Changing attitude, Spain supports Moroccan rule

Spain paved the way on Friday for a solution to a dispute over Western Sahara, which has been claimed by Morocco for almost 50 years, suggesting that making the region operate autonomously under Rabat’s rule is “the most serious, realistic and credible” initiative. .

This marked a huge departure from Spain’s previous position to regard Morocco’s grip on Western Sahara as 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.

It also opened up disputes within Spain’s governing coalition from left to center.

The UN has continued to regard Madrid as the colonial administrative power for Western Sahara, even after its annexation of Morocco immediately after Spain left its African province in 1975. Over the years, the Spanish Government’s official position, together with that of the European Union, has been to support a UN sponsored referendum to resolve the decolonization of the territory.

But according to a statement from Morocco’s Royal Palace on Friday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez recognized “the importance of the Sahara issue for Morocco” in a letter to King Mohammed VI.

“Spain considers that the autonomy initiative presented by Morocco in 2007 as the basis, the most serious, realistic and credible, for resolving the dispute,” the Royal Palace Sánchez was quoted as saying.

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares confirmed the Moroccan announcement.

“Today we are starting a new phase in our relations with Morocco and finally ending a crisis with a strategic partner,” he told reporters. He added that the new chapter was “based on mutual respect, compliance with agreements, the absence of unilateral action and transparency and permanent communication.”

Relations between Spain and Morocco reached a historically low level last year after Spain secretly received the leader of the Polisario Front for medical treatment, which has led many Sahrawis’ longing for independence.

But when media links to the Moroccan government revealed Brahim Ghali’s presence in Spain, Rabat let 10,000 people cross the border into Ceuta, a Spanish city on the coast of North Africa. It triggered an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Morocco also recalled its ambassador to Madrid and has not restored her.

Abdulah Arabi, who represents the Polisario in Spain, said Sánchez was “succumbing to pressure and blackmail” from Morocco by paying “a toll” to repair their damaged political and diplomatic ties. He said that Western Sahara should be autonomous in Morocco is just one of many options that should be voted on in a referendum.

“The solution must be based on the elections voted for by the Sahrawi people,” Arabi said.

About 176,000 Sahrawis are believed to live in five refugee camps on Algerian soil, east of Western Sahara, in a swelling desert that many consider a no-man’s land. They rely on humanitarian aid and goods from international aid organizations, led by the Polisario Front, which presides over an exiled Sahrawi republic.

By the end of 2020, their frustration over three decades in limbo led to the end of a ceasefire and new hostilities between Polisario forces and the Moroccan army.

Morocco deviated from the agreement to hold a referendum for Western Sahara when the country presented its 2007 proposal for greater independence under its sovereignty. By using its leverage effect to keep extremism in North Africa at bay and control the flow of African migrants towards the EU, Rabat has gained increasing support for its proposal. It was first supported by France, then in late 2019 by the United States under former President Donald Trump, and more recently by Germany.

Western Sahara is located on large phosphate deposits and faces rich fishing waters in the Atlantic. Thousands of Sahrawis live in the Moroccan-controlled areas, where the authorities are cracking down on dissent according to human rights groups.

A more confident Morocco has also annoyed its regional enemy, Algeria, a longtime supporter of the Polisario, which at the end of last year severed diplomatic ties with Rabat.

Albares, the Spanish foreign minister, has been invited to meetings in Rabat later this month and officials are planning a visit by Sánchez himself, the Moroccan foreign ministry said.

In its statement, the Spanish government welcomed the invitations and said it wanted to meet “common challenges” with Rabat, “in particular cooperation in the management of migration flows in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.”

According to the Moroccan royal palace, Sánchez wrote in his message to the king that Spain’s goal is “to act with the absolute openness equivalent of a great friend and ally.”

Sánchez, leader of Spain’s Socialists, has been at the helm of a fragile coalition with the far-left United We Can (Unidas Podemos), where the two sides often quarrel over their views on feminism, social spending and foreign policy.

Shortly after Morocco’s announcement, the junior partner’s most prominent leader, Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz, tweeted that she was committed “to the defense of the Sahrawi people and to the resolutions of the UN Security Council.”

“Every solution to the conflict must go through dialogue and respect for the democratic will of the Sahrawi people,” Díaz added.

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