One month after the resumption of tensions between Morocco and the Polisario Front which ended the 1991 ceasefire, the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara by Donald Trump on November 10, 2020 in the context of normalization of relations with Israel, highlights the complexity of a conflict long considered frozen. (Tweet from Donald J. Trump whose account has since been deleted: « Today, I signed a proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Morocco’s serious, credible, and realistic autonomy proposal is the ONLY basis for a just and lasting solution for enduring peace and prosperity! ») 

Covering an area of 266,000km2 in North-West Africa between Mauritania and Algeria, the territory of Western Sahara and its rich maritime and mining resources confront different conceptions of history and international law. The diversity of the actors involved in the conflict is thus singular and opposes on the one hand the Moroccan kingdom, which emphasizes its historical links over a region it has conquered, and on the other hand the Saharawi people under the aegis of the Polisario Front and the support of Algeria, which seeks to assert its right to self-determination. In this polarized context, Washington’s decision, while flouting international law, undermines more than 30 years of diplomacy and could bring the conflict to a point of no return.

Territory between “the right to self-determination” and “historical links”

In a context of decolonization and the affirmation of North African states, the nascent kingdoms of Morocco (1956) and Mauritania (1960), which had just obtained their independence, claimed the territories of Western Sahara – then a Spanish colony (1884-1975). Supported by Algeria, which sought to weaken its neighbors, the local populations composed of the Sahrawi people asserted themselves by creating the Polisario Front (1973), which aimed to ensure respect for the United Nations resolutions newly voted in their favor. After the retreat of the colonial power from Spain in 1975 and the Green March launched by the Moroccan King Hassan II, the region became the theater of a sovereignty conflict between Mauritania, Morocco and the Polisario Front. It is in this context that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) intervened by issuing an advisory opinion which recognized the historical links claimed by Morocco and Mauritania, but also affirmed that this anchoring could not justify any annexation. While the fledgling state of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR, 1976) proclaimed by the Polisario Front implemented a peace plan with Mauritania, the latter continued to fight the Kingdom of Morocco until 1991 in order to implement the UN doctrine which states that no territory can be annexed by force.


The territorial development and the monopolization of the Western Sahara by Morocco

Along with its military forces, the making of a 2.500km sand wall allowed Morocco to control 80% of Western Sahara and to secure the maritime, mining (phosphate, gold, copper) and energy resources of the region (oil, gas …). Meanwhile the buffer zone created following the ceasefire and maintained by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) thus made it possible to maintain the status quo pending a referendum on the region’s independence. However, due to the ongoing disagreement over the modalities of the referendum – including who would be eligible to vote and an opposition between self-determination and extended autonomy – the latter never took place. Morocco then took advantage of the lack of a political solution to make the technical and operational development of Western Sahara sustainable – notably with the Agency for the Promotion and Social and Economic Development of the Prefectures and South Provinces. The Sahrawi population was thus separated between the Western Sahara under Moroccan occupation, the territories under the Polisario Front, and refugees who settled in Mauritania and Algeria – particularly in the region of Tindouf. Throughout this period, Western Sahara could be understood in international law as a non-autonomous territory where the people composing the region have the right to proclaim themselves.


The polarization and instrumentalization of the conflict around geopolitical dynamics and international interests

It is also worth noting that according to the UN, the SADR despite having a population and a territory, did not have a government capable of exercising authority and providing the minimum structures to qualify it as a state. That is why the local Sahrawi peoples in their search for self-determination and legitimization sought external support for the recognition of the SADR by third states. While France, Spain and the United States – historical partners of the kingdom – have confirmed the status quo and de facto supported Morocco ; Algeria as a sponsor of the Polisario Front and rival of Morocco, sought to assert the rights of the Sahrawi people – particularly through the African Union. The conflict of Western Sahara thus crystallized the two Maghreb powers to establish their authority in a geopolitical game of struggle for influence and power. On the one hand, the kingdom of Morocco maintained a nationalist sentiment under the aegis of the Istiqlal, while the Algerian struggle for an independent Western Sahara made it possible to support the country’s military regime. Finally, the European Union as an important partner of Morocco had an incoherent foreign policy. While the Court of Justice of the European Union has reminded Morocco that economic agreements on issues as diverse as fishing, mining or air passage authorizations must respect international law and include the consent of the Saharawi people, the latter has recently passed new agreements that apply to the territory of Western Sahara without any consultation and agreement of the Saharawi people themselves.

The Western Sahara facing the normalization of relations between Israel and Morocco

In the context of normalization between Arab states with Israel following the Abraham Accords of August 2020, the United States have recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Saharan territory. While putting Europe in a delicate position and undermining the international credibility of the United States as a mediator of the conflict this announcement by the Trump Administration threatens to create further turmoil in an already unstable region. Meanwhile, the end of the ceasefire in November 2020 and the lack of a representative of the MINURSO mission after the resignation of German President Horst Köhler in May 2019 are factors that contributed to the escalation of the conflict. In this context the political scientist Khadija Mohsen-Finan deplored that “International relations sounds like the game of Monopoly: King Mohammed VI exchanges the American acceptance of the occupation of Western Sahara for that of the occupation of Palestine“. Far from being limited to the strict rebound of international law, the question of self-determination finds itself the victim of the diplomatic instrumentalization between Maghreb countries, European countries and other international actors.

Against this background, the road map for establishing a lasting peace process could include some of the following recommendations:

In order to allow for a sustainable agreement of all parties concerned, as a mediator, the United States should reverse the unilateral decision of outgoing President Donald Trump, which does not take into account the point of view of the Saharawi people.

At the same time, the EU should refer to the decisions taken by the United Nations and cease agreements that are contrary to international law and those of the Saharawi people in favor of a more coherent and neutral stance

The Arab community – under the aegis of the Arab League or the African Union – plays a key role in promoting a stable environment for multilateral peace talks between the different parties. The establishment of an economically and politically united Maghreb should be one of the main motivations for bringing the different conflicting parties together.

While Morocco should stop denying the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination and put in place a referendum in accordance with the prerogatives of the resolutions voted by the UN, the Polisario Front should renounce the resumption of an open armed conflict that would only aggravate the destabilization of the region.

In order to avoid the bogging down of the last decades, the UN should, first, appoint a representative of the MINURSO commission as soon as possible and, second, opt for a bottom-up approach to a referendum in coordination with the local populations.

In order to avoid the crystallization of nationalist strategies, inter-Maghreb tensions and de facto internal and external instrumentalization of the conflict, Algeria and Morocco should approach the Western Sahara conflict not through a national/regional political prism but in line with standards set by international law. Ultimately, both parties have more to gain from resolving the Western Sahara conflict in a quid pro quo deal, rather than maintaining a war of attrition that only destabilizes the region’s economies.



Clément Gibon is a student at the University of Poitiers pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science and literature. He took part in the Erasmus exchange program at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (2019, Lebanon) and at the Karl-Franzens Universität Graz (2020, Austria). He is a contributing writer for the online French magazine “La revue géopolitique”, where he focuses on issues related to the MENA region, international security and peacemaking in post-conflict societies.