Western Sahara – the last colony in Africa

″Armed resistance is their only choice″

With Rabat′s latest Dakhla proposal promising even deeper economic penetration of Western Sahara, many Sahrawis are left wondering if a referendum favouring independence can ever undo Morocco′s presence in the territory. Report from Dakhla by Matthew Greene

Twenty five years ago Dakhla was a remote, impoverished fishing village on the tip of a narrow peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara Desert. Since then, the city has become host to an array of beach resorts, international hotels and sprawling residential neighbourhoods. The changes have also brought new residents, with the population of Dakhla quadrupling as a result.

Dakhla′s transformation has been part of a Moroccan strategy to rebrand the settlement as one of the economic anchors in the disputed Western Sahara, famously dubbed the ″last colony in Africa.″ The Kingdom has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and social projects in the region to develop local infrastructure and improve living standards. Morocco now wants to broaden its ambitions and place Dakhla at the centre of a vision to establish the Sahara as a major African economic hub.

Capital of the Sahara

Earlier this month, Moroccan King Mohammed VI confirmed plans to build a 550 million euro deepwater port just north of the city. The facility, which will be supported by new transport infrastructure linking Dakhla to major Moroccan cities to the north and Mauritania to the south, hopes to promote trade with Morocco′s southern neighbours and anchor the country as a staging post between Africa and Europe. If successful, maritime industry experts predict the new port will ″revolutionise″ Dakhla into the economic capital of the Sahara.

Dakhla in the Western Sahara (photo: Matthew Greene)
Visions of future prosperity: "Dakhla′s transformation has been part of a Moroccan strategy to rebrand the settlement as one of the economic anchors in the disputed Western Sahara, famously dubbed the ″last colony in Africa.″ The Kingdom has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and social projects in the region to develop local infrastructure and improve living standards. Morocco now wants to broaden its ambitions and place Dakhla at the centre of a vision to establish the Sahara as a major African economic hub," writes Greene

Government officials expect the site to create tens of thousands of jobs, stimulate local manufacturing and attract foreign investment to the region. Morocco has already committed over $3 billion to development programmes in the Dakhla region this year, in sectors ranging from renewable energy and agriculture to projects promoting the local Saharawi culture. They adhere to a sustainable development model that the government says will spur private sector growth while improving regional governance.

Above all, Dakhla′s pending development seeks to enhance connectivity and help complete the economic and cultural integration of the southern provinces into the Moroccan mainland. The move toward a more unified Morocco is likely to have consequences on the future political status of Western Sahara.

Condemned by Ban Ki-Moon

The announcement to convert Dakhla into a continental trade hub comes at a time when tensions over Western Sahara have reached their highest point since a UN ceasefire was brokered in 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario Front. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stirred controversy in March during a visit to a Sahrawi refugee camp where he described Morocco′s annexation of the territory as an ″occupation.″ The comments led Morocco to expel dozens of UN staff from the country and demand the closure its MINURSO office, the peacekeeping mission responsible for monitoring the ceasefire.

Morocco has endured criticism over its economic interests in Western Sahara since it annexed the territory in 1976. Many Sahrawis, including officials with the exiled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), accuse Morocco of exploiting the territory′s valuable natural resources which they insist belong to the Sahrawi people. The region is believed to be rich in phosphate, although Morocco rejects this claim.

Protests against UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in March 2016, following his "last colony in Africa" comment about the Western Sahara (photo: picutre-alliance/AP/A. Bounhar)
Having enraged the Kingdom by referring to Morocco's "occupation" of the Western Sahara, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon would appear to have backed down. In his much anticipated report, "The Situation Concerning Western Sahara" published in April, the tone is conciliatory: "I have repeatedly made it clear that nothing I had said or done had been meant to take sides, express hostility to the Kingdom of Morocco, or signal any change in the approach of the United Nations to the Western Sahara issue".

Moreover, critics see Morocco′s economic pursuits as complicating the terms of the settlement agreement in which Sahrawis are to vote in an independent referendum on the political fate of Western Sahara. With Rabat′s latest Dakhla proposal promising even deeper economic penetration of Western Sahara, many Sahrawis are left wondering if a referendum favouring independence can ever undo Morocco′s presence in the territory.

″Diplomatic victory″

According to Jacob Mundy, a professor at Colgate University, the Dakhla announcement fits squarely within Morocco′s desire to entrench itself in Western Sahara. ″Such projects clearly aim to foreclose the possibility of the territory′s independence, but also to create interdependence between Western Sahara and Morocco such that it complicates any effort on the part of the international community to cut the baby in half.″

"Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution" by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy
As Jacob Mundy, professor at Colgate University and an expert on the conflict points out, Morocco has positioned itself as a key ally of Saudi Arabia and the West in North Africa, sharing intelligence with the United States and even playing host to at least one of the CIA’s controversial black sites. This brings the US closely into line with France, already staunchly on Morocco’s side in the dispute

Mundy makes no great distinction between Morocco′s hub vision for Dakhla and the development policies of the 1990′s that awarded military elites with property and lucrative business contracts to encourage settlement to the region. ″As the Moroccan monarchy has increasingly become a transnational conglomerate; it’s only natural that it would use development in Western Sahara to further its domestic and global ambitions.″

In Dakhla, there are signs that economic growth is helping to politically normalise Morocco′s claim to Western Sahara. After hosting the Crans Montana Forum for a second straight year, analysts observed that the event marked a ″diplomatic victory″ for Rabat by implicitly recognising the territory as Moroccan. The city is also emerging as a popular tourism destination for camping and water sports. The growing number of Western tourists frequenting Dakhla is helping erase any appearance of an ongoing geopolitical dispute.

Sahrawis out of options

Last November, on the 40th anniversary of the Green March, King Mohammed VI reiterated the Kingdom′s position on the Sahara question. He vowed that Morocco would not capitulate to international pressures and would push forward with plans for the Sahara. The pending projects scheduled for Dakhla do not suggest otherwise.

For younger Sahrawis who continue to hold out hope for a referendum, patience is waning. They refute the Moroccan government′s claims that investment in cities like Dakhla is for their benefit. Rather, they contend that government programmes offering jobs, tax breaks, low-cost housing and subsidies on basic commodities are not designed for the indigenous population, but draw more Moroccans to the region and skew the demographics in any vote against their favour.

Many Saharawis believe their future options are running out as they watch Morocco continue to consolidate its hold on Western Sahara. ″Naturally,″ says Mundy, some Saharawis feel that armed resistance is their only choice left.″

Matthew Greene

© Qantara.de 2016

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Comments for this article: ″Armed resistance is their only choice″

This article is not fair and neutral , you just repeat every propoaganda lies that the Polisario separatists repeat like "annexation" or "africa last colony"

Anonymous23.05.2016 | 16:48 Uhr

Western Saharawi are really fed up with the Africa Last Calumny created by algeria in the 70' to plot the Moroccan regime. We all know the genesis of polisario, the genesis of Western Sahara issue and we all hope that algeria will stop its stubbornness on the WS issue. We deserve to live in peace in our beloved and peaceful territory. Can you hear it algeria? Much appreciated.

Thanks algeria for your comprehension.

Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad
Unionist Western Saharawi - Internet Activist

Ahmed Salem Amr...25.05.2016 | 15:33 Uhr

This is rather the silly article. It feels like it was phoned in from 1995.
Quoting a rather Lefty (by the arch jargon he uses) academic who dismisses Moroccan investment (often silly and wasteful) in the W. Sahara, connecting it with Moroccan "military elite" (err, Morocco is not Algeria, mate - the big families aren't military connected at all) is ... well just laughably poorly informed.
The Moroccan economy overall certainly suffers from wealth distribution issues typical of its income class, and there is a real problem with concentration of wealth with big families (not military connected, that's just.... bizarre importation of Algerian thinking - Fassi political class connected), this hardly drives the Sahara strategy. Nor is it does it particularly have much to do with the King's own private business holdings - they're not hard to track down really, given the listed entities - which like everything else in Morocco is concentrated up in the "Maroc utile" as the French put it a century ago - north Western Morocco where 70% of GDP is generated.
The reality is that W. Sahara is not a viable geography for a state and just because at the end of the 19th century the Spanish came in, as colonizers, and drew some theoretical lines, doesn't make it a viable entity. There's a damn good reason why in pre-colonial history, it was the Saharan tribes who came north to Maroc Utile on Jihad to set themselves up as ruling dynasties, and the Saharan region remained largely stateless. These regions are not economically viable for States (hell pre modern states, never mind modern states) except at minimal population densities. The idea of natural resource wealth is pure economic illiteracy - we have now nearly a century of post-colonial independence economic history to see that rather clearly. One need not adopt the Moroccan PoV (of course they're blatently delaying and avoiding referendum - their diplomacy is painfully clumsy to the point of idiocy in this area) to see the idea of a Polisario (which one knows is basically on an Algerian life-line and sadly Algerian policy remains frozen by a group of aging general stuck in their 1970s moment) return to armed combat would be a complete disaster for them. With the examples of Libya and Syria, and the rise of Al Qaeda and DAESH there's no viable option there.
Again an extremely silly, poorly informed (re the economics and political framing) article phoned in from 1995... (of course Polisario rather seems stuck in 1995 as well).

William Fellows29.05.2016 | 12:04 Uhr