December 2020 will be remembered as a watershed month for US-Morocco relations. President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara as part of a deal in which the North African kingdom became the fourth Arab state to formalize diplomatic relations with Israel this year. The outgoing administration’s stance on the Western Sahara conflict positions the US, and no longer France, as Morocco’s biggest western backer in relation to this decades-old territorial dispute. The Trump administration’s position will embolden Morocco in its conflict with the Polisario Front (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro—POLISARIO), which has represented the Sahrawi people’s aspiration for independence since Spanish colonial rule amid the 1970s.
Along with strong support from the US and a growing number of African countries, Morocco also benefits from backing by the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. Amid a period of deep polarization in the Arabian Peninsula, the Western Sahara crisis constitutes a rare case of a contemporary Arab-Arab conflict in which all six GCC states are on the same page. Underscored by how the Arabian monarchies all uniformly voiced support for the Moroccan military in its clashes with the POLISARIO when the Western Sahara conflict unfroze in November 2020 after a tense 29-year ceasefire, all GCC countries see it in their national interest to back Rabat against the POLISARIO.
History and ideology are relevant to why GCC states back Morocco’s position in the Western Sahara conflict. The POLISARIO is a left-wing, socialist organization and Algeria has been its main foreign sponsor since the end of Spanish colonial rule in Western Sahara. The pro-independence group also received support from Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had a mostly negative view of these governments which naturally aligned Riyadh against the POLISARIO and its agenda of armed struggle against Moroccan control of Western Sahara.
In contrast to the civil wars plaguing Libya and Yemen, the Western Sahara conflict is a “known quantity in the region and the sides were chosen long ago,” explained Dr. Jacob Mundy, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Colgate University.[i] With Rabat and Riyadh aligned with western powers, the Saudi kingdom has for decades seen it in its interests to support Morocco against the POLISARIO. The Saudis have done so by providing significant financial support to the North African country’s military, which contributed to Morocco’s success in terms of capturing roughly two-thirds of the territory in the 1975-1991 war. As Mundy opined, “the motivations were Arab monarchical solidarity in the context [of the 1970s] when Arab nationalism was still ascendant, especially after the fall of the Sanusi monarchy in Libya, which Morocco tried to restore, and the 1979 Iranian revolution, which further solidified ties between the Arab Gulf, Morocco and the United States to Rabat’s benefit in the war against POLISARIO.”[ii]
Throughout the post-Cold War era, Rabat has, for the most part, maintained balanced relations with all GCC states even when tensions have risen between the sub-regional organization’s different members. At least initially from 2015-2018, Morocco joined the Arab coalition in Yemen. Rabat’s relationship with Iran has also deteriorated with Morocco’s government accusing Tehran and Lebanese Hezbollah of supporting the POLISARIO by providing the group with missiles. Such dynamics have positioned Morocco to receive backing from all GCC states as it seeks to consolidate and legitimize its control of Western Sahara. “Rabat has effectively managed to protect its independence while avoiding antagonizing any of the GCC countries,” stated the International Crisis Group’s Riccardo Fabiani. “This strategy has paid back Morocco when the situation with the POLISARIO precipitated.”[iii]
Yet polarization within the GCC, especially since the siege of Doha began on June 5, 2017, has at times added complications to Rabat’s relations with some of the blockading states. By refusing to back the blockade of Qatar, Rabat kept itself on excellent terms with Doha, yet Morocco’s “passive” position vis-à-vis the GCC crisis angered Abu Dhabi. From 2017 until 2019/2020, Emirati-Moroccan relations suffered significantly with the UAE’s leadership believing that Rabat took the “wrong” stance on Qatar.
However, the escalation of Turkish military intervention in Libya in late 2019 and early 2020 changed the picture. Abu Dhabi’s disappointment with Algeria’s refusal to openly side against Ankara in the Libyan crisis at this point gave the UAE reason to view support for Rabat over Algiers as serving Abu Dhabi’s interests in countering Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” agenda. In other words, with the UAE viewing the struggle against Ankara’s clout in Libya as an increasingly high priority, Abu Dhabi was willing to look past the problems it had with Morocco due to the North African kingdom’s refusal to join the anti-Qatar bandwagon in 2017. Such factors help explain why the UAE took a pro-Moroccan position this year when the Western Sahara conflict reheated.
Furthermore, the role of the West is key to understanding why the UAE and other GCC members have embraced a pro-Rabat stance on this conflict. Ultimately, the European powers most sympathetic to the POLISARIO have more liberal, left-wing governments that do not have much sway in Abu Dhabi and other Arabian capitals. Yet the US and France, which are staunchly supportive of Morocco against the POLISARIO, are the two main powers that have clout in the Emirates and other Gulf Arab states. Thus, supporting Morocco in Western Sahara serves to bring the UAE into further alignment with Washington and Paris, as well as Israel, especially in light of Rabat recently normalizing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
Gulf Arab Interests in Western Sahara
In Western Sahara, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have some interests. There are joint Moroccan-Saudi investments in this territory and the Emiratis will possibly deepen their involvement in the Western Sahara via investment projects that would accompany Abu Dhabi’s consulate in Laayoune. Indeed, the UAE and later Bahrain opening consulates to Rabat in Western Sahara’s largest city has served to boost the perceived legitimacy of Morocco’s conduct in Western Sahara.
Nonetheless, it is fair to contend that the Gulf Arab monarchies’ main interests vis-à-vis Western Sahara pertain to their relationships with Morocco. A widespread view in the Gulf is that being Morocco’s “good friend” means supporting Rabat’s position that every inch of the Western Sahara is sovereign Moroccan land. GCC members have vested interests in ensuring that Morocco remains a stable North African country, and Gulf Arab governments believe that backing Rabat against the POLISARIO and, by extension, Algeria is critical to achieving this goal. Essentially, the Gulf Arab states believe that long-term stability in Morocco requires Rabat triumphing in its quest to consolidate its control over Western Sahara.
As Saudi Arabia is a heavyweight in the Muslim world, Riyadh’s pro-Morocco position helps the Maghrebi kingdom defend its actions against the POLISARIO before the Islamic world. Along with a strong emphasis on backing from the US, France, and more African Union members, the Gulf Arab states’ support for Rabat in relation to the Western Sahara serves to legitimize Moroccan control of this territory from the perspective of a growing number of Sunni Arab governments.
The Algerian Factor and Risks of Greater Regional Instability
But how will GCC support for Morocco in the Western Sahara conflict impact Gulf Arab countries’ relations with Algeria? It is a safe bet that Saudi Arabia and other Arabian monarchies’ backing of Morocco against the Algerian-sponsored POLISARIO will continue to inform Algerian perceptions of Gulf Arab states undermining the security and stability of Algeria. However, the damage could be limited.
Throughout the past ten years Algeria has disagreed with Gulf Arab states on a host of issues from the Syrian crisis to the NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011. But Algiers managed to prevent such disagreements from disrupting Gulf Arab (specifically Emirati) investments in Algeria such as DP World ports or Algiers and Abu Dhabi’s institutionalized ties. As Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, explained, “GCC disagreement on Western Sahara is par for the course…I think Algeria and GCC countries have learnt to compartmentalize this disagreement.”[iv]
It is in Libya where Algeria has far more serious concerns about certain GCC states’ actions. That said, there are concerns about how the type of violence that has plagued Libya for years could be unleashed in Western Sahara. Experts warn that the collapse of the 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire and the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the territory threaten to fuel greater instability throughout other parts of Africa. Naturally, the implications are very serious for Algerian security. “The ongoing conflict also increases the risk that some of the complex constellation of armed groups in the Sahel may be pulled into war,” according to Andrew Lebovich of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Several of these groups have ties to both Morocco and Algeria, while some fighters – particularly those in Malian Arab armed groups – have family links and commercial ties to Western Sahara. And other fighters and young people in the region may be drawn in if the violence continues, as has happened for years in Libya’s cascading internal and proxy wars.”
It is not clear how the Algerians will react to recent developments that have raised temperatures in Western Sahara and threaten Algeria’s own security. With Washington’s unilateral action regarding Western Sahara emboldening Morocco while Algeria is in a weak economic position, officials in Algiers see their country becoming increasingly vulnerable to the US, Morocco, Israel, and GCC states’ foreign policy agendas. In the words of Algeria’s prime minister, Abdelaziz Djerad, there is a “real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity”. Most likely, Algeria will turn to Russia for more backing, which could significantly exacerbate tensions in north-western Africa and provide the Kremlin more opportunities to gain clout at the expense of Western powers—itself a goal that Moscow has spent years pursuing.
Ultimately, the future of Western Sahara is the most sensitive and important foreign policy dilemma facing Rabat. The Moroccan doctrine says that Morocco taking full control of Western Sahara is necessary in order to prevent the kingdom from crumbling. At the end of the day, it is an existential issue from Rabat’s perspective.
Despite the risks of the Western Sahara conflict escalating and driving greater instability across the Maghreb and Sahel, the leadership in Rabat is taking advantage of current circumstances to act boldly in this territory that it has occupied since the 1970s. In the process, the six GCC states are playing an important role in giving Morocco a greater sense of confidence in this conflict. Betting on a lack of international focus on the conflict, along with support from the US and GCC states, Morocco aims to further consolidate its control over Western Sahara. However, by embracing such a pro-Morocco position in the Western Sahara conflict, the Gulf Arab monarchies are giving Algeria more reason to grow weary about the “Gulf moment” in the Maghreb.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
[i] Jacob Mundy, Interview with Author, December 11, 2020.
[ii] Jacob Mundy, Interview with Author, December 11, 2020.
[iii] Riccardo Fabiani, Interview with Author, December 11, 2020.
[iv] Samuel Ramani, Interview with Author, December 12, 2020.