Spain’s current position on the Sahara issue is appropriate to its interests in the region, coincides with international law and is backed by the vast majority of states and non-governmental organizations. It is therefore an enviable position. Morocco’s situation in the territory involves serious problems of legal and structural viability that must not be overlooked. It is not reasonable to adapt the Spanish position to the Moroccan one without prior negotiations to protect Spain’s strategic interests, especially considering the difficulties that have characterized the countries’ bilateral relations and other historical precedents. Morocco has never adequately compensated Spain for any concession of interests made by the latter. The cost-benefit balance and the need to finding alternative solutions must be evaluated in a proper perspective.
The most recent analyses of the Sahara conflict make veiled suggestions to the effect that it is necessary to reach an agreement that essentially respects Moroccan sovereignty. The reason usually given for this is not other than the “de facto” consolidation of Morocco’s presence there, thanks to a successful program of colonization and assimilation. Also, the West’s need for support in the Muslim world for the war against terrorism makes the Moroccan monarchy an ally even more valued than before. This alliance has a price, one element of which is the Sahara.
The fact that Great Britain and the U.S. have taken stances favourable to the Moroccan thesis, combined with the traditional French support of the Moroccan regime, have led many Spanish observers to call for a reasonable change in Madrid’s position. However, this issue in fact deserves a more prudent analysis and an assessment of the consequences of accepting arguable assertion as truths, among them, the solidity of the Moroccan position in the conflict.
The Moroccan Position
In order to understand the importance of the Sahara in Morocco, we must start with the very nature of the political regime established after independence, based on two corner stones: an almighty monarchy and a nationalist ideology based on territorial expansion. The latter has served as a firm anchor for Moroccan political forces and also for the monarch’s legitimacy, in combination with his role as religious leader. Therefore, the success of this expansion has, until now, also meant the success of the monarch, first Hassan II, and now his son. And the most important part of this expansion is the Sahara. First, Ifni was taken by surprise, Tarfaya was absorbed and a short war was fought against Algeria. The Sahara definitively consolidated Hassan II as King of Morocco and since then its potential loss has been considered anathema, since this would endanger the king’s legitimacy. This fact has been ably manipulated to obtain Western support. If one of the conditions for stability in Morocco is the definitive absorption of the Sahara, then given the interests at stake, this is acceptable. There is only one problem with this argument: it is an illusion caused by the nature of the regime. This is beginning to become clear as the growing importance of latent Islamic fundamentalism reveals itself.
The Sahara problem does in fact affect Moroccan stability, but contrary to the way described above. The war, the discontent of the people in the region, the tensions with other African states due to their recognition of the RASD and the waste of resources related to assimilation and territorial protection have worsened the country’s already serious political, financial and general economic crisis. This does indeed effectively erode the legitimacy of the regime. The lack of freedom of expression on issues that are considered matters of state – the King, the army and the Sahara are only the most outstanding examples – make it difficult to assess social support for a long war in which all social classes have suffered, especially the underprivileged. Government pressure has made even important critics like Serfaty publicly change their position on the future of the territory. In short, a false picture of unanimity has been consolidated. Although nationalism underlies all publicly-stated ideologies in the country, the Moroccanization of the Sahara has been accepted domestically for reasons similar to those that have forced foreign countries to take a more tolerant view of the regime: the need to please the king.
The legitimacy trap has dominated Moroccan policy in the former Spanish colony until today and although Mohamed VI may have been tempted to change the bases of his own legitimacy in consonance with democratic postulates and greater sensitivity to the opinion of society, the fact is that he inherited his father’s legitimacy, with all its weaknesses. From the perspective of the monarchy, the channels for debate have closed. This option threatens the continuity of the system if a crisis questions the Moroccan character of the Western Sahara, since it does not allow any alternative negotiations. The Sahara crisis is a secondary problem in Moroccan politics and in the long run is an excellent weapon in the hands of the king’s Islamist opponents, who will undoubtedly use it if necessary. It is the king himself who has made the problem a central feature of the political game. This is necessarily a fatal trap because, despite appearances, Morocco’s position is weak, meaning that it is perfectly possible that changing circumstances could change the territory’s status to the detriment of Morocco.
Morocco’s weakness is due to internal factors (a weak political structure and little ability to gain international confidence) and external factors related to the contradiction between Morocco’s stance on the Sahara and international law. Both are extremely important and contradict two commonplaces in the analyses of Morocco: the stability of the kingdom, more questionable today than ever, and the consolidation of the Moroccan occupation of the former Spanish territory.
The Moroccan political system is essentially authoritarian. The king has progressively assumed a central role that was not at all clear when the country gained its independence in 1956. If the system has become a flexible dictatorship, it has been at the cost of the pre-independence political fabric, which was practically unthreaded by domesticating socialists and communists and gaining the loyalty of republican nationalists, and thanks to the strict control exercised by the army, whose tentacles reach all areas of the Moroccan political system, paralleling the power of the king, its mentor and supreme chief. The rise of fundamentalism in the 90s demonstrated that Morocco was not in fact an exception in the Muslim world. The recent elections, manipulated like those before it, albeit less crudely, have confirmed the country’s irreversible instability. The coming government, made up of parties attached to or respectful of the system (the Islamist parties have bowed out voluntarily), will be the last one that can be formed in this way without generating tensions. This is simply because within a few years it will be impossible to deny that the Islamist parties have come to the forefront and to justify their exclusion from power. In a context of growing economic crisis and international tension it remains uncertain whether the monarchy will be able to maintain this delicate balance. Until now, the West has been made to understand that full democracy can wait. This benevolence also extends to the Sahara, a further gift on the road to stability. However, the condition for accepting the assimilation of the Sahara – stability – is no longer taken for granted. A serious crisis of power is looming and the backdrop is a phenomenon that Moroccan authorities deny in public, but are, in fact, taking very seriously: the East Timor effect. Contacts between the Polisario Front and companies interested in exploring for oil in the Sahara, combined with the use made of this fact by RASD leaders, make it difficult to deny this alternative in any case.
The immediate consequence of this reality is the kingdom’s lack of success with its propaganda efforts, which have, in fact, resulted in its posture on the Sahara being accepted only grudgingly and certainly without triumphalism. Neither developed nor developing nations have responded to arguments that, for now, lack legitimacy. Political support is all that has been received, something which Indonesia also received but which, nevertheless, did not prevent the end of its occupation of East Timor. International legitimacy has only one source: law. And in the Moroccan case, its complete lack of legal arguments means that the Moroccan government inevitably needs the UN to reconsider its opinion on the conflict. Despite criticisms of international law, this is an excellent example of its effective weight in contemporary international society. Legitimacy cannot exist without law, stability cannot exist without legitimacy and without stability, crisis can break out at any time.
If the regime cannot show itself to be capable of handling the “stability factor”, it will inevitably lose the steadfast support of the U.S. and, as a result, British support; the two pillars of Morocco’s tactics in the Sahara dispute. Far from being a strategic partner for the U.S., the very limited reliability of the Moroccan regime makes it, de facto, a permanently circumstantial partner -- a card that is never tossed away, but that could be. In this regard, a very revealing example is that of Saudi Arabia, whose role in the strategic framework of the United States is under serious reconsideration today. Hassan II was fully aware that a monarchical crisis would directly mean a territorial crisis and for this reason began diplomatic manoeuvres to unblock the plan for Saharan autonomy before he died. A few months of disorder would be enough to change the state of things dramatically.
Autonomy and the Spanish Position
What is least clear about the possible solution of giving autonomy to the Sahara is precisely what the nature of such an autonomous region would be. No one has stopped to define its founding features, something fundamental for discussions with the Polisario Front. The reason for this is clear: no one believes in an autonomous region, which contradicts Morocco’s new regional structure and is impossible with a regime in which power and sovereignty emanate from the king. Autonomy is a formal alternative that has been defended with the arguments used against possible independence: what to do with the settlers and how to compensate Moroccan investment, among other questions that can be easily answered in accordance with the law. The settlers, for example, either go or stay, either becoming nationals of the new state, as would be desirable, or else as foreigners with the pertinent rights and guarantees. The examples of certain ex-Soviet republics with large Russian minorities show that it is not impossible to negotiate solutions, with the added advantage that, in this case, direct international intervention would make the problem easier to deal with. Regarding stability in the region, there are no indications that a new state in this part of the world would cause any great conflict, at least not any more than are caused now. Furthermore, in a hypothetical (and probably inevitable) crisis in Morocco, it would even be reassuring to be able to count on a state that would necessarily collaborate more and be less unstable.
In this context, the Spanish position is reasonable and prudent. It is, in fact, impossible to know what will happen in the short term; therefore, the best thing is to wait and see. It is not clear, neither, that Spanish interests would not benefit from a new state that would necessarily be friendlier than Morocco. No strategic or economic interest would justify a change of opinion favouring Moroccan policy precisely because realism demands that the interests at stake be studied from medium and long-term perspectives. Calls for realism from analysts and some politicians seem to ignore that in the worst case, negotiations with Morocco favourable to its interests do not come for free. Good faith, neighbourliness, and other similar kinds of protocol cannot be negotiated. Negotiations must be held on tangibles, which in this case Morocco is not in a position to offer, for example, an agreement on definitive land and sea borders. The Spanish position is supposedly weak, but is, in fact, comfortable and almost enviable. The Spanish stance concurs with its own immediate strategic interests, with international law and with the opinion of the majority of international actors, both states and inter-governmental organizations –a greatly appreciated asset in confusing times and one that must be managed prudently and with common sense-.
Spanish – Moroccan relations
Descriptions of Spanish-Moroccan relations are almost always based on questionable suppositions that, nevertheless, inform Spanish external policy excessively. These generally belong to the standard Western strategic iconography: the monarchy as a guarantor of order; and Morocco as an emerging democratic state, an ally immune to Islamist influence. It is true that the monarchy has kept order at the price of keeping the country in a state of perpetual under-development, immobilized by corruption and traffic of influences. Moroccan democracy is as lightweight as that of its neighbours: neither in terms of form or content is there anything that makes the Moroccan system of democracy superior to that of Egypt, Tunisia, or even Algeria, all of which define themselves as democratic. As an ally, it is already contaminated by the phenomenon of Islamism, thanks in part to the repression and waste on the part of the powers that be, something common to many other Muslim states. Spain cannot afford to assess the state of things in Morocco as if it was just another Western nation. The U.S.A. or Great Britain may value the apparent calm, but Spain must also evaluate underlying risks. Finally, there is the myth that sums up all the others: the monarchy as the irreplaceable focal point of power. This is arguable and, in fact, is argued in Morocco itself by the Islamists. The least promising aspect of this scenario is that the Islamists are probably right: the monarchy, in its current state, is indeed replaceable. If change is possible only at the cost of the majzen and the monarch, the opposition will try to weaken and topple both. A reasonable policy must anticipate alternative scenarios, not just set out to consolidate situations that are unsustainable in the long run, especially when this stance does not result in the anticipated benefits. In Morocco, there are many different scenarios and policies that ought to be dealt with openly. This would be a healthy exercise in realism that should be applied not only to the workings of bilateral relations, but also, and especially, to their foundations. The perfect recipe for misunderstandings would be to develop a policy for Morocco that does not take into account the essentially ideologically aggressive nature of the regime; the great instability of the structure and distribution of power, despite appearances; the pro-Islamist and anti-Western sensibilities of a growing proportion of Moroccan citizens; or the tangible cost-benefit relationship of the policies and concessions promoted until now by Spain.
An essentially indisputable starting point would be to affirm that the bilateral relations are bad not only now, but, rather, from the start. Spanish concessions have not been effective and, if anything, have given air to a policy of quick use of foreign aggression. Morocco’s legal and political arguments for its territorial claims are unacceptable and there has been extraordinarily little fulfilment of bilateral agreements. This is a problematic state in its region, as is demonstrated by its difficult relations with Algeria and Mauritania. The possibilities of general agreement on peaceful political transition are very limited and the economic system – on which so many hopes have been placed – is murky and hostile to companies that lack strong political backing. This is the actual context for bilateral relations and only free, democratic changes in the nature of the Moroccan regime will allow for a change in this scenario.
The nature of the Moroccan regime makes it almost inevitable that there will be periods of crisis, accentuated by various different factors, among them: the search for legitimacy by Mohamed VI, who is abandoning his initial paths and settling in to what he inherited from his father, based on nationalism and territorial expansion; the growing importance of Islamism, both moderate and less moderate, a phenomenon that casts shadows on the stability of the regime; and the economic crisis, deepened by the systematic corruption of public institutions and resources. In this context, Morocco’s situation in the Sahara faces serious legal and political hurdles which must be considered when taking a position on the conflict.
Spain has strategic interests in the region that demand an exhaustive analysis of the consequences that one posture or another would have on these interests. All possible scenarios must be imagined, including that of an independent Sahara and crisis in Morocco. The deficiencies in Spanish-Moroccan relations must be evaluated and this must be done realistically, not based on wishful thinking. These relations are bad and could get worse.