Spain-Morocco Ties on the Mend: Algeria Angered by Madrid’s Shift on Western Sahara

Written by | Tuesday, March 22nd, 2022

Spain on Friday (18 March) declared “a new stage” in its strained relations with Morocco after Madrid recognized for the first time a plan drawn up by the African country for governing Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. The Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, wrote to King Mohammed VI of Morocco, agreeing that having Western Sahara operate autonomously under Rabat’s rule is “the most serious, realistic and credible” initiative for resolving a decades-long dispute over the vast African territory. This marked an enormous departure from Spain’s earlier stance of considering Morocco’s grip on Western Sahara an occupation. The shift followed months of frosty diplomatic relations and led to the announcement of a flurry of visits by Spanish officials to its southern neighbor. But the development was immediately denounced by representatives of the Polisario Front, a separatist movement in the Western Sahara that represents the Sahrawi ethnic group. The Moroccan plan would allow the Sahrawis to run their own administration, but under Moroccan sovereignty and with Morocco in charge of defense and foreign affairs.
Morocco’s ambassador to Spain, Karima Benyaich, returned to her post in Madrid on Sunday, saying that her country appreciated the backing that Spain now gives to its proposals to turn the Western Saharan area into an autonomous province under Moroccan sovereignty. In a rather dramatic turn of events, Algeria, which supports the Polisario Front independence movement and opposes Spain’s backing of Morocco’s plans for Western Sahara, has now in its turn recalled its ambassador to Spain, calling Madrid’s shift in policy an “abrupt U-turn.” Spain had previously sought to remain equidistant in the conflict, calling for a UN-brokered settlement that would fulfill previous UN resolutions. But during a news conference last week, Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, José Manuel Albares, announced that Madrid had changed its 42-year-old policy towards its former colony Western Sahara. The Moroccan Foreign Ministry welcomed what it called the “constructive commitments” from Spain over Western Sahara, adding that the shift creates “a clear and ambitious road map” that would reinforce the relationship with Madrid.
Spain and Morocco have often feuded over Western Sahara. Last year, Morocco recalled its ambassador to protest Madrid’s decision to allow the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, to undergo treatment for Covid-19 under an alias in a hospital in northern Spain. The disclosure of Mr. Ghali’s trip was followed by the sudden entry of thousands of migrants into Ceuta, a Spanish coastal enclave in northern Africa. Spain claimed that the influx had been facilitated by Morocco’s briefly lifting border surveillance. But now Albares said that “today we begin a new stage in our relations with Morocco and finally close a crisis with a strategic partner.” He added that the new chapter was “based on mutual respect, compliance with agreements, the absence of unilateral actions and transparency and permanent communication.” Albares is set to travel to Rabat, the Moroccan capital, in the coming two weeks to confirm his country’s new stance.

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