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For the past 40 years, Moroccan foreign policy has been conditioned by the unsolved issue of the Saharawi and by the country’s opposition to the recognition of the Democratic Arab Republic of the Saharawi (RASD). The thorny situation, inherited by King Mohammed VI from his father, Hassan II, has conditioned the role of Morocco in Africa (RASD is represented within the African Union, while Morocco isn’t since 1984) and hindered international relations, especially with the UN.

The RASD must go

Now it looks like the Moroccan monarch intends to solve the issue by finding a way back into the African Union, and he wants to do so without granting any diplomatic leeway. The nearly 150 thousand Moroccan soldiers that occupy 75% of the Saharawi territory are there to stay.

Mohammed VI is trying to disenfranchise the RASD. He reasons that, if the RASD doesn’t exist, then the violated rights of the Saharawi won’t exist either. But in order to do this, Mohammed VI needs the African Union to withdraw their recognition of the RASD because – this is both an unshakable dogma and a limit of Moroccan policy – Morocco will not be part of the AU until RASD is kicked out of it.

Mohamed vi
The King of Morocco, Mohamed V

Morocco’s ‘lobbying’

Currently, Morocco’s is busy convincing other AU member countries that they should withdraw their recognition of the Saharawi. King Mohamed VI visited various African nations of late to enact this plan. The investments and loans granted to several countries by the Moroccan Bank for Foreign Commerce are a helpful instrument in this respect. The King began with the French-speaking countries (where the help of the French government makes eases persuasion), then moved on to the English speakers by using the Islamic ‘element’. After all, the Alawite dynasty of the Moroccan kings is connected directly to the Prophet.

The money–pledges–religion combination is slowly producing positive results for Morocco. This was evident during the last AU summit in Kigali, where 28 countries out of 54 signed a petition to suspend RASD from the organization. There followed a shower of investments by Morocco in Senegal, the construction of a pharmaceutical plant and a housing development contract in Rwanda, the cleaning and reclamation of a bay in Ivory Coast (where Morocco has become the main commercial partner) and other investments in Gabon, Zambia, Tanzania (where Morocco will build a Mosque), Ethiopia, Madagascan and Nigeria.

All of these nations were visited personally by the king, followed by a number of private investors and State officials. But the king is not the only one campaigning against RASD. The Moroccan Foreign Minister Mezouar, his security counselor and a fierce crowd of diplomats are out there doing the groundwork.

The obstacles ahead

Despite the diplomatic and financial effort, there are still obstacles ahead of Morocco. The first is embodied by Algeria, the main supporter, both diplomatically, financially and politically, of the RASD. Without Algeria’s support and their Tindouf refugee camps, the Saharawi would be no more. But Algeria is also one of the most important nations within the African Union. On top of that, the AU’s Department for Peace and Security, which would be tasked with sorting the Saharawi mess, is headed by an Algerian national. The AU is certainly willing to accept Morocco among its members but they are still not enthusiastic about doing away with the RASD.

In November this year, during an Arab/African summit in Equatorial Guinea, the AU insisted on having a delegation of the Polisario on board, forcing Morocco to withdraw its participation. Some members of the Persian Gulf’s Arab League (The League has always sided with Morocco against the RASD) and Somalia (A member of both Arab League and AU) did the same.

Morocco’s insistence

Morocco is convinced that the RASD is a “fake” State that has no right to be a member of the African Union. Mohammed VI said so himself as he commemorated the 41st anniversary of the ‘Green March’ (when the Saharawi territory was snatched from Spain). In that same occasion the King also stated that Morocco is interested in playing its role in Africa, that it has “astonishing” support to join the AU, that Western Sahara has an “irrifutable” Moroccan identity and that there is no possibility of Morocco ever giving up on its “legitimate rights”.

Surely time, the persuasive power of money and the subtle diplomatic work involved will bring their fruits for Morocco. Internationally speaking, the RASD was recognized by 85 countries in 2008; now they are down to a mere 40. Their international support is waning.

On top of that, RASD is neither a member of the UN (by which it was tagged “non-autonomous territory”) nor of the Arab League, the Organization for the Islamic Conference or the Union of Maghreb. The RASD has failed to be recognized by both important nations and permanent members of the Security Council. Their last bastion is the African Union.

Clearly, the amount of international support that a nation receives is directly proportional with the benefits that derive internationally from such support and recognition. Unfortunately, the Saharawi are a small State (officially 500 thousand individuals, but possibly no more than 200 thousand) with no resources (its phosphate mines are controlled by Morocco) and scarce strategic importance. All of these elements ease Rabat’s task of doing away with the RASD.

The only strength of the Saharawi is that they are a people who have been stripped of their land and, through subterfuges and prevarications, have been prevented from holding a referendum on self-determination to this day. It is a matter of principle.

What does the UN do?

Since 1991 the MINURSO, the UN mission stationed in Western Sahara, has tried to organize the referendum mentioned above. Vetoes on both sides stalled the production of a list of voters and there exists no civil registry. The Saharawi are a nomadic people that tend to blend in – because of their language – with the tribes of Mauritania. Also, Morocco’s ostracism trys to change the local demographic picture trough the displacement of their own people in Saharawi territory. Nevertheless, the presence of the UN has proved to be a hindrance to Morocco’s aims.

In March, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon traveled to Western Sahara and said Morocco was carrying out an “occupation” of the territory. Ban Ki Moon then added that the Saharawi situation is a “forgotten humanitarian tragedy”. Morocco reacted to these statements by kicking 80 UN officials working for MINURSO out of the country.

Last April, while renewing the MINURSO mandate for another year, there were talks of working to reduce violations of human rights in the region. Initially, there was supposed to be an official UN investigation on Western Sahara, then France stepped in and softened the approach of the Security Council.

Morocco feels very uncomfortable when they sit in the defendant’s dock.

In 2013, when the USA backed a proposal to monitor human rights in Western Sahara, Morocco unilaterally suspended joint military drills with the Americans.

In February 2014, when France wanted to investigate torture accusations against the head of Morocco’s security Service (the Direction Générale de la Surveillance du Territoire – DGST), Abdel Latif Ammouchi, Morocco immediately suspended their judicial cooperation with France.

A tolerated regime

But everybody loves Morocco. Mohammed VI’s Islam is moderate, open, of Malikite school, therefore connected to the African Sufi tradition. The role of Morocco in the African and Arab world is desirable, sought after and relished. Not to mention that Mohammed VI lately re-opened diplomatic relations with Iran for the first time since 2009.

After the 2014 ‘misunderstanding’, France went back to being Rabat’s central ally, especially in the UN Security Council. Relationships with Spain are satisfactory since 2003 and, despite a closed border between the two nations, Morocco and Algeria are speaking, albeit with alternating fortune, since 1988. Even Israel, with whom diplomatic relations had been severed in the year 2000, seems to be closer today.

With their 2010 and 2013 accords, Nato started a one-on-one cooperation with Morocco, making it an external member of the Organization. At this point, weather there be violations of human rights, the abusive occupation of Western Sahara or systematic opposition against any and all solution to the Saharwi issue, is irrelevant. Nobody cares any longer.

After all, the 53-year-old Moroccan monarch is also cherished for defusing the domino effect of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ by approving a constitutional reform. Nowadays Morocco is governed by a moderate Islamic party called the Party for Justice and Development (PJD). Unluckily, the country is not rid of problems connected to Islamic terror. Various Moroccan cells of the ISIS and of Al Qaida were uncovered and dismantled of late.

Among the ranks of the ISIS’ Caliph there fight roughly 1500 Moroccan volunteers, 300 of which in Libya. With the approaching military defeat of the ISIS, many of them will attempt to return to Morocco. Last May, the ISIS had even threatened to strike the country. After all, Morocco represents one of the few examples of moderate Islamic nations around.

Il defunct Secretary General of the Polisario, Mohamed Abdulaziz

But is there a solution?

If Morocco solves the Saharawi problem, which has been conditioning that nation’s policy for over 40 years, it will have removed one of its greatest weaknesses in foreign policy. One option that Rabat could choose is to let the African Union negotiate with the Saharawi, offering them limited local control in exchange for the recognition of Morocco and the annexation of Western Sahara. Therefore to go from a de facto situation (being that the territory is already occupied) to a de iure one - one that is in accordance with the law. If it were so, the RASD would have no reason to exist anymore.

The above solution could be viable if the next President of the African Union, due to be elected in January 2017, will be favorable to it. The Moroccan lobby is already at work to make sure that he is. Senegal and Rwanda are the first, enthusiastic, supporters of the plan.

One last element that must be accounted for is the Polisario liberation movement. Its Secretary General, Mohamed Abdulaziz, who was highly respected and had always struggled to prevent a reprise of the fighting after the 1991 peace deal, died last May. Now the rage and frustration of the Saharawi youths (70% of the refugees stationed in the camps are under 20 years of age) find no hurdles in their path. Notwithstanding, when Abdulaziz died, Algeria declared an official week of mourning. It shows that their support of the Saharawi plight is still strong.

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