Morocco and Western Sahara – Military Posturing and Diplomatic Offensives

Morocco and Western Sahara – Military Posturing and Diplomatic Offensives

Whilst there has been no direct military confrontation between the Polisario Front and Morocco regarding the future of Western Sahara for a number of years, both Morocco and their opponent, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) have been deploying diplomatic overtures to sway opinion in their favour across the African continent and beyond. 

The intractable conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the ruling party of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), stands poised to erupt back into open hostilities after recent statements made by the Front. Movement of Moroccan troops provoked Polisario to claim the ceasefire, in force since 1991, had been breached. Thus, another chapter is added to the story of one of Africa’s most intractable conflicts. 

How did it come to this?

In 1974 Morocco sought to have Western Sahara, previously a Spanish colony, recognised as a legal constituent part of its territory. The International Court of Justice disagreed. Two years later the Polisario Front, one of the parties involved in the decolonisation struggle, declared the creation of SADR, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. This prefaced nearly two decades of conflict, during which time Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) when the SADR was formally recognised by the continental body in 1982. A peace agreement was signed in 1991, establishing a UN peacekeeping mission and calling for a referendum to be held regarding Western Sahara’s status. Yet no plan suggested since has been palatable to both parties. Instead, both have sought to conduct economic and diplomatic warfare so as to bolster their standing and apply greater pressure to their opponents in subsequent rounds of negotiations. 

The Polisario Front – Maintaining Presence and Relevance

The Polisario Front has sought to maintain its visibility in the eyes of those external actors who might best leverage influence over Morocco. Pursuing such a strategy means the Front maintains a presence in “nearly every European Union capital, Russia, the United States, Australia, and many other countries”. Simultaneously, Polisario has sought to influence relations between Morocco and its business partners by making produce, including phosphates and fish stocks, from Western Sahara too controversial for Morocco to trade. Here again, the Polisario Front has had success, with its lobbying and pressure meaning that currently there are only three countries in the world; India, New Zealand, and China prepared to trade in Western Saharan phosphates. 

Morocco – Money Talks

Yet, Morocco has not been passive against this pressure. After leaving the OAU, Rabat lost a significant forum in which to press its claim on Western Sahara. Since returning to the fold of the AU in 2017, Morocco has sought to offset Polisario’s gains, both politically and commercially, by wooing other nations. Whilst Polisario has endeavoured to limit the trade opportunities for Morocco to exploit from Western Sahara, India proves the limits of such efforts. Having previously recognised the SADR, India withdrew its support in 2000, ostensibly in return for promise of continued phosphate trade with Morocco. 

Conscious of the need to counteract Polisario’s presence in the diplomatic sphere also, Morocco has begun to encourage stronger ties with other African countries, deliberately establishing foreign diplomatic offices within the territory of Western Sahara, a clear signalling of ownership of the territory. Recently for instance, Burundi agreed to open an office in one of Western Sahara’s two largest cities. Alongside this, Morocco has sought to diminish support for SADR within the ranks of the AU. These efforts have borne fruit, with recent suggestions that Morocco has built a significant following of almost 30 nations calling for SADR to be removed from the organisation’s ranks. However, the SADR has friends still.

Obstacles Moving Forward

Whilst Rabat may have enjoyed some successes, Morocco has clashed frequently with one of Polisario’s most stalwart friends – South Africa which has consistently championed Polisario’s position in the UN. In April 2020 for instance, South Africa and Morocco engaged in a major spat after the former sought to hold the UN to the original 1991 arrangement to ensure a referendum which could guarantee Western Sahara’s independence. Coupled with this, South Africa’s unyielding view of Western Sahara as the “last colony on the African continent” has often provoked strong sentiments from Rabat. More tangibly, in 2017, a ship carrying $5 million in Saharan phosphates was seized in Cape Town’s harbour by South African authorities, and the cargo returned to Polisario. Morocco will find the SADR difficult to entirely isolate diplomatically, so long as the Republic maintains close ties with its South African ally. 

Beyond this, Rabat must be careful not to undermine its own arguments by proclaiming too loudly on similar cases. For example, Morocco often holds Spain to account for its continued possession of Ceuta and Melilla, two cities on the African continent. More recently, in the wake of normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE, Morocco’s head of government declared that Morocco “refuse[d] any normalisation with the Zionist entity because it encourages it to go further in violating the rights of the Palestinian people.” Critics of Morocco’s stance will not fail to draw parallels when the association hurts Rabat. Like Polisario’s efforts to obstruct Moroccan trade by making possession of Saharan goods politically awkward, such comparisons will hinder Rabat’s efforts to press for a resolution to the Western Sahara situation favouring Morocco. 


Whether negotiating with fellow African nations or the wider international community, both the Polisario Front and Moroccan government have sought to cast themselves as the rightful authorities of Western Sahara. Despite discrepancies in international prestige and precedents within continental organisations, each has achieved notable victories. Simultaneously, both sides have blamed one another for the ratcheting up in tensions. Should hostilities erupt, the divisions exposed within the international community, will likely by the truest measure by which to judge the success of both Polisario and Morocco’s efforts to shift the balance of opinion in their favour. 


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