Many European countries claim a special relationship with the Arab world. The English see themselves as having some unique affinity for Arabs, because of their colonial role in developing Egypt and the Anglo-Bedouin fraternizations of Arabia. The French vaunt their cultural impact upon the Maghreb, Lebanon and Syria. The Italians point to bonds of Mediterranean communality, the Germans stress their lack of colonial involvement, the Greeks evoke their role as the yefira, the bridge, between Europe and the Arabs. Even the Irish have their version of this vocation, based on a history of anti-colonial struggle. The Spanish are no exception. Under Franco and his successors Spain has claimed to have a particular relation with the Arab world, and Juan Carlos, the Hispanic monarch, makes much of his personal ties to King Hussein of Jordan and the Saudi rulers.

Neither culture nor geography alone are the cement of such Euro-Arab bonds: throughout the centuries the real link has been money. It is this, above all, which explains why one European nation has conspicuously rejected the mantle of an Arab vocation: the Dutch established a commercial empire that circumvented the Arab world, to base itself on the southern tip of Africa and in the Indonesian archipelago. The Netherlands has long prided itself on having a special relationship to Israel, its contemporary presence in the Arab world concealed behind the molluscular anonymity of Shell.

The Spanish claim to a special Arab link rests upon a curious, historically deep but currently nervous sensibility. The present political-diplomatic claim derives from one simple fact: that under Franco’s rule, which lasted until 1975, Spain never recognized Israel. His successors have gone further by granting a form of diplomatic recognition to the PLO. Spanish-Israeli antipathy has been mutual. The Israelis wanted little to do with a regime that had been an open ally of Nazi Germany’s: while anti-Semitism played a comparatively small part in the ideology of Spanish fascism, and a Jewish community grew under Franco, the association with Nazism made Franco repugnant to Israelis. The Spaniards, for their part, wanted to maintain as much support in the Arab world as they could, in order to head off criticism of Spain’s continued colonial possessions in North Africa. After World War II, these included the Spanish Sahara, the enclaves of Ifni, Ceuta and Melilla, claimed by Morocco, and the Canary Islands, claimed by the Organization of African Unity. While the Sahara and Ifni are gone (evacuated in 1976 and 1969 respectively), the other three remain. The Sahara is still an issue in Spanish politics: since its withdrawal, Spain has continued to take an interest in this former colony. Both Christian Democrat and Socialist governments have expressed some sympathy for Polisario.

Spanish concern about the Sahara is a result of a much more important factor in Spanish foreign policy than colonial residues, however. For it bears directly upon the question of Morocco and the threat which the Alawite monarchy is seen as presenting to Spain’s interests. Indeed, this underlines what is unique about Spain’s relationship with the Arab world, one that distinguishes it from all other European states: the fact of geographical continuity with the Arab world. This proximity has its well-known historical dimension: the fact that Spain was ruled by the Arabs for several centuries, that its language remains impregnated with Arab vocabulary, and that the very territory itself claimed by Spain, from Britain, bears the name Gibraltar or Jabal Tariq (Mountain of Tariq), after the military leader Tariq ibn Ziyad who invaded Spain in 711 A.D. Above all, for Spaniards, the constitutive moment of national and religious liberation and assertion was the expulsion of the Arabs in 1492. The naval wars against Arab forces — so-called pirates — that continued through later centuries and the ongoing conflicts with Arabs on the North African mainland sustained this memory.

The constitution of Spain’s national ideology — one of “national-Catholicism” — was therefore a product of the conflict with the Arab world. Yet it had another subordinate but non-contradictory, element, namely the subsequent expulsion from Spain of the Jews. The diffusion of the Spanish and later Ladino-speaking communities of Sephardic Jews across the Mediterranean and eastern Europe was another product of the national emancipation of 1492. Spain’s dominant ideology was, therefore, comprehensively directed against both Arabs and Jews. Yet whereas the conflict with the Arab world was sustained by later disputes, and by its predominance in the late 15th century itself, that with the Jews played a less prominent role: the rise of anti-Semitism within modern Spain was muted by the absence of a Jewish community within Spain itself.

The place of North Africa in the “national-Catholic” ideology was given new life by the role of the Maghrebi colonies in the onset of the 1936 counter-revolution. The Spanish army itself had been seriously discredited by the long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the Cuban insurgents that ended in 1898. The defeat in Cuba had effects on Spain similar to those of the Algerian revolution on France and Vietnam on the US. The reestablishment of the Spanish army’s legitimacy was made possible via another colonial domain, North Africa. In the 1920s the army was involved in suppressing Arab uprisings, and in this campaign special honors went to a young artillery officer, Francisco Franco. Franco’s first move in July 1936, when the civil war began, was to stage an uprising by the army in Africa. During the war itself he relied to a considerable extent on Arab mercenaries recruited to the fascist forces.

Thus the North African colonies have a special place in the ideology of the Spanish army. Today these mean not so much the Canaries — where no serious Moroccan threat is envisaged — but the two enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, with 1981 populations of 71,000 and 58,000 respectively. Their españolidad, or Spanishness, is unquestioned in the eyes of the Spanish right, on the grounds of historic association and the fact that the majority of their populations are, it is claimed, Spaniards. They serve as duty-free ports for visitors from the Spanish mainland on day-trips, and rely on large numbers of Arab workers and smugglers who come over from Morocco itself. The Spanish “majority” is ensured by stationing lots of Spanish troops there. For all the chicanery, and shades of every colonial fraud from Guantanamo to the Falkland Islands, these parts of North Africa have a direct impact upon Spanish politics. The central aim of any current Spanish government is to prevent another military coup: the memory of 1936 and the quite serious attempted coup of February 1981, as well as the continued killings around the Basque issue, make this a present danger. No Spanish government can risk antagonizing the army on such a sensitive issue. The defense of Spanish democracy begins therefore on the North African shore.

This curious set of priorities also means that Spain’s whole defense posture is angled towards the possibility of war with Morocco. In late 1982, the Spanish airforce justified the purchase of McDonnell-Douglas F-18s on the specific grounds that the jets were suited to war with Morocco. This concern also explains why the PSOE, or Socialist Party, altered its policy towards Polisario when it came into office in November 1982: it now wanted to do as little as possible to antagonize Hassan II of Morocco.

Hassan II has not laid great stress on the Moroccan claims. He has recovered Ifni and the Sahara already, and he once told Franco that the question of Ceuta and Melilla would have to wait for their children. But Spain remains nervous about Hassan’s policies, and even more so about the prospect of a more radical military or Islamic government coming to power in Morocco which would press the claims as a part of achieving national legitimacy. This Moroccan obsession helps to explain why the PSOE, although keen to build up its relations with Israel, has hesitated in actually establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

The objections from Israel’s side ended with the death of Franco in 1975, and contacts between the two countries have increased greatly since the advent of the PSOE to power. Common membership in the Socialist International, increased tourism, and visits to Israel by virtually all PSOE leaders have consolidated ties. The intelligence services of the two states collaborate on “anti-terrorist” issues. There is pressure from within the trade unions and from what is now a Spanish Jewish community of around 12,000 members, for recognition to take place. Contacts of an unofficial kind also exist through two surrogate embassies — the Spanish consul in Jerusalem, a holdover from before 1967, and a recently-appointed permanent Israeli mission to the International Tourism Organization, a body with its headquarters in Madrid but with no other permanent missions attached to it. The Moroccan concern, combined with a fear of Arab economic sanctions, and distaste for the rightwing Likud government, have all slowed down a process that must ultimately end the non-recognition situation. It remains to be seen whether such recognition comes bilaterally, or through some wider process of diplomatic alignment as Spain joins the EEC.

The most burning foreign policy issue in Spain today is that of membership in NATO. Spain has had military agreements with the US since 1953, but is still not fully part of NATO. Before coming to power, the PSOE promised to hold a referendum on the subject; it seems, according to polls, that the majority of the Spanish population are against remaining in NATO. But the armed forces are in favor and they are using their favorite argument to push their case: that if Spain does not join NATO, the US will not support it fully in a future war with Morocco. The impact of this on US policy over any future Spanish-Moroccan war, indeed on encouraging Morocco to launch such a war, is evident enough. The recent pact signed between Morocco and Libya has certainly decreased the likelihood of the US actually favoring Morocco. But it has increased the military threat which Spain sees itself as facing, since the Moroccan forces will now be able to draw on planes and missiles in the possession of the Libyans. Remote as the prospect of such a combined Moroccan-Libyan assault on Ceuta and Melilla may be, it has added a new dimension to what is now becoming a major debate in Spain, one expected to dominate the next congress of the Socialist Party scheduled for December. So, it is claimed, defense of North Africa, and thereby the guarantee of the armed forces’ loyalty, requires membership in NATO.

As the 500th anniversary of Spain’s expulsion of the Arabs draws near, it seems that the place of the Arab world in Spain’s domestic affairs remains both special and menacing. Spain is, ironically, the one country in Western Europe which has had direct experience of a Soviet military attempt to intervene in its internal politics, during the civil war. But in the approach to the NATO decision it is the perdurance of the Arab threat, not the supposed menaces of Moscow, which seems to be weighing most in the minds of Spain’s politicians. Ferdinand and Isabela would no doubt have approved of these reasons for joining the North Atlantic Alliance.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Letter From Madrid," Middle East Report 127 (September/October 1984).

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