Until 1975 it was a non-self-governing territory legally recognized as being administered by the European colonial power of Spain. Instead of achieving independence when Spain withdrew, Western Sahara and its offshore waters were seized by Morocco in what many observers view as a settler-colonial occupation. Moroccan control, which is considered illegal under international law, has lasted for more than 40 years. The recognition by President Donald Trump’s administration of full Moroccan sovereignty over the territory in December 2020 precipitated a new phase of the conflict, characterized by an escalation of pressure from Moroccan diplomats to secure continued international support. US recognition also attracted foreign investment to the occupied territories. These recent changes have reinforced the occupation and further marginalized the Indigenous Sahrawi population, whose mother tongue is Hassaniya and who belong to some of the tribes that inhabited the Western Sahara during the Spanish colonial period (1884–1975).
Long before 2020, the Moroccan regime consolidated control over Western Sahara by facilitating the arrival and establishment of a settler population. The development of the fisheries sector in Western Sahara’s cities has particularly strengthened its occupation. Private and public investments and tax advantages enabled the sector’s rapid development, which in turn boosted other economic activities. The settler population, which moved from Moroccan cities to meet the new demand for manpower, often settled in shantytowns, creating a feeling of injustice when their expectations of finding a better life in Western Sahara were not satisfied. After the Moroccan regime changed its approach to settlement in the territory with the implementation of a new housing policy in early 2010, the settler population went from feeling marginalized to forming a critical part of the occupation strategy. This shift in settlers’ living conditions has ensured their definitive settlement in the colony and their involvement in the conflict.
The Occupation of the Sea
The fisheries sector in the Sahrawi coastal cities was practically non-existent during the first years of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. The armed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front that began after Spain left the territory in 1975 did not cease until 1991 (three years after the signing of the Houston Agreement) when the parties agreed to hold a self-determination referendum organized by the United Nations. Initially, the Moroccan authorities had opted for the strategic development of deep-sea fishing, using large vessels capable of freezing their products at sea. The government gave significant public assistance and fishing permits to Moroccan operators hailing from powerful families—including the royal family itself—through the creation of Marona, a subsidiary of the Omnium Nord-Africain (ONA) holding company, and to senior military officers. Since factions within the Moroccan military had led two attempts to dethrone the monarch in 1971 and 1972, the “recovery” of Western Sahara—framed in a discourse of Moroccan irredentism—formed part of a strategy to re-legitimize the monarchy and redefine the relationship between the monarchy and the military.
Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara ensured a Moroccan presence in its territorial waters with these large vessels. In fact, in 1996 the number of freezer vessels dedicated to octopus—a highly profitable species on the international market found primarily in the waters adjacent to Western Sahara—had risen to 273 out of a total of 331 active boats. As this data shows, the development of Moroccan deep-sea fishing along with the annexation of Western Sahara paved the way for the occupation of the sea.
It was not until the mid-1990s that the fisheries sector truly began to develop, with the two main Sahrawi coastal cities of Dakhla and Laayoune specializing in different species. An important artisanal octopus sector developed in Dakhla thanks to the city’s proximity to one of the richest fishing grounds for this coveted species. Laayoune is home to a significant industry for the fishing of pelagic species, mostly sardines, which are caught from vessels that can remain at sea for a number of days but have almost no freezing capacity. The development of both sectors was possible thanks to private Moroccan and Sahrawi investments, as well as foreign joint ventures, that enabled the acquisition of vessels and establishment of industrial facilities for processing and freezing. Financing was provided by semi-public banks that benefited from Moroccan tax benefits. These investments, in turn, created an important demand for manpower that could not be met by the native Sahrawi population.
The Rapid Development of the Fisheries Sector
The proliferation of industrial octopus freezing facilities in Dakhla required technicians who specialize in refrigeration, as well as electricians and plumbers, and stimulated the demand for artisanal fishermen who catch the octopus from small motorboats. None of these jobs are performed by the native population, instead they created an employment niche for the Moroccan settlers. Inspired by the image of a Sahara that offered vast economic opportunities—as portrayed by the Moroccan mass media—these new settlers went to Western Sahara for jobs that did not exist in their native cities. The Moroccan authorities also facilitated these relocations by authorizing professional fishermen to work in Dakhla using licenses provided by other coastal cities. As the number of boats operating in the Sahrawi octopus fishing grounds multiplied, Moroccan shipowners with large freezer vessels began to consider it a problem. Growing numbers of fishermen led to a crisis in the octopus stock in 2002 and, consequently, increased competition over access to resources.
In Laayoune, on the other hand, the emerging fisheries sector specialized in sardines. Workers in this field need additional training and experience because the work involves larger, complex vessels that spend more time at sea than artisanal octopus crafts. The crews are mostly made up of Moroccan workers, although in the early days the captain was often Spanish. The need for skilled and unskilled workers to operate the sardine processing industry (including facilities for producing fish meal and ice) was met by Moroccans living in Laayoune or by companies located in Agadir. The proximity to the Moroccan border and traditional fishing cities like Tan-Tan and Sidi Ifni expedited the relocations to Western Sahara encouraged by the authorities, who were focused on designing the census of eligible voters for the agreed-upon referendum.
Settlers and Colonization
In violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies,” the Moroccan government has gradually strengthened its occupation through policies that draw in settlers. During the first decades of the occupation, the Moroccan government distributed a monthly stipend to residents of Western Sahara equal to the minimum wage (about 1,250 dirhams or 150 euros), as well as a house, through the National Promotion Card. These government policies spread resources among Sahrawi families as part of a strategy to influence the self-determination referendum. After Mohamed VI acceded to the throne in 1999 this practice changed, and the Moroccan regime prioritized the settler population by implementing a national housing policy in the main cities of Western Sahara that aimed to eliminate the settler shantytowns.
The growth of the settler population in Western Sahara resulted in the proliferation of new economic activity especially in the form of small grocers, hairdressers and other shops mostly run by settlers. At the same time, rapid population growth led to greater demand for housing by people largely crowded into shantytowns on city outskirts. According to official Moroccan data, in 2010 the percentage of shanty housing out of the total urban housing in the Dakhla-Oued Ed-Dahab region was 33.1 percent, which surpassed the Moroccan average of 8.2 percent. According to the same source, during the first decade of 2000, there were 6,024 shanties in Dakhla and 9,815 in Laayoune.
In Dakhla, the “City Without Slums” policy that began in the mid-2000s manifested itself as the allocation of land, building material and money to the residents of the shantytown known as Wahda (“unity”), the first neighborhood that appeared during the ceasefire of the 1990s. Residents of the neighborhood called Lahrait (“gardens”) received land. The plots, located in an extension of the city of Dakhla, were equipped with basic infrastructure for construction such as sewage systems, power lines and water pipes. The policy was financed by the Moroccan Ministry of Housing, Planning, and Urban Development and, to a lesser extent, the Agency for the Development of the Southern Provinces. The latter institution, created on the initiative of the monarchy, took responsibility for the project in the early days. In fact, the first phase of the new construction, the Hay El Hassani neighborhood, is called Wakala (“development”) by the residents of Dakhla, because of the role of that agency. Currently, the new neighborhood houses a large number of Moroccan settlers, who have their own land and, depending on the case, a two- or three-story house.
The study of settler colonialism focuses on understanding the structures of domination and the relationships established between settlers and natives, while paying special attention to the behavior of the settler colonists and how their project is imposed in the territory. This project of domination would not be possible in Western Sahara without the mass arrival of settlers and their integration into the labor market in Sahrawi cities, which is a direct result of the development of the local fisheries sector. The government’s economic and housing policies have enabled the settler population to remain by linking their livelihoods to the occupied territory. While the Moroccan elite, Sahrawi elite and foreign investors occupy the more profitable positions on the value chains, the working class—Moroccan fishermen and laborers in the processing industries—gains much less from the exploitation of Sahrawi fish resources. For these settlers, however, the possibilities for employment and owning a house have given the colonizing project staying power, making them a powerful force in Morocco’s occupation strategies. Left on the sidelines are the Sahrawis, who do not directly benefit from the exploitation of the fisheries resources. Those Sahrawis who demand jobs so they can participate in the exploitation of the resources they consider their own do not benefit and neither do the militant Sahrawis who link this exploitation to the continuity of the occupation.
[Victoria Veguilla is professor of political science at Pablo de Olavide University in Spain. This research was co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Regional Government of Andalusia and the Pablo de Olavide University, under the auspices of the Andalusia ERDF 2014-20 Operational Programme.]
 Government of Morocco, “La Mer en Chiffres” (Rabat: Ministry of Agriculture, Maritime Fisheries, Rural Development and Waters and Forests, 2016).
 Victoria Veguilla, Politiques du poulpe à Dakhla. Action publique, ressources naturelles et dynamiques sociales. PhD manuscript (Institut d’etudes politiques d’aix-en-provence, Université Paul Cezanne, 2011).
 Jacob Mundy, “Moroccan Settlers in Western Sahara: Colonists or Fifth Column?” The Arab World Geographer, 15/2, 2012.
 Data from the Higher Planning Commission, Government of Morocco. In 2002, there were 90 licensed octopus freezing units in Dakhla.
 Victoria Veguilla, “Social Protest and Nationalism in Western Sahara: Struggles Around Fisheries and Housing in El Ayun and Dakhla,” Mediterranean Politics, 21/3, 2017.
 Report issued by the delegation from the Ministry for Housing, Planning, and Urban Development, Oued Ed-Dahab-Lagouira Region, January 2010.
 Victoria Veguilla, “À l’ombre de la khayma. Résistance culturelle et politique des jeunes sahraouis à Dakhla,” in Laurent Bonnefoy and Myriam Catusse, eds., Jeunesses arabes. Du Maroc au Yémen: loisirs, cultures et politiques (Paris: La Découverte, 2013).