Western Sahara: Can Trump’s Tweet Generate International Leverage to Broker a Credible Solution?

31 March 2021   ·   Haizam Amirah-Fernández, Isabelle Werenfels

Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the contested territory of the Western Sahara was a game changer in the decades-long conflict. While inconsistent with international law, paradoxically, it could open up a way for international actors to press Morocco and pro-independence Sahrawis to negotiate a lasting political solution.

The dispute over the territory of the former Spanish Sahara had been largely absent from the international agenda prior to 10 December 2020, when President Trump, having lost his re-election one month earlier, issued a presidential proclamation recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over that non-self-governing territory. He made no secret of the terms of his transaction: Morocco would get its much-sought recognition of its de facto control over the Western Sahara in exchange for Rabat announcing that it would establish full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. Clearly, the main objective of that unilateral and unprecedented decision – announced via Twitter – was to add one more Arab country to the list of those normalising relations with Israel. While President Biden may not fully share his predecessor’s analysis, methods and decision, he cannot ignore the new realities. At least four factors influence an eventual U.S. policy reassessment: the need to uphold international law, to advance multilateralism, to avoid setting a troublesome precedent, and to prevent the destabilisation of the Maghreb which could have dangerous ramifications in the Western Mediterranean and the African continent.

An Unresolved Situation May Lead to Regional Destabilisation

Indeed, the risk of regional destabilisation cannot be neglected. Inflammatory rhetoric between Morocco and Algeria has been on the rise. For Algiers, the strongest backer of the Polisario Front and Morocco’s main strategic rival, alluding to external threats serves to distract from multiple domestic challenges. The Polisario Front, fighting for Sahrawi independence, shows through military stings that it is not willing to accept an imposed solution. MINURSO, designed as a mission to prepare a referendum but not to keep warring parties apart, is in no position to prevent military confrontation, as the past months have shown. Rabat for its part appears both emboldened and nervous. It suspended all contacts with the German Embassy, political foundations and other cooperation agencies in Morocco in early March 2021. This is likely a warning shot to ensure that Germany or other European countries do not lean toward the Polisario Front and Algeria, particularly as a new ruling by the European Court of Justice – pertaining to the legality of Moroccan exports from the Western Sahara to the EU – is expected before the end of the year and likely to fundamentally rock relations with Europe.

What may compound Moroccan anxieties is domestic pressure on Biden to reconsider Trump’s decision. A letter sent by a bipartisan group of 27 senators to President Biden in February 2021 asks him to reverse his predecessor’s “misguided decision” and make sure that the U.S. does not reward “decades of bad behaviour”, manifested in “Morocco’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith”. The fact that some of the leading signatories of this letter have a strong pro-Israel record suggests that the “Israel factor” might not provide Morocco with as much leverage as many observers initially assumed.

The Way Forward for the Biden Administration: Three Scenarios

At the time of writing, the new U.S. administration still has to make an unequivocal statement defining its position on the Western Sahara conflict. Three scenarios can be envisaged: In a rather unlikely case, Biden does it Trump’s way. The U.S. would move ahead and fully recognise the “Moroccanness” of the Western Sahara by opening a physical consulate in the territory and expanding its 2006 Free Trade Agreement with Morocco to include the Western Sahara. In a second scenario, the U.S. backpedals and Biden reverts Trump’s presidential proclamation and insists on process-oriented diplomacy in accordance with international law. This not very likely scenario would lead to the return to the status quo ex-ante and prolong the stalemate indefinitely. A third possible scenario is that the Biden administration uses the leverage resulting from Trump’s decision to engage with all concerned parties to broker a solution. This would be the result of a realisation by Biden that, while Trump’s proclamation is a game changer, it falls short of providing a sustainable solution to the conflict and thus risks more instability in North Africa.

International Actors Have a Window to Push for Direct Peace Negotiations

The current uncertainty for all actors is good news for a renewed UN process toward a negotiated solution, as it will get all parties out of their comfort zone. Yet it requires that key actors – European governments, including Germany and Spain, together with the U.S. administration and the African Union – push for a number of concrete steps. A sine qua non is filling the position of the personal envoy of the UN Secretary General for Western Sahara – quite a challenge, given obstruction by the parties and limited chances to shine in the position – as well as negotiating a ceasefire.

The main challenge lies in getting the parties to engage in direct negotiations and to soften their positions. Both sides have drawn redlines for years. Morocco has made it clear that it intends to engage in negotiations only if they remain within the framework of granting the territory some sort of autonomy as part of the kingdom, and has insisted on Algeria being part of talks; the Polisario Front demands that a referendum on independence must remain an option.

On the Sahrawi side, a number of factors may propel the Polisario Front to consider what a solution short of full independence could look like. These include the accumulation of recent diplomatic setbacks, such as the opening of numerous African and other consulates in the Moroccan controlled Western Sahara. Also, an international consensus that autonomy is the most realistic solution has grown stronger over the years. A recent example was a statement made by the German ambassador to Morocco.

A Compromise for Autonomy for the Western Sahara Must Be Accepted by All Actors

Against the backdrop of autonomy, international actors may view the Polisario Front as the main obstacle to a political settlement. Yet, a solution aiming at guaranteeing true self-governance for the Sahrawis would come with a substantial price tag for Rabat as well. For one, it may raise demands for self-governance in other Moroccan regions, namely the Rif in the north of the country. Second and importantly, Sahrawi self-governance would test the Moroccan monarchy’s capacity to let go of its strongly centralised grip. Autonomy that deserves its name would imply that Sahrawis democratically choose their future executive without interference by the monarchy, even if the King remains the formal head of the territory.

Given the large number of Moroccans that have settled in the region, mechanisms for ensuring adequate Sahrawi political representation would be necessary. Autonomy would also require granting a substantial degree of control to the region’s executive over revenues from natural resources in the Western Sahara. Furthermore, to ensure the legitimacy of any final status arrangement, a referendum is vital to fulfil the legal requirement for self-determination. Last but not least, robust international guarantees for supervising the implementation of the agreement are indispensable if the Polisario Front is to be persuaded into accepting anything other than independent statehood.

The EU Should Use Its Leverage to Persuade Morocco to a Negotiated Solution

Hence, the question is how to get Morocco to stand by its word of autonomy and negotiate a final status for Western Sahara in a way that it is acceptable and trustworthy for the other party. A common push by key Security Council players – the U.S., France and Russia – as well as Algeria is essential. For example, including a human rights monitoring mechanism in the mandate of MINURSO, applicable both in the disputed territory and in the Sahrawi camps in Tindouf, would draw more international attention to eventual human rights violations by both parties. This would demonstrate that the Security Council is determined to raise the cost of inaction for any party not ready to move forward.

The EU too may gain new leverage should the European Court of Justice’s ruling expected for later in 2021 imply renegotiating economic ties with Morocco. Given Morocco’s determination to play hardball when it comes to the Western Sahara, European countries that have long considered it beneficial to keep the status quo may face an uncomfortable trade-off: Pay the price of temporarily rocky relations with Morocco in order to reach a lasting solution to a conflict that presents a threat to stability in the EU’s southern neighbourhood.

The U.S. Holds the Trump Card to Advance a Solution

But it is the Biden administration that is in the strongest position to persuade all parties to negotiate in good faith toward reaching a mutually acceptable solution: It can make clear that, if the parties fail to do so within a certain time period, the U.S. will withdraw its recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. A return to the old status quo would be a major setback for Morocco, and at the same time it would not help advance the cause of the Sahrawis to have a dignified life in the land of their ancestors.

Naher Osten & Nordafrika Friedenseinsätze United Nations

Haizam Amirah-Fernández

Haizam Amirah-Fernández is Senior Analyst for the Mediterranean and Arab World at Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid. @HaizamAmirah

Isabelle Werenfels

Isabelle Werenfels is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP, German Institute for International and Security Affairs) in Berlin. @iswerenfelsi