A top US envoy visited contested Western Sahara on Saturday, after Washington recognized Morocco’s sovereignty there in exchange for Rabat normalizing ties with Israel.
Western Sahara is a disputed and divided former Spanish colony, mostly under Morocco’s control, where tensions with the pro-independence Polisario Front have simmered since the 1970s.
Last year Morocco joined the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in agreeing to normalize ties with Israel under US-brokered deals.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker — the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat for North Africa and the Middle East — made a historic visit today to #Laâyoune, where he was warmly greeted by, Abdesslam Bikrat, Wali of the Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra region. pic.twitter.com/anmpNq7QWL— U.S. Embassy Morocco (@USEmbMorocco) January 9, 2021
In return, US President Donald Trump fulfilled a decades-old Moroccan goal by backing its contested sovereignty over the barren but phosphate-rich region, which lies next to rich Atlantic fishing zones.
The US Embassy in Rabat called the trip by David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and the highest-ranking US diplomat for North Africa and the Middle East, “a historic visit.”
Morocco’s official news agency MAP reported that Schenker had visited Laayoune, the capital of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
Schenker, who is on a regional tour including Algeria and Jordan, also visited a United Nations base in the region, MAP said.
UN peacekeepers in the Western Sahara are mandated to organize a referendum on self-determination for the region, and despite Washington’s move, the UN insists its position is “unchanged.”
Schenker’s visit comes ahead of the expected opening of a provisional US consulate in the desert region on Sunday, according to diplomatic sources in Rabat.
Last month the US State Department announced it would open a “virtual” diplomatic post in Western Sahara before building a consulate, slated for the southern fishing port of Dakhla.
Joe Biden, who will replace Trump as president on January 20, has not publicly commented on Western Sahara.