Posted by on June 09, 2014 in Blog

By Myles Teasley
Summer Intern, 2014

Polisario territory in the Western Sahara

One of the categories of the recently released Zogby Poll was U.S. favorability rating measured in seven Arab countries. Tracking from 2002 through 2014, the countries were Palestine, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Morocco. What’s curious, however, is that throughout 2009, while most of the surveyed countries were at or near their respective highs in terms of favorability toward the United States, Morocco was halfway through a precipitous decline. What explains such a nosedive that knocked Morocco’s favorability rating from a high in 2008 around 29% to less than 5% in 2010?

Perhaps one answer can be found in President Obama’s brief retreat from Bush-era policy toward the Western Sahara. The Western Sahara is one of the most neglected international territorial disputes. A large, poor, arid, and sparsely populated territory roughly the size of Colorado or Great Britain, its profile has been raised lately as fears of a poor human rights situation and festering anger in this region could make it an ideal target for terror groups such as Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM). The players here include Morocco, which has claimed the area since independence and attempted to forcibly annex it in 1975 after Spain gave up most of its colonial possessions in Africa, and the Polisario Front, which has been fighting for roughly as long demanding an independent Sahrawi State.

Official American policy, as toward much of the Arab Maghreb, has been one of benign neglect. Somewhat more supportive of the Moroccan stance pre-Cold War, less so post-Cold War, and recently revived in the 2000s due to a Bush-era endorsement of a Morocco-backed plan to incorporate all of Western Sahara as an autonomous region of Morocco. This policy was a non-starter with the Polisario Front, which, pursuant to the Settlement Plan agreed upon in UNSC Resolution 690, calls for a UN orchestrated referendum.

In 2009, in a letter sent by President Obama to Morocco, the president made no mention of the Bush-backed Moroccan autonomy plan, and State Department and NSC officials didn’t even refer to the autonomy proposal when discussing the Western Sahara in 2010. This notable, if subtle, policy shift, coinciding with U.S. calls for an improved human rights situation in Morocco, was widely publicized in Moroccan outlets, and later, even led to Morocco angrily cancelling joint-military exercises in 2013 with the United States over what it called “an attack on the national sovereignty of Morocco [that] will have negative consequences on the stability of the whole region.” After such missteps, Obama has retreated to the Bush-era policy of supporting Moroccan autonomy, albeit with better human rights conditions.

In recent years, Morocco has sunk billions into the Western Sahara to build infrastructure, to push the Polisario Front out, and to encourage other Moroccans to move there, for the express purpose of realizing the formal incorporation of Western Sahara into Morocco. This nationalist venture of the Moroccan monarchy is something that largely unites Moroccans, and is seen as somewhat of a zero-sum game. It is understandable that rhetoric questioning Moroccan sovereignty over what Morocco considers to be its own territory would certainly not improve Moroccan favorability toward the US, and could therefore play a significant role in the plummet we see in the latest Zogby poll.  

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