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Morocco faces an ultimate test of government with Western Sahara

Morocco faces an ultimate test of government with Western Sahara
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Morocco made headlines as the latest Arab country to normalize relations with Israel, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. This critical action will facilitate the resumption of diplomatic ties, encourage “economic and technological” partnerships, and allow for direct flights between Morocco and Israel. Morocco is also the ancestral home of one million Jews, and over 50,000 Israelis travel to Morocco each year.

But the deal comes with the recognition of the claim of sovereignty by Morocco over the contested territory of the Western Sahara, essentially endorsing the autonomy plan of Morocco as the only framework for the negotiation of any resolution with the Polisario Front. The United States decision in the struggle over the Western Sahara marks a radical shift of policy toward one of the most intractable conflicts in the region.

Despite fueling a certain amount of unease within Morocco, the decision to normalize relations with Israel is broadly viewed as a positive move for its international standing, especially in improving relations with the Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, with the additional strategic gain of recognition of its claims over the Western Sahara.

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Having sought the territory as part of its foreign policy over the last four decades, the monarchy considers this a major diplomatic win. However, the surprising endorsement of its claim will nonetheless serve as a test for the ability of Morocco to mandate an effective local administration in line with its advanced regional plan. There is irony that the plan, a cornerstone of a strong pluralistic Morocco, will grant a certain level of autonomy to the Western Sahara, albeit still under its sovereignty.

The deal comes in the wake of a ceasefire that fell apart last month after Morocco sent forces into a United Nations zone to curb protests and a trade blockade. The Polisario Front, a nationalist movement backed by Algeria that has pursued independence and claims the territory, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic responded angrily to these recent developments and are likely to feel backed into a corner and justified in resuming hostilities. If Algeria, where the Polisario Front has bases and camps, intervenes then greater unrest could ensue.

The Western Sahara dispute was kindled in 1975 following the withdrawal of Spain, leaving Morocco, Mauritania, and the Polisario Front at odds over the territory. An advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice that year recognized the ties of Morocco and Mauritania, but claimed that they did not amount to an ownership of the Western Sahara. Instead, it favored determination by the Sahrawis. A 1991 deal installed a peace system that called for preserving the status until a referendum could be held, but that never happened as both sides worked to shift the demographics of the area. Morocco today controls the majority of the territory.

The Bou Craa mine in the Western Sahara is home to one of the largest reserves in the world of phosphate, a critical ingredient in agricultural fertilizer. Its production capacity, operated by a subsidiary of a mining company owned by Morocco, is about 8 percent of the total extraction capacity of the mining company. The Western Sahara also has lucrative fisheries, an important sector that has grown under central government control. It is also believed that there are substantial offshore oil and gas reserves that could bolster the local economy. But southwest Algeria, where the Polisario Front camps are located, is arid and desolate.

Because Morocco has been striving to validate its control of the Western Sahara, the United States decision is a major victory for the country. In spite of some discomfort at home with the perceived repudiation of the Palestinian cause, national fervor about the Western Sahara overshadows anxieties about a deal with Israel and its outcomes. The real challenge for Morocco is the integration of the Western Sahara.

Is it possible for the Sahrawi culture to survive within Morocco? Algeria has supported the Sahrawi cause. But these recent events may provide an opportunity to settle on a plan where Sahrawi society can survive within the context of a pluralistic Morocco. If the Western Sahara is to become part of Morocco, it does not need to dissolve itself. The true test will be for Morocco to show that it can transfer government duties and enable local administration of the Western Sahara territory that shows its identity and people as part of a Morocco that is diverse and inclusive.

Patricia Karam is regional director of the Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute that works to promote democracy.