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UN envoy to Western Sahara will fail while Morocco maintains the status quo

Rami Rayess

Published: Updated:

Despite intermittent political efforts to reach a final solution for decades of war for the Western Sahara the quest for a solution is a futile one.

With Morocco’s refusal to accept anything more than autonomy under its control, and the rebel Polisario Front basing itself in Algeria never accepting anything less than a referendum for self-determination the stalemate is unwavering.

The thing is, Morocco wants the current situation to remain as the status quo. Rabat doesn’t want a solution because it is already in full control of how any resolution will play out.

By keeping the flame burning its populist strategy presented to the country’s public will remain favorable. It’s holding firm the need for a united Morocco.

Were they to find a solution to the crisis, well who knows what could happen. Morocco will not want to follow a path where it doesn’t know the political outcome.

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It is for this crucial reason that the new UN envoy for the Western Sahara territory tasked to make progress to find a solution to the conflict will fail. Staffan de Mistura is filling a void left by former German President Horst Kohler who quit the role two years ago.

He will confront the same deadlock that his predecessor faced, made all the more difficult on the back of former US President Donald Trump’s administration recognizing the Moroccan state of the Sahara in return for the Kingdom’s normalization of its ties with Israel.

The deal brokered is illegal under international law, but will only enhance Morocco’s stubbornness over the very idea of a self-determination referendum for Western Sahara.

Given the inclusion of Morocco and Sudan in the Abraham Accords, the treaty’s benefits to the US in the region continues to grow, and Biden will not look to rescind any aspects of the details in the agreement Trump concluded.

Brahim Ghali, President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SARD) and Secretary-General of the Polisario front, attends celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the creation of the SARD, at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the southwestern Algerian city of Tindouf. A Spanish court has reopened a probe into accusations of crimes against humanity lodged against the leader of the Western Sahara movement, whose hospitalisation in Spain has sparked tensions between Madrid and Rabat. Brahim Ghali, who leads the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, has since mid April been treated for Covid-19 at a hospital in Logrono in northern Spain, angrying Rabat as Madrid grapples with a surge in migrants from Morocco at its north African enclave of Ceuta. (Stock image)
Brahim Ghali, President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SARD) and Secretary-General of the Polisario front, attends celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the creation of the SARD, at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the southwestern Algerian city of Tindouf. A Spanish court has reopened a probe into accusations of crimes against humanity lodged against the leader of the Western Sahara movement, whose hospitalisation in Spain has sparked tensions between Madrid and Rabat. Brahim Ghali, who leads the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, has since mid April been treated for Covid-19 at a hospital in Logrono in northern Spain, angrying Rabat as Madrid grapples with a surge in migrants from Morocco at its north African enclave of Ceuta. (Stock image)

Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco following Spain’s exit in 1975. Of interest to the conflict is the breakdown in Rabat-Madrid relations earlier in the year after a visit to Spain by the Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali. He reportedly traveled for medical purposes, but it has been claimed that he also wanted to improve diplomatic relations and garner international support for the organization’s cause.

The European Union has taken a different stance to the US over the conflict, and Germany has rejected the American deal. Spain too supports a UN-backed agreement. Morocco recalled its ambassador from Berlin in May claiming that Germany was antagonizing the situation in Western Sahara.

It’s a difficult situation for the EU, and requires a careful approach. Spain and Portugal receive fuel reserves from Algeria that are piped through Moroccan land.

So far, relations between Morocco and the EU overall remain positive, but this could change quickly.

At the moment in the international sphere Morocco has the upper hand, and as long as there is no clear consensus between stakeholders, including the US and EU, an agreement for the best solution that ends the crisis is unlikely.

The absence of regional and international agreement about how best to tackle the crisis endures. The traditional scenario remains the same: when regional and international powers are antagonistic, the people always pay the price. The Western Sahara is no exception.

In addition to the US and the EU, Russia and China are also in the mix. The latter continues to seek footholds in Africa, and where conflicts exist there are always opportunities to capitalize.

This complex network of conflicting interests amongst international countries and regional nations will not disappear anytime soon. There are little concessions or political margins that can pave the way for a potential solution.

The appointment of Mistura comes at a critical time for relations between Algeria and Morocco. The two states have been antagonistic for decades. They have rarely enjoyed neighborly or brotherly ties. Their memberships in the Organization of the African Unity and the Arab League have proved of little significance towards finding potential solutions to the Western Sahara conflict.

With the exception of some ceremonial visits made by the new UN envoy to the different players in the conflict, little is expected from Mistura’s appointment.

The Western Sahara crisis has stretched for over more than four decades. It will easily stretch for another four if Morocco has its way.

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