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In the Shadow of the Arab Spring

Saharawi troops, near Tifariti (Western Sahara). Photo: Saharauiak. wikimediaTHE CONFLICT IN WESTERN SAHARA

In the light of the Arab Spring, or rather in the shadow of it, the conflict over the issue of Western Sahara still remains unresolved. While other citizens in the Arab world have gained their independence during the Arab Spring, there is an increasing frustration among the Sahrawi population over their situation . The international community seems to be reluctant in their support for either side, while the findings of natural resources in the region are an increasing source of conflict.

Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara is often deemed as one of the world’s most forgotten conflicts. The desert land is located between the Sahara desert and the Atlantic Ocean, although the area was initially a Spanish colony under the name of Río de Oro, it has been occupied by Morocco since 1976. In the process of decolonization following the Second World War, Spain finally gave up control over the territory, with a false promise of independence offered to the newly formed liberation movement, Polisario (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro). Morocco, who saw Western Sahara as a lawful part of their territory, decided to annex it. In response, the Algerian-backed Polisario front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and began waging a guerrilla war against Morocco. The Moroccan army, however, proved to be relatively successful in ceasing control over large parts of the country, by building a large sand wall across the country to fend off Polisario’s guerrilla attacks. The war eventually turned into a stalemate, with continuous attacks from both sides, but without neither Morocco nor the Polisario front achieving any decisive gains. Eventually, the UN stepped in and created a cease-fire agreement, which was signed in September 6, 1991. The agreement was to be monitored by the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO, and a promise of a referendum of independence for the following year was given.

As of today, the country remains occupied and the promised process of referendum for independence has stalled because of disagreements over voter rights. Several attempts to restart the referendum process have been made, all failing so far. The Polisario front controls roughly one fourth of the desert east of the 2,700 km long Moroccan wall, but most of the Saharawi population lives in a refugee camp in the Algerian city of Tindouf, where the SADR exile government also has its base. More than 50 states have formally recognized Western Sahara, or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as would be its official name. The UN position is that Western Sahara is a non-decolonized territory, included in the UN list of Non-self-governing Territories.

In October 2010, a protest camp housing 12,000 Saharawi refugees sprung up outside Laayoune, the largest city in Western Sahara, in protest against the deterioration of living conditions in the area. Four weeks later the Moroccan forces raided the camp, killing four inhabitants, and injuring seventy. Aliyen Kentaoui, the Polisario Front’s representative to Sweden, says that some political analysts consider this event as the precursor to the Arab Spring, as it occurred months before the uprising in Tunisia.

The difference is the indifference of the major TV-channels and the international community. But the situation is far from being static, it calls for a just and lasting solution. New generations are ready to give their lives after more than twenty years of waiting for an elusive referendum.

Western Sahara. Photo: bob rayner. wikimediaBoth France and Spain have significant economic interests in the Western Saharan territory, and have therefore been reluctant to support a possible independence of the SADR. These economic interests have been particularly pronounced by a controversial fisheries agreement with Morocco, giving the EU the right to fish outside Morocco, including the waters outside the disputed area of Western Sahara. In December 2011, the European Parliament blocked a renewal of the fisheries agreement, although it is still too early to say if it will enter into force or not.

There have also been speculations about offshore oil and natural gas fields outside and on Western Saharan land, however, the exploitation of these fields is still controversial due to the legal status of Western Sahara. Yet both parties have already signed contracts with oil companies regarding the possibility of drilling for oil.

Leaked diplomatic reports from the US have revealed that the occupied territory of Western Sahara is somewhat of an economic burden for Morocco. Aliyen Kentaoui from Polisario strongly disagrees, calling the report a device used by Morocco to hide the paradox that despite enormous resources, the Saharawi people in Western Sahara still live in abject poverty.

Western Sahara is well known for its immense wealth in natural resources. The biggest reserves of phosphates in the world, its shores are the richest in fish on the entire planet, iron, oil, diamonds and many other natural resources are constantly revealed.

The exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara seems to be a primary source of continued controversy in the conflict. While Morocco regard the region as a natural part of its territory, Polisario accuses the Moroccan government of exploiting its natural resources, which Kentaoui is convinced “will inexorably move day after day more closely towards violence and the renewal of hostilities, rather than towards a peaceful settlement”.

JOAKIM CARBONNIER

 

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