Known as Africa’s “last colony” Western Sahara is a stretch of desert territory along part of Africa’s Atlantic coast, bordering Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. The tragic story of Western Sahara is one of a decolonization crisis rooted in the Cold War that remains unresolved.

By the 1960s, Spain — the colonial ruler of Western Sahara beginning in the 19th century — came under growing international pressure to relinquish control of the territory. The Polisario Front, a Sahrawi nationalist liberation movement, began waging guerrilla warfare against the Spaniards shortly before Madrid formally gave up its role as the colonizer of “Spanish Sahara” and agreed to the UN’s decision to rename the territory Western Sahara.

Yet Morocco, which gained its independence from France in the 1950s, rigidly believed that Rabat had the right to incorporate this land into its own borders after the end of Spain’s colonization of Western Sahara. However, on October 16, 1975, the International Court of Justice in the Hague rejected Morocco’s legal argument and decided that the Sahrawi people had a right to self-determination.

Unwilling to cede this land to the Polisario Front, Morocco’s King Hassan II mobilized his fellow Moroccans and led them in the “Green March” in which hundreds of thousands of Moroccans, including volunteers and state officials, crossed into Western Sahara to “reclaim” the land and partition it between Morocco and Mauritania.

This took place shortly before the scheduled end of Madrid’s rule in Western Sahara in 1976. Although Spain’s government promised the Sahrawi people independence, Rabat and Washington pressured Madrid into surrendering the territory to the Moroccans and Mauritanians.

Within a few years, Mauritania revoked its sovereign claims to the former Spanish colony and Morocco took control of the majority of the land. Despite the UN never recognizing any of this territory as belonging to the North African kingdom, Rabat has ever since maintained its illegal occupation of most of the Western Sahara.

Shortly before the “Green March”, a war broke out between U.S.-backed Morocco and the Polisario Front. This conflict froze in 1991 and has never been resolved. Throughout the 1990s, international efforts to broker peace under UN auspices failed and this sovereign dispute has remained the major source of tension between Morocco and neighboring Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front and has its own geopolitical interests in the separatist group governing Western Sahara as an independent nation-state.

A Shift from a Former Colonizer

Morocco considers the Western Sahara conflict an existential issue, and Western Sahara itself is immensely important to Morocco’s economy.

As a foreign policy doctrine, Rabat sees its full control of the territory as necessary for guaranteeing Morocco’s territorial integrity. Additionally, Western Sahara is rich in rock phosphate, a hugely important mineral for the world’s food supply chain. Phosphate is, in fact, Morocco’s third largest exported product, amounting to about $850 million U.S. in 2021. Western Sahara’s strategic location by the Atlantic Ocean also represents an immense asset to Morocco and its fishery industry. In 2018 alone, more than 75 percent of Morocco’s catches came from Western Sahara.

Stances of foreign governments toward this dispute have serious implications for their relations with Morocco. With UN efforts to resolve this conflict proving futile, Rabat is now playing its cards to pressure more countries into legitimizing its illegal occupation of Western Sahara.

As Western Sahara’s former colonizer, Spain had long maintained neutrality toward this frozen conflict until recently shifting its position to meet Rabat’s demands. Within this context, Spain and Morocco turned a new page at last month’s summit in Rabat, overcoming bilateral problems of late. After signing many trade, investment, migration, and security deals at this summit, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said that the two nations have committed to “mutual respect”.

“While Spain has not gone as far as the United States in formally recognizing Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara, Spain’s support of Morocco’s autonomy proposal, which precludes the option of independence and would unlikely end the highly repressive police state that exists in the occupied territory, puts Spain at odds with the vast majority of the international community,” Dr. Stephen Zunes, a professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, told Foreign Policy in Focus. 

Friction between Rabat and Madrid intensified after Spain rejected Washington’s recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan land in 2020 and later hosted Polisario chief Brahim Ghali for COVID-19 treatment. Morocco responded by summoning Spain’s ambassador to Rabat and recalling its ambassador.

Bilateral tensions exacerbated when a mass influx of migrants reached Ceuta, a Spanish exclave in North Africa, in May 2021, with some 6,000 of them attempting to cross the border. The Spanish city was completely unprepared for the situation. Morocco relaxing its border controls made the departure of those migrants possible. Sánchez interpreted the move as Rabat’s attempt to manipulate Madrid into making concessions vis-à-vis Western Sahara.

Morocco’s strategy proved efficient. Within less than a year, Spain shifted its stance on Western Sahara. Spain now supports Rabat’s “autonomy plan” which would allow Morocco to continue exercising its sovereignty over the territory while the Saharawi people would be allowed their own government. The proposal’s critics, however, maintain that this “autonomy” falls short of the definition under international law.

The practical implications of Madrid’s about-face on Western Sahara have yet to be realized. “There has not yet been any material change on the ground as a result of Spain’s shift in support of Morocco’s position on the disputed territory,” Dr. Geoff Porter, the president of North Africa Risk Consulting, told Foreign Policy in Focus. “That being said, both Morocco and Spain have organized investment conferences and forums in Dakhla and Laayoune to explore opportunities for Spanish investors. Several plans have been announced, including in tourism and healthcare, but nothing has launched yet.”

Implications for Spain

Madrid’s shift might create some challenges for Spain at home and abroad. “There are certainly some risks in terms of domestic politics, where the majority of Spaniards support self-determination, including members of the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party,” said Dr. Zunes.

There is also potential for this decision to cause problems for Spain’s reputation in Africa, where most governments support the Saharawi people’s right to vote in a referendum with independence as an option. Spain’s relationship with Algeria, the Polisario’s most important state sponsor, stands to suffer.

“Algeria has suspended bank transactions between Algerian and Spanish financial institutions, which has resulted in the halting of Spanish imports into Algeria,” explained Dr. Porter. “In addition, Algeria has compelled Spanish utility Naturgy to pay market prices for Algerian gas imports instead of more favorable pricing afforded to countries with which Algeria has friendship treaties.”

Noting Algeria’s increasingly important regional role, Dr. Zunes argued that “with Europe becoming increasingly dependent on Algerian natural gas — particularly important given the cutoff of access to Russian sources — Spain’s decision will likely have a negative impact on the country’s energy security.”

Spain and Morocco’s reset will impact their local economies, especially given the recent agreement to open customs offices in the North African Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. That will allow the two countries to tax goods transiting through the enclaves, fight illegal contraband, and benefit from the profits.

Yet the rapprochement comes on the backdrop of Madrid’s serious concessions, which will not go unnoticed elsewhere in European capitals, which may avoid moves toward Western Sahara that could antagonize Rabat.

The International Context

Ultimately, Spain’s shift vis-à-vis Western Sahara fits into a larger trend whereby more governments are aligning with Rabat against the Polisario.

Following Washington’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over this land outside its UN-recognized borders, Spain joins the Netherlands in supporting the “autonomy plan.” Meanwhile a host of African and Arab states have recently opened diplomatic missions in the land to support Rabat’s position, and Morocco returned to the African Union.

Although more international states and institutions backing Morocco bodes well for Rabat’s agenda, this trend will not resolve the dispute. Resolution of the Western Sahara conflict requires a UN-mediated solution. “The dispute cannot be resolved by brokering isolated bilateral deals,” explained Dr. Porter. “A holistic approach is required.”

Yet as the Ukraine War rages on into its second year, the world looks elsewhere. Few influential actors pay much attention to Western Sahara and even fewer (if any) have the will to invest political and diplomatic capital toward settling the dispute.

Alissa Pavia is the associate director for the North Africa Program within the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. Giorgio Cafiero is the founder and CEO of Gulf State Analytics.