How the Western Sahara Conflict Holds the Maghreb Back

On the eve of his 100th birthday in May this year, Henry Kissinger told the Wall Street Journal that the world is now divided by a battle between the United States and China and that “the two world wars should have taught that the price one pays even with conventional technology is out of proportion to most objectives that are achievable.” This assessment could also be applied to low-intensity conflicts, depending on their scale, duration, and effects. The Western Sahara conflict, involving Morocco and Algeria, is a case in point.

A high price to pay for the past 50 years of conflict

This Western Sahara conflict has exacted an enormous human, political, geo-strategic, and socio-economic toll, and for the past nearly 50 years, it has been the primary cause of the region’s poor development. The direct victims of the armed conflict number in the tens of thousands and include not only those who have been killed, but the women and men, of all ages and conditions, who have been wounded, conscripted, crippled, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or forced to flee. The political cost has to do with how the conflict has been used to stir up jingoism among the region’s populations and to legitimize authoritarianism, with all the different forms of repression, power grabbing, and corruption that come with it. Acting as secondary players, the countries in question, Algeria, and Morocco, have done everything to gain favor with the major powers, but to the detriment of law, ethics, their own strategic interests, and ultimately to their independence and dignity. Regarding the socio-economic costs of the conflict, in the case of Morocco I made the following (and deliberately conservative) estimates in 2008:


Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

Additional military costs (exceeding world averages).


Investment in the Sahara: exceeding the averages for comparable regions.


“Diplomatic” investments elsewhere: purchases from major powers (such as high-speed trains), donations to “friendly” countries, and the cost of diplomacy.


Remunerations for the Saharawi people: Social aid, tax exemption, trafficking, fictitious jobs.


Neutralization of the rules of good governance: prevalence of rule of law, transparency, fight against abuse, equality of actors, accountability.


Current earnings from the Sahara: Fisheries and phosphates




These estimates are equally relevant to the past 15 years and can largely be applied to Algeria as well. What they suggest is that if the two countries had been able to use a significant portion of the growth numbers squandered since 1975 (let us say two thirds of the 7.6 percent lost, i.e. 5 percent recovered per year), the average growth of their economies would have been 8 percent for Algeria and 9.3 percent for Morocco. The result, for both countries, would be a GDP that is eight times greater than the actual numbers. And that, in turn, would have radically improved their situations by elevating both Morocco and Algeria into the category of emerging countries. Without going into detail, it’s safe to say that ending the Western Sahara conflict and building a united economic Maghreb would also benefit the other countries in the region (Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya), albeit to a lesser degree than for Morocco and Algeria.

Great expectations

Clearly, the Sahara conflict isn’t the only source of strife in the region. But it’s a festering wound, the region’s major stumbling block. Competing claims by Morocco and Algeria over regional leadership also fuel tensions, as do their legacy of historical feuds, mutual accusations of dirty tricks, and cynical use of the “neighbor who wishes us ill” image to legitimize their respective regimes. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that resolving what has been the meta-constraint on regional relations would allow for addressing the other issues in a much more serene, rational, and effective way.

At the outset of the Western Sahara conflict, the Moroccan side had both nationalist and tactical motives. They wanted to drive the Spaniards out and expand territory, shore up popular support for the monarchy, and give what had become a rebellious army, at the time, something to keep it busy. But there were also expectations that the Sahara could be a windfall for Morocco, that there would be riches to be gained underground (hydrocarbons and phosphates), and in the sea (fishing). We assumed that any territory has a positive value and will prove to be profitable when the time comes. We deemed the costs of the operation to be manageable and temporary, and imagined they’d quickly result in a juicy cash machine.

Theory and practice

History proved otherwise, and dramatically so. The costs have been high and long-standing, and the rewards never materialized. The years that followed the outbreak of the conflict – and that coincided with the great oil crises of 1974 and 1979, and the end of the world economy’s “30 glorious years” – dried up the Moroccan state’s reserves, forcing it to adopt increasing austerity measures that culminated in the Structural Adjustment Program of 1983-1993. Morocco ended up agreeing, in 1981, to the principle of Sahrawi self-determination, and to negotiations that would lead to a ceasefire agreement and the establishment of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Since then, the conflict has been bogged down by procrastination and delays. From a legal standpoint, Morocco’s position remains weak, but not to the point where it has to throw in the towel. Its tenacity and outside support make it highly unlikely that Morocco, in the foreseeable future, will face untenable diplomatic pressure or be drawn into a military debacle. The Polisario Front continues to demand implementation of the UN’s promise of a referendum, and Algeria continues to back the separatists, but without going so far as to risk provoking Morocco into a direct war and costly war with an uncertain outcome.

Ending the impasse

It’s clear that in taking the positions they did, neither side envisioned just how long the situation would drag on. Morocco is playing the clock, dragging things out to establish a fait accompli scenario and radically modify the Sahara’s demographic composition. The separatists and their backers are playing the international legitimacy card, knowing, however, that the UN Security Council has no intention of forcing Morocco to accept a solution it would consider inadmissible. The protagonists are thus at an impasse that threatens their very existence, and so it stands to reason that they have every interest in working on a compromise solution. Under pressure from the United States and France, Morocco made a very generous “extended autonomy” proposal in 2007. Different UN resolutions have since described it as “serious, credible and realistic.” For the Polisario Front, accepting autonomy would be seen as a capitulation after a half century of claiming full independence and of bitter sacrifices by refugees. And yet there’s no solving the conflict without compromise, mutual concessions, and a scaling back of each side’s demands.

It may be that a negotiated solution granting the disputed territory greater autonomy but attaching it to Morocco more or less symbolically is the only realistic option for ending the conflict in the foreseeable future. But there’s still a huge stumbling block: the fact that real autonomy and a regime of quasi-absolute monarchical power are impossible to reconcile. The Moroccan monarchy has indicated since at least 2011 that it is open to transforming itself into a parliamentary monarchy. In practice, however, it hasn’t demonstrated any real commitment to the idea, and there’s little reason to trust, at this point, that it ever will. In the meantime, the region continues to advance at a snail’s pace. The Maghreb as a whole is experiencing sluggish growth, with an increase of approximately a million inactive or unemployed people per year. And with a population that is increasingly urbanized, educated, and open to the world, general frustration is on the rise as the regimes in place fail to satisfy people’s needs and expectations.

The days when rulers could command allegiance by maintaining costly conflicts are over. The Maghreb’s elites are duty-bound to end the festering Western Sahara conflict and find a peaceful, lasting, and acceptable solution for all parties. Doing so will require painful concessions on both sides, but it is necessary to lift the burden of latent or open war, to free the long-suffering Sahrawi people from the plight of displacement, and to open a new era of cooperation and development that promises to benefit all the peoples of the region.

Fouad Abdelmoumni is a prominent Moroccan civil society activist and economist with expertise in anti-corruption, development, and micro-finance. Abdelmoumni has chaired Transparency Morocco and is a member of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. 

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