By Paul Raymond
A bitter confrontation between Morocco and arch-rival Algeria over the disputed territory of Western Sahara is causing diplomatic rifts with other nations and even risks sparking a full-blown conflict, analysts say. “We are witnessing a diplomatic war, where both sides resort to anything that is not open conflict,” said Riccardo Fabiani, director of the North Africa project at the International Crisis Group think tank. Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1975, is mostly desert but has immense phosphate resources and rich fishing grounds in the Atlantic. About 80% of it is controlled by Morocco and 20% by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which seeks self-determination for the local Sahrawi people.
The conflict simmered for a long time, but its dynamic changed in 2020 when then-US President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for normalizing the kingdom’s relations with Israel. Emboldened by Washington’s backing, Rabat has since then persistently persuaded other states to follow suit, heightening tensions with Algiers, which has since severed diplomatic ties with Rabat.
Last week, Morocco reacted angrily when Tunisian President Kais Saied greeted Polisario leader Brahim Ghali on a red carpet at Tunis airport as he arrived for a Japan-Africa investment summit. Calling the act “hostile” and “unnecessarily provocative”, Morocco immediately canceled its participation in the high-level conference and withdrew its ambassador for consultations – prompting Tunisia to respond in kind.
The incident showed that “the Western Sahara conflict is beginning to have repercussions beyond the bilateral relations between Morocco and Algeria”, Fabiani said. “From now on, Morocco will consider Tunisia as part of the pro-Algerian camp.”
The 2020 deal between Morocco and Trump also reset Rabat’s ties with Israel and opened the door to military cooperation with the Jewish state. Algeria, a long-time supporter of the Palestinian cause and viewing Israeli influence on its doorstep as a threat, severed ties with Morocco entirely the following August, citing “hostile acts” – including the alleged use of Israeli spyware against its top officials. Fabiani said the change in dynamics had meant “the thaw” of the Western Sahara conflict.
On the ground, this took the form of repeated clashes since the end of 2020 between the Moroccan army and the Polisario, which had agreed to a ceasefire in 1991. On the diplomatic front, Rabat’s more assertive position was evident. in a year-long diplomatic dispute with Madrid. In April 2021, Ghali traveled to Spain to receive treatment for Covid-19, sparking a row that only ended after Madrid abandoned its decades-long stance of neutrality on Western Sahara and backed a Moroccan plan for limited autonomy there. And last month, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI demanded in a speech that his country’s other allies “clarify” their positions on the issue, calling it “a prism through which Morocco sees its international environment”.
But observers say Morocco is not the only party in the region behaving more assertively. Algeria is Africa’s top natural gas exporter with pipelines directly to Europe, and in recent months has welcomed a steady stream of senior European officials hoping to curry favor and new gas contracts. Algeria, Africa’s largest country, has been teeming with money since energy prices soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Over the past decade, Morocco has strengthened its diplomacy, particularly in Africa, and has become more assertive with some EU members,” said Dalia Ghanem, senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies. of the European Union. At the same time, Algeria, under the late President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, “lagged behind”, she said. “Now Algeria wants to come back on the regional scene and be the regional leader in Africa.”
“Delicate and Dangerous”
“There has been a big Algerian campaign to recruit Tunisia to its side,” said Anthony Dworkin, senior policy researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. Tunisia, Algeria’s smaller neighbor, is grappling with a severe economic crisis and has also experienced political turmoil since Saied staged a dramatic power grab in July last year. Dworkin warned that there was now “a worrying trend that everything in the region is seen in a binary way through the prism of Algerian-Moroccan rivalry”. “Morocco is pushing a narrative of ‘you are with us or against us’, and there has been similar rhetoric from Algeria,” he added, warning European governments to seek relations balanced with all parties. “It’s a delicate and dangerous moment.”
Last weekend, the United Nations envoy for Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura, visited the region, but few observers see any prospect of progress in long-suspended negotiations. “The risk of a military conflict is low, because neither side wants it, but it should not be underestimated,” Fabiani warned, noting that Morocco and Algeria do not have diplomatic relations allowing to defuse tensions. “All he needs is a border incident and a miscalculation.”