In early 1989, the movement toward Maghribi integration, coupled with signs of a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Western Sahara, generated a great deal of optimism. The reality a year later is far less rosy. The major factor is Morocco’s procrastination in moving forward with the UN peace plan which it, along with the Sahrawi independence movement, Polisario, agreed to in August 1988.

Throughout the 1980s, Algeria took the leading role in bringing together the Maghribi states to form a Maghrib Union. Algeria and Morocco agreed to renew diplomatic relations on May 16, 1988; their joint communique spoke of a “just and definitive solution to the Western Sahara conflict through a free and regular referendum for self-determination held without any constraints whatsoever and with utmost sincerity.” [1] The Saudis, who until then had provided about $1 billion a year to help Morocco wage its war against the Polisario and their Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), seemed eager to help bring an end to the conflict. King Hassan’s offer of Sahrawi autonomy if they decided to remain part of Morocco represented a potentially acceptable formula to all parties. Although the king made it clear that he opposed Sahrawi independence, he did agree to UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar’s peace plan in August 1988, which included the modalities for a ceasefire and a referendum on self-determination.

The Polisario, for its part, reduced its military activities and made concessions regarding the list of voters (based on the 1974 Spanish census). Polisario also agreed to a vote on either independence or integration with Morocco, despite the fact that in 1975 the International Court of Justice found no basis for Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Due mainly to pressures from Algeria, France and Saudi Arabia, King Hassan met with Polisario representatives on January 4 and 5, 1989. He argued shortly thereafter that he had met with “Moroccan subjects.” Polisario, despite this provocation and the SADR’s absence from Maghrib unity talks, declared a unilateral ceasefire which it observed until September 24.

Once the Arab Maghrib Union was proclaimed in mid-February 1989, though, King Hassan made a volte-face on the Sahara issue. In Morocco, the king has made it clear that he had no intention of relinquishing the Western Sahara, despite his international commitment to a referendum. He has made “repossession of the provinces” a mobilizing call. At the Maghrib level, King Hassan tried to use regional integration to wean Algeria away from the SADR, and to present the SADR as an impediment to Maghrib unity. By agreeing to the UN peace plan, the king reduced Morocco’s international isolation and prevented further recognition of the SADR by other nations. [2] He has tried to solidify his US support by offering to base NATO’s F16s in Morocco after their removal from Spain and agreeing to allow US and NATO low-level flight exercises — now restricted in Germany — on Moroccan soil.

Why, at a time when many Third World regional conflicts have experienced substantial progress toward resolution, has the conflict in Western Sahara taken a turn for the worse? The key factor is Moroccan domestic politics. King Hassan skillfully made it a question upon which to test “national” resolve and distract attention from political and socioeconomic dilemmas. Hassan had hoped that the sharp rise in phosphate prices in 1974 — Western Sahara is a territory extremely rich in phosphates and other minerals — would solve the country’s economic problems. But prices fell sharply in 1975-1976 and again in 1981-1982, leaving Morocco no means of repaying its heavy borrowing in the international financial market. The Western Sahara war has absorbed considerable resources, despite assistance from the US, France and conservative Arab regimes. In September 1989, in compliance with International Monetary Fund demands, the government abolished food subsidies as a first stage of financial restructuring. Prices for bread and other basic foods have recently gone up 6 to 10 percent. The palace attributes the austerity measures to the Sahara war.

Along with military spending, Morocco has pursued another policy to pacify the Sahara. Beginning in 1976, King Hassan designated Western Sahara a special development zone, investing billions of dollars in Layoune and Smara. Construction of an international airport, a 35,000-seat stadium, an ultra-modern hotel, a hospital, a long highway (Tan Tan-Layoune-Dakhla) and two coastal ports (Layoune and Boujdour), were made possible through “national solidarity taxes.” Furthermore, Moroccan settlers got very attractive incentives, such as double wages, tax exemptions and subsidized housing. Sahrawis get high-paying administrative positions to keep them away from politics, and often to induce them to relocate in the north.

One of the more spectacular examples is that of Omar Hadrami, director of military security for Polisario until 1988. Hadrami defected to Morocco in August 1989 after disputes with his comrades led to his demotion in Polisario. His decision was reportedly induced by Moroccan offers of large sums of money. On January 19, 1990, he was offered a high-level post in the Moroccan Interior Ministry. Hadrami’s testimony became the centerpiece of a costly Moroccan effort to influence international opinion, including an eight-page, $1 million advertising supplement in Time magazine in November and December 1989.

These efforts have not been entirely successful. Moroccans are increasingly upset with these expenditures. More importantly, Sahrawi “hearts and minds” have not been won. Sahrawi nationalism remains intact. And the king’s policy has made holding a referendum more difficult. Losing the Sahara through a referendum could cost King Hassan his throne.

Before his trip to Spain in September 1989, the king declared that “there is nothing to negotiate [with Polisario] because Western Sahara is Moroccan territory.” [3] Polisario’s response came in the form of a devastating attack against Moroccan forces in Western Sahara, beginning a series of military incursions against the fortified walls. Not only were these attacks a rebuke to those who claimed that Polisario was no longer a credible force, but they also demonstrated Algeria’s tacit approval. Their message was quite clear: Either the Western Sahara conflict is resolved in a fair manner or the idea of a united Maghrib is doomed.

What is puzzling is that King Hassan is quite aware of what is at stake. Why is he willing to sacrifice Maghribi integration — perhaps the best guarantee for the survival of the monarchy — for this inflated Moroccan nationalism? The king’s daring moves are partly the result of the contradictory signals he receives from his international friends who, while encouraging him to find a peaceful solution, continue to provide him with the weapons and money to continue the war.


[1] New York Times, May 17, 1988. Morocco had broken relations in March 1976 following Algeria’s recognition of the SADR.
[2] To date, 74 countries have officially recognized the SADR.
[3] ABC (Spain), September 24, 1989.

How to cite this article:

Yahia Zoubir "Western Sahara Conflict Impedes Maghrib Unity," Middle East Report 163 (March/April 1990).

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