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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Morocco, Sahara, Israel: The Opportunity for a New Regional Deal

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by Tarik Oumazzane

Joint US-Israeli delegation meeting with King Mohammed VI of Morocco on 22 December 2020. Source: Wikipedia CC

American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over its Sahara and the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel could have lasting benefits for the cause of peace in North Africa and the Middle East.

For North Africa, the Sahara dispute between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario has dragged on for 45 years, making it one of the world’s oldest conflicts, perpetuating a status quo that undermines regional economic development and political cooperation between North African actors. During discussions of a potential referendum about the disputed territory’s status in 1991, neither Morocco nor Polisario could agree on who was entitled to vote, rendering a plebiscite almost impossible to implement. More recently, Polisario’s blockage of Guerguerat, the only border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania caused a Moroccan military intervention in order to maintain the security of trade and people. In response, Polisario declared the 29-year UN supervised ceasefire was over, and resumed its armed struggle.

These developments pose major security threats to both North Africa and the Sahel regions including a potential armed conflict between Morocco and Algeria, the threat of extremism that tends to flourish in conflict zones, the further destabilisation of Libya and the potential increased influence of extreme groups located in northern Mali.

To what extent will American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara mitigate tensions in North Africa? Before answering this question, it is important to highlight that Washington’s new policy complements a growing international trend. Several African, Middle Eastern and Caribbean countries have already opened consulates in the Sahara to demonstrate political support for Morocco. However, the significance of the American recognition lies in its status in the world, in the UN Security Council, within NATO and in its diverse and international alliance system. The United States can potentially play a large role in resolving the Sahara dispute.

The American administration now considers Morocco’s autonomy plan as ‘serious, credible and realistic’ and it is the only proposal on the negotiating table. This may well push both Algeria and Polisario to reconsider it.

The opening of an American consulate in Dakhla will attract foreign direct investment (FDI), and thereby open the possibility of a new push for economic development. This ought to provide an incentive for the Polisario to give up their armed struggle and participate in the economic development of the Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. These new political economy incentives may be the key to resolving the Sahara dispute once and for all.

The implications of this potential resolution for the region are significant. The dispute has been a break on economic development for 45 years and a peace deal could provide Polisario with a real opportunity to participate in local governance. Health, education and employment should become a greater priority than an arms race between Morocco and Algeria. If investment is encouraged, the Sahara could become a regional economic hub. Morocco and Algeria can also potentially open their borders (closed since 1994) and revive the Maghreb Union with a potential integration with other African regions such as ECOWAS.

With regard to the wider Middle East, Morocco’s decision to normalise its relationship with Israel is by no means the first in the region. Egypt was indeed the forerunner when Sadat secured a peaceful agreement, part of the Camp David Accords in 1978. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Palestinians and Israelis signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995. In 1999, Mauritania and Israel established full diplomatic relations (although these have been frozen since 2009). More recently, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan signed the Abraham Accords. Yet, Morocco has a unique position to play a pivotal role in the peace process in the Middle East.

Morocco has a profound and ancient Jewish connection. Moroccan Jewry’s origins date back more than 2,500 years. In the medieval age, following the Spanish Inquisition and the 1492 Alhambra Decree, Sephardic Jews were forced to flee to Morocco, where they were welcomed and integrated into Moroccan society. In the 1940s, there were between 250,000 to 350,000 Jews, living in Morocco as part of the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world.

At the peak of the Nazi regime in Europe and in North Africa, Sultan Mohammed V of Morocco resisted Nazi pressure for the deportation of Jews, considering them full Moroccan citizens. Morocco became a refuge and a transit destination for European Jews escaping the Fascist regime in Europe. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, a large number of Moroccan Jews chose to migrate to the new state but have retained their Moroccan traditions and ties to their ancestral country Morocco. Israelis of Moroccan origin number approximately one million and many of them have risen to prominence in politics.

It is this Jewish connection which Morocco brings to the table. Rabat can mobilise Moroccan Jews in Israel to bridge the gaps between Palestinians and Israelis. More than that, the Moroccan King’s status as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, his title of Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful), his position as the Head of Al-Quds ‘Jerusalem’ Committee and his good relations with the Palestinian National Authority reinforce his legitimacy as a peace broker in the Middle East.

To conclude, the opportunities of economic development, political cooperation and the promotion of peace in the Middle East and North Africa are rare; American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over its Sahara and the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel could promote a type of peace that goes beyond the absence of war to the presence of conditions for political cooperation and economic development between several Middle Eastern and North African actors.

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