The reactivation of the war in the former colony leaves Madrid with little room for manoeuvre due to the wave of migrants arriving in the Canary Islands.
Spain has never had an easy role in the Western Sahara conflict. Its exit from the North African territory took place in a context of decolonisation haste on the part of a UN that then preferred to take its time in the process. Spain has been caught between defending the rights of the Saharawis and the desirability of not damaging the complicated neighbourhood with Morocco. Now that the Polisario Front has reopened the war, with the aim of getting something moving internationally on the conflict, Spain is hamstrung by crises over the arrival of migrants in the Canary Islands, an archipelago located across the dividing line between Morocco and Western Sahara. Here is summary of the latest developments in the Saharawi question.
article / Irene Rodríguez Caudet
The Polisario Front has declared war on Morocco after 29 years of peace. This organisation, created primarily to defend the independence of Western Sahara from Spain, represents an important part of the Sahrawi population seeking self-determination for its people.
The Alawite kingdom, for its part, claims sovereignty over the territories. It undertook measures that triggered the recent conflict at the Guerguerat border crossing, where demonstrators blocked the road linking Western Sahara to Morocco. The Moroccan military fired on the rally on 13 November and the Polisario Front declared a state of war.
Western Sahara is a territory in a state of decolonisation since 1960 under the auspices of the UN as part of the processes carried out during the second half of the 20th century to put an end to the European colonial empires. This process continued until 1975, the year of the Green March, when an army of 350,000 Moroccan civilians marched into the former colony to claim it as their own, alongside Mauritania. At that point, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) began a guerrilla war that would not find a ceasefire until 1991.
Despite Morocco's efforts to possess the former Spanish colony, the Saharawis have had their own proclaimed republic since 1976, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (also known by the acronym SADR), recognised by several states - 84 in total, although more than half of them have cancelled, frozen or suspended recognition due to violations of their international obligations - and presided over by Brahim Gali.
Since Spain left the territory, the UN has issued several resolutions calling for a referendum on self-determination that would mark the future of Western Sahara as an independent country or propose other alternatives.
In this conflict, the different parties involved are pursuing different strategies. Morocco, for its part, intends to prolong the conflict in order to consolidate its power in Sahrawi territory. It does not envisage independence for the former Spanish colony, but promotes plans for limited autonomy in a project of agreement framework known as the "third way" for what it considers to be its southern provinces. Moreover, it occupies these provinces militarily, through border crossings, six military instructions and with more than half of the Saharawi territory under its control.
Frustrated by the UN's immobile position, the Polisario Front has always counted on the threat of a return to armed conflict. SADR consists of only a few territories that are fully supervised by it - roughly a quarter of Western Sahara - and has gained less global recognition than the Polisario Front as an organisation, which the UN admits as the representative of the Saharawi people.
The lack of new and more imaginative proposals from the UN, coupled with the attitude of the parties involved, particularly the Moroccan side, have made progress towards a satisfactory solution to the conflict impossible. The lack of progress, however, is not only due to these reasons. The Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, Algeria, must also be taken into account. This is the longest humanitarian crisis in history, dragging on for 45 years and affecting 173,600 refugees, many of whom have known no other life.
The violent strategy, which prevailed for more than fifteen years, was abandoned in 1991 in favour of a ceasefire and negotiation tactics that are not proving very fruitful. Despite attempts at peaceful settlements, in mid-November this year, the Polisario Front declared a state of war, ending a peace that had lasted almost 20 years.
Morocco claims the Saharawi territories as its own and goes so far as to include them unabashedly as part of Morocco on the Kingdom's most recent official maps, similar to those of the early 20th century, when the Maghreb country had control over the Sahara. For this reason, after Spanish colonisation and subsequent decolonisation, Morocco claims the former colony. According to its authorities, the so-called "Sahrawi provinces" have always been under Moroccan sovereignty.
The conflict not only pits Rabat against El Aaiún, but also involves parties that support one leader or the other. On the one hand, there are the Arab countries - Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait - that support Morocco, and on the other hand, a nation that, despite having a very express desire to exercise its own sovereignty and claim SADR's legitimacy, has little or no international support.
In 2021, MINURSO, the mission statement deployed by the UN to guarantee peace and the holding of the referendum on self-determination, will be 30 years old since it began its deployment; to date it has 240 observers, but has not seen its goal. The Saharawis argue that the UN's work has not been effective in any respect and that it has only allowed the Moroccan plundering of the Sahara's natural resources. Nor has there been any progress on the referendum on self-determination, and the lack of action has led to the lifting of the ceasefire by the Saharawi government. The Polisario Front has now chosen to take these measures as the lack of progress by the UN's mission statement becomes increasingly evident.
The country of Mohammed VI has sent troops to quell the demonstrations in the main Saharawi towns and on the roads connecting Morocco to Western Sahara. Meanwhile, its counterpart claims to have caused material and human losses in the Moroccan military instructions located in Saharawi territory. Morocco does not recognise any of these allegations, but defends itself with fire in the face of the Polisario Front's threat.
Meanwhile, Dakhla, the second most populated city in Western Sahara, is serving as a corridor for small boats and dinghies, which in recent days have been arriving in large numbers at the port of Arguineguín, in Gran Canaria. This fact is causing Morocco and Spain to be even more concerned about status in the Sahara and to have to face this problem jointly, something complicated due to the historical confrontations between the two countries over the Saharawi conflict. However, while some are passing through, others are returning to their homeland: the Polisario Front has appealed to all Saharawis living in the country and abroad to join the struggle.
The status of Western Sahara is pending further developments in the conflict and the decisions taken by Morocco. While there are international positions that continue to call for a referendum on self-determination, the status quo will end up influencing the UN to accept the Moroccan autonomy proposal proposal . The Spanish government has avoided pronouncing itself in favour of the plebiscite, although there is division between the PSOE and Podemos, training which urges the holding of the enquiry. Although the migration crisis in the Canaries is due to more complex dynamics, the suspicion that Morocco has allowed the arrival of more refugees at a decisive moment in the reopened Sahara conflict obliges Spain to adopt a cautious attitude.