Burden or benefit? Morocco in the Western Sahara

Text of a lecture given at the Middle East Studies Centre, Oxford University, February 18,

by Toby Shelley,

author of "Endgame in the Western Sahara"


It is 30 years since Morocco took control of a major portion of the Western Sahara. Despite 16 years of armed conflict and a subsequent fourteen years in which its claim of sovereignty has been recognised by no other state, Rabat remains in place, its cries of 'caduc' enabling it to reject a UN-sanctioned solution.

My comments today are intended as an early draft of a balance sheet, an initial assessment of what Morocco has gained and lost by holding and settling the Western Sahara. I will touch on political, strategic and economic issues before concluding with some thoughts about the domestic, political implications of the continuing situation.

Prestige - then

In 1975, deploying the military southwards must have seemed a very good idea to Hassan II. A clutch of coup attempts made the creation of a Russian front to which the unreliable and idle could be consigned an act of self-preservation that would also deliver prestige. As Polisario proved a much tougher proposition than initially envisaged, so disgruntlement in the army may have grown but by the same token more troops could be shipped off south and troop numbers in the territory doubled and doubled again to reach 160,000 in 1981.

But initially the monarchy would enhance its reputation within the armed forces and the population by asserting the territorial claim so thoroughly undermined by the UN Mission to the region and rejected by the International Court of Justice. Madrid's evident willingness to broker a deal as Franco's health deteriorated built on encouragement Rabat must have drawn from the precedent of the ceding to it of the Tarfaya Strip, historically and geographically part of the Western Sahara, in 1958, allegedly in return for controlling Sahrawi fighters taking refuge there.

So, for Hassan, taking a portion of the Western Sahara (albeit without saying too much about the embarrassing partition with Mauritania) enabled him to claim the inheritance of nationalist legitimacy held by his father and usurp in part the claims implied by the famous Istiqlal party map of Greater Morocco.

In international terms the issue mattered little - at first at any rate. Despite hiccups during the Carter years, the US arms flow continued and Morocco's status as Cold War trustee and ally in sub-Saharan Africa was probably enhanced to the extent its Saharan adventure kept Algeria busy. France, of course, militarily intervened in the Western Sahara on Morocco's behalf.

…and now

It is difficult to imagine that much prestige can now be milked from de facto possession of most of the Western Sahara. Indeed, for those who are attached to the notion of a rolling programme of decolonisation for Morocco - the current impasse begs the question of why political integration of the Western Sahara has so palpably not been achieved and why the sore of the Spanish presidios remains open in the north.

It is certainly possible to construe the hard line taken by Mohammed VI as a sign that he is too insecure to risk a settlement, that while little prestige is gained 30 years on by simply hanging on to the Western Sahara, he fears the loss of prestige at home a settlement process might deliver. Of course, in the meantime, Moroccan prestige gains little in the international arena by its refusal of settlement process options and the constant drip of human and civil rights abuse documentation coming out of the territory.

Of course, there is one arena where it remains all too easy to accrue nods of approval from the nationalist constituency - namely, the feuding with external brother-enemy, Algeria. Since Mohammed VI's accession, Rabat has more and more argued the Western Sahara dispute is a bilateral dispute between Algiers and Rabat in which the Sahrawi refugees are either prisoners of Algeria or Algerian mercenaries. In both Algiers and Rabat the regional friction can be turned on pretty much at will, the danger is that each side has to respond to provocation from the other and that can push things a little too close to the edge - Kofi Annan stepped in at the end of last year to call for an end to bellicose talk that gained such currency that a Moroccan magazine ran a poll asking if war with Algeria was possible and there were tales of Moroccan troops being captured on the wrong side of the berm.


The regional aspect of the Western Sahara question is one that Morocco stresses and Polisario and Algeria play down. In the Moroccan discourse it is the primary reason for the paralysis of the Maghreb Arab Union. Algeria, of course, argues that the dispute can be put to one side, leaving the way clear for progress on economic and social integration.

Both positions are disingenuous. The Western Sahara is the foremost expression of the competition for sub-regional dominance between Rabat and Algiers, a competition that commenced at least as early as the Sand War. Its other expressions have included border closures, divided families, accusations of interference in each other's internal politics, competition for the affections and investment of Spain, France and the US, competition for the role of lynchpin binding sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, and, of course, radically different official ideologies.

The Western Sahara has been foremost expression not only because of its longevity and the extended period of warfare but also because it touches on broader questions of territorial integrity. The famous Istiqlal map of Greater Morocco took in not only the Western Sahara and Mauritania but also great swathes of south west Algeria, particularly the Tindouf area. It was 1989 before the Moroccan government ratified the border demarcation and I know Moroccan diplomats who still say the claim to Tindouf remains open while Algeria supports Polisario. For Algeria and Morocco the importance of the Tindouf area to the Western Sahara conflict, being as it is the location of the Sahrawi refugee camps, is a reminder of general sensitivities about colonially-imposed borders.

The tension between Algeria and Morocco has provided each with a convenient external enemy. Arguably, this has been more to Rabat's advantage than Algiers' if for no other reason than that the latter has had quite enough in the way of internal enemies to castigate to need any outside. The Moroccan patchwork kingdom is held together the more firmly if hemmed in.

At the economic level, of course, both lose from lack of trade between economies that are far more complementary than, say, those of the GCC countries. Morocco scarcely benefits from Algerian hydrocarbons and Algeria has no access to the Atlantic. Border mineral resources remain untapped. Populations along the frontier have lost trade, employment and land. Additionally, both countries may be losing out on US investment, the Eizenstat Initiative having envisaged a unified Maghrebian market big enough to attract American corporations.

At the diplomatic level, the countries of the Maghreb lose out by being unable to speak with one voice in dealings with EU.

International relations

Polisario watchers of Morocco say the kingdom expends 80 per cent of its global diplomatic effort on the Western Sahara issue. What the yardstick is, I have no idea. But if you monitor the official news agency over a period, you can certainly see some grounding for the claim. The recent diplomatic caravan to Latin America is a case in point, with post-engagement announcements largely comprising assurances that such and such a country opposes secessionism. There is scarcely a visiting diplomat to Rabat from whom some apparently supportive statement is not wrung.

Friction and then friendship with Spain has largely been determined by the latter's position on the Western Sahara. With the change of government last spring and apparent change of position on the Baker Plan, the vitriol of the Leila fiasco has been forgotten, the presidios no longer feature in the press, accusations of collaboration with Algeria are gone, replaced with visits and royal-to-royal phone calls.

Yet Morocco, like Israel, faces the annual round of UN General Assembly resolutions that fly in the face of its control of territory its control of which formally is supported by none, while Polisario's putative state has the diplomatic recognition of some 70 countries. The reports to the Security Council by the Secretary General are regular and while diplomatic in language and certainly even-handed in their attribution of blame, do little to bolster Morocco's international standing, particularly when the kingdom has played the role of saboteur of settlement plans.

I forget if it was Mohamed V or Hassan who described Morocco as a tree with branches in Europe and roots in Africa. Either way, the Western Sahara dispute has kept Morocco out of the OAU, now African Union, for twenty years. (I should say in passing that while the logic of Morocco's diplomatic positions frequently eludes me, I do have sympathy for its position regarding the OAU, which was to say that to recognise the SADR prior to a referendum was incoherent) Over the summer, Thabo Mbeki delivered a mighty humiliation to Rabat by inviting the SADR to open an embassy in South Africa. In his letter to Mohamed VI, Mbeki used unusually strong language, comparing Western Sahara to Palestine, accusing Morocco of obfuscation, foot dragging and worse, and saying that for South Africa to hold back any longer would constitute a betrayal of the struggle of its own people.

At the level of public relations, the Western Sahara impacts on Morocco's image abroad. Of course, in many countries in Europe, not least Britain, the issue is little known of and cared about less. But in Spain the pro-Polisario lobby is very powerful in every regional government and political party. Elsewhere, the steady drip of human rights reports on the territory have sullied the kingdom's image. A Sahrawi political prisoner was awarded the Rafto Prize in Norway a couple of years back. There are Polisario solidarity groups in Hong Kong, Australia, Japan and Lebanon. Groups from 14 countries recently lobbied fund gatekeepers to avoid investment in Kerr-McGee because of its oil exploration work in the Western Sahara. I am reliably informed that the Western Sahara generates more post at the UN than any other issue.

The Moroccan media has taken to lambasting the failure of Rabat's diplomats over the Western Sahara. Whether this should be taken at face value or is a cipher for other political agendas is unclear but either way it constitutes a recognition at home of failed strategies.

That said, there are some indications that Morocco is learning some of the tricks of the trade. Rabat has dispatched a number of pro-integration Sahrawis, including I believe some defectors from Polisario, to embassies abroad to counter pro-Polisario efforts. It has also made hay with the issue of prisoners of war. In an unusually adroit move, the kingdom switched from refusing to acknowledge the existence of thousands of POWs held by Polisario to demanding their release and accusing Polisario of human rights abuse by holding them after the ceasefire. However, as Polisario has now released all but four hundred, the momentum has probably gone from this campaign.

The long-running depiction of the refugees around Tindouf as prisoners of the Algerian mercenaries rather lost the little credibility it had when the mass defections expected from last year's family exchanges organised by the UNHCR failed to happen. Attempts to tar Polisario with the Al Qaeda brush have been as cack-handed as the previous depictions of Polisario fighters as being, variously, Cuban mercenaries, Iranian-backed revolutionaries, and allies of Ahmed Jibril. More subtle is the playing up of issues such as illegal migration and smuggling in the deep Sahara, generally giving the impression that without a firm - that is Moroccan - hand in the area, anarchy will prevail. As can be attested by anyone who has seen sub-Saharan migrants in the Western Sahara, been offered a visit to the camps where middlemen keep them, or talked to those who make it to the Canaries, putting such a spin on events requires a fair degree of chutzpah, the organisers of the trade and those who turn a blind eye to it being Moroccans.


As you know, Morocco is a foremost producer of phosphate and phosphate products. As you probably also know, in the early 1970s the world price roared up and with it Moroccan export earnings and ambitions. Hassan II, it is reported, had visions of an Opec of phosphate producers in which Morocco would play the role of Saudi Arabia. The official Moroccan line has, of course, been to deny that intentions in the Western Sahara were motivated even in part by anything as sordid as greed. Morocco has enough phosphate to maintain exports for several centuries it is pointed out. Yet this is disingenuous. The UN Mission of 1975 estimated the Western Sahara could become the world's second biggest exporter of phosphates after Morocco. Control of the Boucraa deposits removed a potential competitor and gave Rabat leverage over important incremental production.

Of course, the phosphate price collapsed and continued to slide until the early 1990s, rather taking the shine off any grand ambitions but at least meaning Rabat could prevent a new exporter further depleting prices - in fact, and ironically, it was actually Polisario sabotage that removed Boucraa from the market.

Today, Western Saharan output of phosphate remains under-developed but accounts for some 10 per cent of exports of the Office Cherifien des Phosphates.

If phosphates have contributed less than hoped to Morocco's Saharan balance sheet, at least they have contributed. The same cannot be said for oil but its presence or absence remains a crucial potential determinant of the economics of occupation. I first heard the moan that "The Ottomans stopped at Algeria and so did the oil" many years ago. Now, to add to the misery, not only does Morocco's oil import bill continue to soar but Mauritania is poised to become an offshore oil producer.

Prospecting off the coast of the Western Sahara ceased as the conflict intensified in the 1970s. The status of the territory then precluded work. Until 2001 that is. Then, encouraged by a string of finds off Mauritania, and signaling sympathy for Rabat, France and the US permitted Total and Kerr-McGee to begin pre-exploration work in Western Saharan waters. The ensuing uproar resulted in an opinion by senior UN lawyer Hans Correll, widely interpreted as meaning the oil companies could do nothing beyond reconnaissance work without entering the political mine field. In recent months, Total has said it has no further work plans in the area but Kerr-McGee appears ready to continue despite increasingly well organised protests by pro-Polisario campaigners.

Despite subsidies from Saudi Arabia, Morocco's oil import bill is both large and dangerously volatile. Even under production sharing agreement terms similar to those in place in Mauritania, discoveries of significant quantities of commercial oil reserves would make the so-called southern provinces a much more attractive economic proposition as well as bring kudos to the crown. In passing, it is also worth reminding you of Paul Collier's work, which would suggest such resources would also multiply the chances of civil conflict.

Fishing has been a major platform of development for Morocco in recent years and one for which the Western Sahara has been crucial. Redevelopment of the ports at Laayoune, Boujdour and Dakhla have allowed Moroccan - not Sahrawi - boats to take advantage of the abundant stocks of a variety of sea food from low value sardines to high value squid and octopus. Since the break with Spain and Portugal over fishing rights offshore Morocco and, though never explicitly stated, the Western Sahara, Morocco's indigenous fishing industry has grown considerably. By 2007, the Western Saharan waters plus those in southern Morocco below the anti-Atlas were projected to account for 90 per cent of the Moroccan fleet's fast expanding catch, up from 20 per cent in 1990. The benefits were seen to be not only export earnings and planned value-added but also large scale employment. On top of that one should mention the common knowledge that senior military figures make substantial sums from the control of fishing licences.

However, what looks like a reason to remain in the Western Sahara long term is less compelling on examination. A combination of over-fishing and continuing shoal migration southwards means the fishing bonanza is proving short-lived. Quotas have been introduced for some species and boats are finding stocks so depleted they cannot match the quotas. There has been a distinct failure to add value locally to catches - reflecting Moroccan as well as international reluctance to invest in Western Sahara. The investment sunk so far, plus the plans for a number of fishing settlements, may prove ill-judged.

There are a number of known or likely metal deposits within the Western Sahara, from iron ore to titanium and vanadium, none of them yet exploited. Indeed, most of the resources have yet to be surveyed.


It is a frequent remark of Moroccan diplomats that the state has ensured better provision of basic facilities in the Western Sahara than in Morocco proper. This may well be the case. Under Spanish rule little had been provided for the indigenes. If Morocco was to settle the territory it would start from a very low infrastructural base. Schools, desalination, power and basic healthcare would all be needed to keep the influx of northerners alive. Reliable statistics on costs are not available. I was told $1bn had been spent on infrastructure up to 2002 with more coming. Other, higher figures have been cited. Administrative integration of the Western Sahara with southern Moroccan provinces, plus the cross border remit of the southern development agency further muddy the water.

State sector jobs, many of them artificial, social security payments, workfare schemes, double salaries, and tax exempt commodities are indispensable for keeping Moroccan civilians in the territory. The economic activity rate is the lowest and the unemployment rate the highest recorded by Rabat and the proportion of employment provided by the state is high, shy of 90 per cent a few years back. While population statistics and anecdotal evidence suggests the influx of northern Moroccans into Western Saharan towns continues, I am unaware of any data on whether settlers stay on or return to their place of origin after a period, using the Sahara as an alternative to labour migration to Europe.

The high levels of subsidy are indispensable but are also a potent reminder that the Sahara is not just another province, that it is different.

Plans to combat unemployment and generate private sector jobs have come to little as far as I am aware. Certainly they will be hampered by a large degree of dependence on a major expansion of the fishing industry, which now looks to be in decline - as mentioned earlier.

With a ceasefire of 14 years standing, the army's presence constitutes another reminder that the territory is different. The size of the military presence has not been run down substantially since the ceasefire. Over 150,000 men require supplies and billets. Of course, it can be argued that if they were not in uniform along the wall they would be in uniform elsewhere or adding to the crowds of unemployed in their home towns - whether the political dangers of the latter outweigh the economic costs of the former is precisely one of the apples and pears bits of accountancy that bedevils our balance sheet.

The ceasefire has reduced expenditure on weaponry although maintaining combat readiness in desert conditions is expensive enough. The cost of the hot war period will never be known and, even if it was, sorting out where the money came from would be a nightmare, given the skein of official and backdoor military aid from the US, Europe and Saudi Arabia. Costs will anyway have varied dramatically according to the phases of the war. The cost of a few tens of thousands of lightly armed troops in 1975 would have been very different from that of 160,000 men along a 1,500 mile berm with artillery and air support a couple of decades later.

For what it is worth, estimates of the cost of the hot war period have ranged from $1.9bn a year in 1983 - a figure given to the US Congress - to a mere $350m plus in 1987.

Current domestic considerations

What I offer for your consideration now are some observations from a series of visits to the Western Sahara and Morocco over the past three years. I am not best placed to put these pieces into the broader picture of Moroccan domestic politics, by which I mean socio-political trends rather than official party and palace politicking.

I want to draw attention to two factors, the development and spread of Sahrawi activism in Western Sahara and inside Morocco, and coverage of the Western Sahara in the Moroccan press.

Sahrawi activists living under Moroccan rule, both civil rights activists pure and simple and those with a nationalist agenda, seized the opportunity presented by the ending of the 'years of lead' and the death of Hassan II to begin the project of building a Sahrawi civil society.

The crucial moment was the organisation of a sit in outside the administrative buildings in Laayoune in September 1999, although there had been a series of protests by students and supporters of political prisoners earlier in the year. Initially the event involved some 40 students making narrow social and economic demands. But what happened then took all by surprise, the Sahrawis and the Moroccan authorities. The students were joined by former phosphate mine workers, and groups of the unemployed, the disabled and professionals. Some 200 people demonstrated for a fortnight before the riot police intervened. The result was a period of weeks of spontaneous demonstrations, some of them violent, involving not only locally born and bred Sahrawis but, importantly, Sahrawis from the Wahda camps - I'll come on to this in a minute.

Organisers of the original sit in were amazed by the popular support and by the spontaneity of the protests. The Laayoune events forged links between would-be activists who had never had previous contact and it persuaded them that the time was right to begin publicly building Sahrawi committees. Families of the disappeared, who during the 1970s and 1980s had not dared to speak of their missing loved ones outside of the close family, began to meet and petition and demonstrate. An organisation of the unemployed was set up - and soon shut down with its organisers jailed. Human rights groups affiliated with Moroccan counterparts. Campaigns for the release of political prisoners began and received the fillip of the freeing of the iconic Mohammed Daddach among many others.

Whether due to the Laayoune events or to changing grace and favour in the palace, Hassan's strong man, Driss Basri, holder of the Western Sahara portfolio, was dismissed, furthering the impression that the Sahrawis could affect their own future.

In late 2001, the Sahrawi cultural capital of Smara witnessed its own evenements, underlining that those of Laayoune were not isolated. Meanwhile, Sahrawi students in Moroccan universities, primarily Agadir, Marakesh and Rabat, increased their activities. There are perhaps 6,000 Sahrawi students in Moroccan universities and a high proportion take part in meetings and protests on campus. These have often involved sectional demands over matters such as subsidies for travel home but students have played an important role in supporting the demands of Sahrawi prisoners and the families of the disappeared. Some of the relatively few who find professional employment after university have carried their radicalism into their professions. I'm thinking particularly of young teachers who have taken prolonged strike action over postings to remote parts of Morocco.

The Moroccan government has been very keen to either ignore Sahrawi protests or to categorise them as social rather than political, referring to secessionist agents provocateurs infiltrating loyalist events. Thus, according to official Moroccan accounts, the Smara demonstration that descended into bloodshed and mass arrests was proceeded by a peaceful protest at which portraits of the young king were held aloft. According to pro-Polisario accounts, the event grew out of a public meeting held by Mohammed Daddach shortly after his release, at which the crowd shouted slogans comparing Western Sahara with East Timor, and the demonstration was preceded by the hanging of Sahrawi flags.

What has become clear is that Sahrawi protests are becoming more overtly nationalist. One activist, told me "I knew we will win when I saw the student week of action in Agadir". A claimed 1,500 students attended the central event of that week in, if memory serves, 2002 and, significantly, displayed posters of the Polisario founder El Ouali.

Not only are protests becoming more overtly nationalist, they are also becoming more widespread and frequent. Committees are now active in Dakhla, the main port in the south of the territory, for instance. And when I was in Laayoune in November an overtly pro-independence school student demonstration went scarcely remarked.

There is, at present, a tension within the community of civil society activists. One tendency urges a continuation of the current strategy, drawing in more people, building a civil society base, establishing links with the young, training cadres, building towards larger scale demonstrations, attracting thousands rather than tens and hundreds. This tendency, while nationalist, sees civil rights and a civil society as both ends in their own rights and also as a crucial contribution towards Sahrawi self-determination.

Another tendency - and not necessarily one more closely allied with Polisario's leadership - urges an acceleration of the overt politicisation of protest, wanting the civil society movement to declare itself pro-independence. For this tendency, which also tends to view a return to military combat as more likely and does not rule out the possibility of spontaneous violence inside the territory, the work of the past five or six years is a means to an end.

Now, I said I'd come back to the Wahda camp residents who joined the Laayoune evenements. In the early 1990s when the UN was engaged in the thankless task of trying to draw up a voting list for a referendum of self-determination, the Moroccan government sent instructions down to village level in the ethnically Sahrawi areas of southern Morocco between the anti-Atlas mountains and the international border that a given number of families from each community were to move to Laayoune, Smara, Boujdour and Dakhla. Once there, there would be attempts to get them on to the voter lists in order that they vote for integration with Morocco. They live in tightly controlled camps known as Wahda or unity camps, originally tents and now mudbrick. The camp in Laayoune is perhaps 50,000 strong and those elsewhere smaller.

The assumption, largely correct, was that these people, in the thrall of the authorities enough to obey the order to abandon their homes, would prove obedient at the voting booth. I believe the participation of some, and I've no idea how many, in the Laayoune events shook the Moroccan authorities and contributed to a nervous rethinking of the arithmetic of a referendum and the subsequent refusal to allow a vote even under the massively favourable terms of the Baker II plan.

Now that wobbliness in the Wahda camps has coincided with a resurgence of the importance of Morocco south of the anti-Atlas to Sahrawi and, in my contention, Moroccan politics. Indeed, Rabat is now seeing the separatism south of the international border spread northwards into the Tarfaya Strip and north of the Oued Draa to the lea of the anti-Atlas.

Geographically and historically the Western Sahara begins where the mountains end. The northern area was diced and sliced by Spain and France with the end result being the familiar colonial straight line frontier that left a large chunk of the Western Sahara in Moroccan hands from the late 1950s. Because the claim to self-determination rests in large part on acceptance of inherited borders and because of the importance of that principle to its major supporters, Polisario has never demanded the return of this large land area and its large ethnically Sahrawi population.

Yet it is the town of Assa, firmly inside southern Morocco, that has been the most militant and active centre of Sahrawi protest for the last year or two. This isolated town has thrown up the best known of the new generation of Sahrawi leaders, a former trade union activist, political prisoner and serial hunger striker Ali Salem Tamek. Tamek outrages officialdom however he can - refusing to recant or express gratitude when he was amnestied and publicly declaring support for Polisario, which is illegal, naming his daughter Thawra - or revolution.

In the last few weeks alone, there have been protests by a group of striking school teachers, by unemployed graduates, by supporters of Tamek's demand for a passport, by school students, and by supporters of political prisoners. There are sociological reasons why Assa might be resentful and these probably extend to nearby Zag, which is also becoming unruly. But this is a community that traditionally has been at odds with other Sahrawi tribes and has long provided men to the Moroccan armed forces. Now protestors there brazenly chant Polisario slogans. And, as sections of the Moroccan press have pointed out, the indications are that the Sahrawis in the now predominantly Moroccan towns of Goulmime and Tan Tan to the west are catching the contagion.

Looking back, southern Morocco has been important to Sahrawi nationalism in the past. In the late 1950s, fighters and their families took refuge there from the French and some say the Tarfaya Strip - between the Oued Draa and the international border - was ceded to Morocco in 1958 on the assurance that the royal armed forces would disarm and control the Sahrawis. Bassiri, the founder of the first modern Sahrawi nationalist grouping in 1969 was a refugee in southern Morocco. And much of the leadership, original and current, of Polisario grew up in this region, including El Ouali and his brother. The tiny coastal town of Tarfaya, whose Sahrawi population has now almost been extinguished, produced Polisario's first Laayoune organiser, its foreign minister and its senior diplomat in the EU.

The question I pose is this. Is the current unrest south of the anti-Atlas a self-contained continuation of a natural tendency of ethnic Sahrawis to look south or does it pose a new threat to Morocco - even if only one of example?


That question brings me, if obliquely, to the issue of press coverage of the Western Sahara in Morocco. The population of the Moroccan controlled majority of the Western Sahara is some 400,000 only - excluding the army. That's born-and-bred Sahrawis, northern Moroccan settlers, and residents of the Wahda camps. Setting aside the Sahrawis, that means relatively few Moroccans have day-to-day experience of the territory or even know people who do. I was speaking recently with a senior editor at Moroccan magazine about Moroccan attachment to the territory. Had she ever been there? No. Had any of the colleagues sitting around her? No. Had any of her relatives? No. Did she know anyone who had? No.

In the absence of personal contact, the next way in which people are likely to become conscious of an issue is the media. And when it comes to the written media, we immediately exclude a massive slice of Moroccan society due to the abysmal literacy rate.

The diet served up by the establishment newspapers of Morocco is extremely limited. Given the press laws, the claim of sovereignty is never questioned, of course and what polemic there is, tends to be limited to matters such as the perfidy of Algeria/Spain/South Africa/the US - delete as applicable.

So, of the acres of print ostensibly covering the Western Sahara, the bulk in recent weeks has covered: the border tension with Algeria that so worried Kofi Annan; whether Driss Basri is mad, bad or vengeful in calling for a referendum; indications of international support for a bilateral deal with Algeria to settle the issue; and the run of the mill reports of new investment and contented locals. Reports about the captive refugees of Tindouf have fallen off a little but vague assertions that Polisario elements may be working with Salafists to destabilise the region have become fashionable this year, probably for American consumption.

Pretty poor stuff really. But there are distinct bright spots, particularly among the independent weekly magazines where Le Journal Hebdo deserves special mention.

The financial daily, L'Economiste, produced a worthy series of reports in late 2001, after the Smara demonstrations. The reports detailed the social and economic failings of the Moroccan state in Western Sahara, notably pointing out the almost total lack of integration between indigenes and settlers. The events in Smara were detailed. But the analysis, whether from conviction or for safety, was that policy failure was creating the risk that Polisario agitators could exploit social and economic grievances.

Adopting the stance of loyal critic has become a familiar tactic, enabling issues to be aired, blame cast on occasion, and loyalty asserted but, importantly, giving the reader enough material to start thinking.

Pro-integration Sahrawi officials can be quoted saying that local TV must be credible or won't be effective at countering Polisario propaganda - clearly informing the reader that there is access to Polisario propaganda and it is persuasive to some. MPs may say that social issues need to be addressed urgently or Polisario will make inroads - so the locals are not all unswervingly loyal, then.

Indeed, recently there have been reports openly stating that nationalism is on the rise in the Western Sahara and is attracting more and more of the youth, and that there is now agitation in southern Morocco.

I quipped about Driss Basri being depicted as mad, bad or vengeful in the mainstream press. His utterings to any journalist who will speak with him in Paris have clearly been embarrassing and he has been roundly pilloried but they have also injected the idea that there can be disparate views on how to settle the Western Sahara question and that a vote with independence as an option is one of them.

Similarly, reproducing Thabo Mbeki's letter to Mohammed VI or interviewing foreign observers has been a back door way of introducing the comparison with Palestine or East Timor. The South Africa debacle enabled plenty of sniping at Moroccan diplomacy without ever quite wondering out loud if it was poor due to content rather than implementation.

Quite recently, Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet, who you will remember was locked up for breaking the press law, interviewed the Polisario leader Abdelaziz for a Spanish paper. Extracts of interviews with Abdelaziz have begun finding their way into a few Moroccan publications, apparently without the retribution exacted for such infractions only a few years ago.

My observation of these parts of the Moroccan press and my limited contact with its practitioners do suggest to me that after 30 years there is a curiosity about what is going on down there, a resentment at the lack of information, and a desire to see some debate.

Now, will this continue or will someone else be locked up or another publication shut down? I don't know. Does it matter if the intellectuals who read French language political weeklies start having slightly offbeam thoughts about the so-called southern provinces? I don't know.


If and when the UN decolonisation committee closes its last Africa file, it may be possible to reconcile the columns in the Western Sahara accounts. But I doubt it. If, by hook or by crook, Morocco won legitimation of its control of the territory, the expenditure and the gambles along the way would in the short term seem justified. Just as certainly, to lose a referendum without having a management strategy in place would raise a number of uncomfortable questions and throw the makhzen into crisis. There is little indication that the current king or his advisors have or wish to develop such a management strategy. They are playing the Israeli game of creating facts on the ground and exploiting the occupiers' advantage in the hope that the Sahrawis, the Algerians and the international community will give up on the issue.

And what of the elusive third way - negotiated settlement (or surrender as Sahrawi nationalists see it), broad autonomy, or worse a bilateral Algerian-Moroccan deal over the heads of the Sahrawis? I conclude with the thought that this is a real danger to the Moroccan state as currently configured. It is unthinkable that a Sahrawi community much enlarged by the return of refugees would meekly submit to erosion of autonomy powers. Yet broad autonomy in the Sahara is bound to provoke demands for the same in Oued Noun, the Rif and elsewhere. Year after year Rabat has promised decentralisation within Morocco proper. Year after year it has failed to deliver. Until and unless a strategy of decentralisation within Morocco were devised and implemented, a Western Sahara with meaningful autonomy would simply create pressure for similar powers within Morocco. It may well be that a legitimation of its control of the Western Sahara would prove more dangerous to Rabat than managed withdrawal.


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