Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
May 1, 2018
Last month, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita visited Washington to discuss the Western Sahara question and, importantly, the status of US-Morocco relations, and was reported to seriously question whether the US still considers its relationship with Morocco of strategic importance. Also, on April 26th, the UN Security Council renewed the MINURSO mandate for the Western Sahara, to maintain the peacekeeping mission to police the 1991 ceasefire between Morocco and the Algerian backed rebel group known as the Polisario. While stronger in its wording in favor of Morocco, the resolution continues to show no willpower by the US and UN to live up to past agreements with Morocco.
This raises the question of how much longer can Morocco wait before it unilaterally implements its proposal to offer autonomy for the people living in the Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty. The US has been a close ally of Morocco on issues of common concern, and admires and supports it on its security efforts and its push to enact democratic and economic reforms, but the US has not been a consistent or reliable partner on the Sahara question for the past two decades.
It was the US that, in 1999, first proposed to Morocco that it set aside a failing UN attempt to conduct a referendum in the Sahara, and offer a political compromise based on internationally recognized autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. This was a difficult time in the Kingdom, as King Hassan II had just passed away at the end of July, and Secretary Albright was visiting in September to propose the compromise solution to the new king, Mohammed VI. It would be a major shift that would reverse the position held by Morocco for nearly two decades on a referendum.
King Mohammed displayed courage, leadership, and a clear willingness to move forward, when a few weeks later, after receiving certain sovereign commitments from the United States, he agreed to this new path. James Baker, then the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy for the Western Sahara, was pleased with Morocco’s decision and by the Spring of 2001 had tabled such a proposal in the Security Council. Morocco agreed to negotiate based on Baker’s proposal, but the Polisario and Algeria rejected it.
In 2003, Baker did an about face and took his original idea off the table and, instead, offered a radically new proposal that was seriously disadvantageous to Morocco’s security. Furthermore, it threatened Morocco with UN Chapter 7 sanctions if it did not agree to its terms. Not surprisingly, Morocco rejected it.
All the while, King Mohammed and his government had been seeking consensus among the population of the Sahara on a compromise solution, holding public forums and conferences to seek the buy-in of the local population. This resulted in a major national shift to support autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. So when Baker’s more onerous second proposal was announced, it was met with great frustration by all.
The King thought “a deal was a deal” and, in September 2003, met with President Bush who reassured him that the proposal offered in 1999 was still US policy, and further, encouraged Morocco to offer an initiative of its own if the Kingdom was unhappy with Baker’s latest plan.
By 2007, Morocco had proposed its own initiative that was judged as “serious and credible” by both the Bush Administration and the UN Security Council. During the first Obama Administration, Secretary of State Clinton re-affirmed that US policy hadn’t changed and that the Moroccan proposal was not only “serious and credible”, but also “realistic.” However, as during the Bush years, little else was done to support it beyond this verbal endorsement; and little progress has been made since.
There is no question that the US admires Morocco’s democratic and economic reforms, and is greatly appreciative for its military and counterterrorism partnership, as has been demonstrated by its support through the USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, security assistance, and numerous other programs.
Unfortunately, lack of progress on the Western Sahara, an existential issue for Morocco, has left many there wondering whether the US continues to seriously value its bilateral partnership. This has led some US experts to encourage Morocco to stop waiting on support from the US and begin unilaterally implementing its autonomy initiative. This is now increasingly sounding like the best advice.
Morocco has already taken the decision to decentralize and devolve more power to its sixteen regional governments, and has given priority attention and consideration to the Saharan provinces in this regard. Now may be the time for Morocco to expedite its regionalization initiative in the Sahara, and make sure it adopts internationally accepted standards and best practices for local governance and autonomy. This, more than anything, will gain the support of the local population and serve as a working model and compromise solution that the UN and US will increasingly appreciate and support.