Sahara poisons delicate relations between Spain and Morocco

The Moroccan government wants the European Union to imitate Washington and recognise its sovereignty over the Saharawi territory

Ricard G. Samaranch
3 min
A group of people try to take advantage of the shallow waters off the coast of the northern town of Fnideq to cross the border from Morocco to the North African enclave of Ceuta

BarcelonaThe arrival of 6,000 migrants on the coast of Ceuta in the face of the complete passivity of the Moroccan police has opened a new diplomatic crisis between two neighbours, Spain and Morocco, which maintain a complex relationship, with many pending issues: the disputed sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla, the agreements that allow the exploitation by Spanish fishing boats of the Moroccan coasts, the delimitation of territorial waters in the Canary Islands and the Spanish position in the Western Sahara conflict. Although none of the governments admits it publicly, this last issue is the trigger for the current serious crisis.

In an interview on the Moroccan channel 2M TV, the director of the Judicial Police of Morocco's powerful General Directorate of National Security, Mohamed Dkhissi, has acknowledged that the security cooperation agreement with Spain has been broken. Also the Moroccan ambassador in Madrid, Karima Benyaix, has implied that the massive arrival of migrants is not accidental, declaring that all acts have consequences that "have to be assumed". For Rabat, the act of aggravation would be the reception nearly a month ago in a hospital in Logroño of Brahim Gali, the leader of the Polisario Front, as both governments unofficially admit. Gali, 71 years old, is said to have been admitted for covid-19.

During the last few months, Morocco has intensified its efforts to change the status quo in its favour in the Western Sahara, a frozen conflict that has heated up following the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory by former US President Donald Trump in December. In addition, three weeks earlier, the Polisario had broken the cease-fire in force since 1991 over a dispute over control of the town of Guerguerat, in Saharawi territory.

"Morocco has won several international diplomatic victories. It feels empowered and has provoked the crisis to force a new settlement", says Eduard Solé, analyst at Cidob. Specifically, Morocco wants Spain and the European Union to follow in Washington's footsteps and recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara, or at least make a clear commitment to its proposal for resolving the conflict, based on granting the territory a regime of autonomy. The Polisario, however, remains firm in its demand for the holding of a referendum of self-determination, appealing to international law.

Migrations "as blackmail"

France, which is a traditional ally of Rabat, already defends the "autonomous solution". A change in the EU would require Spain, the former colonial power in the Sahara, and Germany, the most powerful country of the 27, to do the same. And it is no coincidence that Rabat has also forced a conflict with Berlin. In December, it was leaked to the press that the Moroccan authorities were cutting off all contact with the German embassy in Morocco, a decision that was made official at the beginning of May, to the astonishment of Angela Merkel's government.

"This crisis does not appear out of nowhere. There has not been a high-level meeting between the two countries since 2015, and the first international crisis of the current Spanish government was over the delimitation of the territorial waters of the Canaries", recalls Solé, who points out that President Sánchez has turned to the EU to resolve the conflict and could even play the card of Felipe VI, who is very close to King Mohamed VI.

"For years, Morocco has used migration as a tool of blackmail in its relationship with Spain and the EU, aware of the fears it arouses in the north", says researcher Itxaso Domínguez of the Fundación Alternativas. While Gali's hospitalisation has been the trigger, there are other factors in the political context that explain why Rabat has chosen to put pressure on Madrid now.

On the one hand, Sánchez's government is in a moment of weakness, since it has to deal with several crises, so it could give in more easily. On the Moroccan side, it is in Mohammed VI's interest to divert attention from the Gaza war, since the Israeli aggression has rekindled rejection among a sector of Moroccan society of the normalisation agreement with Israel signed by Rabat in December in exchange for US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.