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Dropping the Polisario Front, Madrid backs Rabat

The Spanish government's endorsement of Morocco's plan for Western Sahara could have unintended consequences

Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares' statement late on 18 March that Spain views Rabat's plan for 'limited autonomy' to the Western Sahara as 'the most serious, realistic, and credible basis' to end the conflict is an historic policy U-turn and could deepen instability in North Africa. Tensions between Morocco and Algeria, the main supporter of the Sahrawi people's movement for self-determination, are already at boiling point.

Madrid is embarking on a 'new stage' in relations with Morocco, grounded in 'mutual respect, fulfilment of accords, the absence of unilateral actions, and permanent communication and transparency,' said a Spanish government statement. But it was also strongly opposed by the leftist Unidas Podemas party, the junior partner in the coalition government with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Socialist Workers' Party). 

Backing for the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic but total opposition to Morocco's position on Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, has been a staple for leftist parties in Spain. Yolanda Diaz, leader of the Unidas Podemas, condemned Madrid's switch saying she was committed to the defence of the Saharan people and the UN resolution on the territory, which provides for a free and fair referendum on the Western Sahara's status. Prime Minister Sanchez is due in Morocco for a state visit next month.

Arguments over the rights of Western Sahara to self-determination are woven into Spain's political history, dating back to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Disagreement between Sanchez and Diaz over the issue is yet to threaten the cohesion of the ruling coalition although it could hasten its dissolution. The next general elections in Spain are in December 2023.

But it triggered an immediate rupture with Algeria, the Polisario Front's main backer, which recalled its ambassador to Madrid for consultations. Algeria's next steps are unclear but industry experts think it may drive a harder commercial bargain over future gas exports to Spain. Algeria's state-owned Sonatrach has long-term gas supply contracts with Spain but also values its role as Africa's biggest gas supplier to Europe.

That means it would be unlikely to use its supply contracts with Spain as a pressure point but it will take advantage of a sellers' market in the wake of the war in Ukraine. Algeria has two gas pipelines to Europe, one of which is routed through Morocco and is now closed due to the cold war between the two countries. Morocco and Algeria broke off diplomatic relations last year (AC Vol 61 No 25, King reaps Saharan dividend). This latest twist, in the shape of Rabat's diplomatic victory in Madrid, could lead to further tensions between Morocco and Algeria after last year's sabre-rattling (AC Dispatches 14/3/22, Rabat's lobbying of Washington on Western Sahara has paid off).

The Polisario Front's representative to the European Union, Bachir Oubbi Bouchraya, said that Spain had changed its stance on Western Sahara as a condition for assurances on migration control and the restoration of full bilateral relations with Morocco.

Last May, Morocco recalled its ambassador from Madrid after Spain allowed Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali to undergo treatment for Covid-19 at a hospital in northern Spain. In response for that act of solidarity with the Polisario leader, Morocco opened its border into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta to allow the entry of more than 8,000 undocumented migrants who would have the right to travel to mainland Europe (AC Vol 62 No 12, Spain feels M6's fury).

With hours of Spain's change of policy on Western Sahara being made public, Morocco had sent its ambassador, Karima Benyaich, back to Madrid.

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