″Armed resistance is their only choice″
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.
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.
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.
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.″
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.″
© Qantara.de 2016