Western Sahara, a Colorado-size piece of land directly below Morocco, has been relatively quiet since the United Nations brokered a cease-fire in 1991 between Morocco, which occupied the land when Spain withdrew from its former colony, and the indigenous Sahrawis, who wanted independence. After the cease-fire, a United Nations peacekeeping mission arrived to set up a referendum for independence. That vote never happened. For the most part, Western Sahara fell off the radar.
The UN force is still there, charged with preparing a referendum. Earlier this year the U.S. attempted to add human rights monitoring to the UN’s mandate, then dropped its efforts in April when Morocco canceled joint military exercises with the U.S. That set off a wave of protests. In early May more than a thousand protesters took to the streets in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s capital, chanting for independence. Although the numbers sound small, the protests were significant: The territory’s population is only 500,000. The protestors were not deterred by the presence of heavy Moroccan security. These demonstrations, coupled with the flap over the UN mandate, “move the chess pieces forward in ways we haven’t seen for years,” says William Lawrence, the North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, an NGO that tracks conflict around the world.
The UN does not recognize Morocco’s claim that Western Sahara historically belongs to the Kingdom, and pressure on the Moroccans is building. International law dictates resource extraction by an occupying country can be done only with the consent of and for the benefit of the local population.
The Moroccans continue to develop Western Sahara, which offers abundant commercial fishing, large phosphate deposits and, possibly, offshore oil. Laayoune’s port, for example, has been upgraded to include a state-of-the-art auction facility, where the daily catch is sold. The Moroccan government says it has spent $2 billion on infrastructure, schools, and hospitals. The percentage of households connected to electricity and drinking water is higher in Western Sahara than in Morocco proper. Hamdi Ould Rachid, the Sahrawi mayor of Laayoune, says Morocco is spending $90 million on a library, public park, theater, and university for the city. “Morocco makes some money down there but, relative to the investment, not a great deal,” Lawrence says. Discovering oil and gas offshore could change that.
On its home turf, Morocco has struggled to produce jobs for its youth, tame its trade deficit, and respond to calls for political and economic reform. But government statistics put unemployment in Western Sahara at twice the Moroccan national average of 9 percent. The Sahrawis say that local jobs go to Moroccans, drawn by the promise of subsidized housing. A big grievance for some Sahrawis focuses on the phosphate mine in Bou Craa, southeast of Laayoune. It’s run by Morocco’s state-owned phosphate producer, the world’s top exporter of the mineral, which is used in fertilizer. Activists, using their own calculations, say that Sahrawis hold only 30 percent of the mine’s jobs. Mine management says the number is more like 50 percent.
The Economic, Social and Environmental Council, a Moroccan government advisory board, is developing an economic plan for the region. General Secretary Driss Guerraoui says the council wants to meet the international community’s standards for exporting Western Sahara’s resources. “The Moroccan state is very serious about implementing this,” he says. Dalil Lahcen, a member of the Sahrawi Committee for the Support of the UN Peace Settlement and Protection of Natural Resources, says the Sahrawis will keep demanding independence: “This situation will not last forever. It might explode in time.”