] A. Arieff, Morocco: current issues, “Congressional Research Service”, 20 December 2011  http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/180685.pdf.

[10] A. Jacobs, G. Bajalia, Algeria at a crossroads: borders and security in North Africa, “Muftah”, 24 September 2014  http://muftah.org/algeria-crossroads-borders-security-north-africa/.

[11] G. Dentice, Algeria 2014: la stabilità interna passa per le politiche regionali, “ISPI”, 17 April 2014  http://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/algeria-2014-la-stabilita-interna-passa-le-politiche-regionali-10256.

[12] I. Manera, Marocco: la questione del Sahara Occidentale e la cooperazione regionale contro il terrorismo, “Equilibri”, 15 October 2010  http://www.equilibri.net/nuovo/articolo/marocco-la-questione-del-sahara-occidentale-e-la-cooperazione-regionale-contro-il-terrorism.