Oil Exploration and Political Stalemate Threaten to Trigger Renewed Conflict in the Western Sahara

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2013

The decades-long unresolved conflict over the Western Sahara threatens to heat up again as Algeria and Morocco dispute the future of the region and young members of the Sahrawi Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro –Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) urge a return to arms against Moroccan “occupiers” rather than spend further decades in refugee camps located in the remote Algerian desert. A general international indifference has preserved the political impasse, in which native Sahrawis demand a referendum on independence and the Moroccan administration offers regional autonomy within a “Greater Morocco.” Giving impetus to the return of the issue to international attention is the growing Moroccan exploitation of the Western Sahara’s resources, including phosphates, fisheries and, potentially, oil and gas.  Omar Mansour, a member of the Polisario’s National Secretariat, has warned: “If the U.N. does not take this seriously to ensure self-determination and that human rights are respected, then we are heading towards a war with regional implications” (Reuters, April 22).

Northwest Africa in the Colonial Period


The Polisario Front was established in May, 1973 with the intent of expelling Spanish colonialists from the colony of Spanish Sahara (1884 – 1973). It gained strength in 1975 when locally-raised Spanish troops began to desert to the Polisario with their weapons. When Spain calculated the cost of retaining the colony in a world increasingly unsympathetic to colonial projects, it decided to defy a UN resolution and simply abandon the region, ceding the larger part of the colony, Saguia al-Hamra, to Morocco, with part of the Rio de Oro going to Mauritania in the 1975 Madrid Tripartite Accords.

The native Sahrawi resistance proclaimed the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 in response, which Algeria soon recognized in the hope of preventing regional expansion by Morocco. The Sahrawis then launched a costly guerrilla campaign with Libyan support against both Morocco and Mauritania. By 1979, Mauritania, with limited resources and exhausted by years of fierce desert fighting, decided to abandon its claim to the southern Rio de Oro after a military junta arranged a ceasefire, though Morocco quickly stepped in to expand its own claim to the entire Rio de Oro. The Polisario Front was recognized by the UN as the official representative of the Sahrawi people in the same year. The Sahrawis’ conflict with Morocco became increasingly bitter, with both sides committing human rights abuses in a war the international community barely noticed.

Rabat offered to hold a referendum on independence in 1981, but soon withdrew the offer, deciding instead to build a huge and heavily garrisoned sand berm to isolate the Polisario guerrillas in the economically useless and uninhabited regions of the former colony. 1250 miles long and 15 to 30 feet high, the berm is equipped with sensors, landmines and surveillance equipment; any attempt to cross the berm brings out Moroccan fighter jets ready to attack infiltrators in open country. The berm separates inhabitable, resource rich land near the coast from the largely lifeless desert to which the rebel Sahrawis fled in the 1970s and 1980s.

This tactic effectively ended Polisario strikes in the Moroccan-held Western Sahara and forced a 1989 ceasefire. A 1991 ceasefire agreement called for a UN referendum asking Sahrawis whether they wanted independence or integration into Morocco. However, preparations for the referendum broke down when UN organizers experienced difficulty in determining who was or wasn’t eligible to vote from amongst the scattered Sahrawi population.  By this time, Morocco preferred the facts on the ground and has yet to conduct the referendum. Disappointed Polisario leaders have since referred to their homeland as “the last colony in Africa” (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], October 31).

Growing Anger in the Refugee Camps

Cut off from the inhabitable parts of the Western Sahara, the exiled Sahrawis now live in six refugee camps housing 150,000 people centered around the Algerian town of Tindouf, home to an Algerian military base. Twenty-six thousand additional refugees live in Mauritania. The four main camps are named for towns in the Western Sahara – al-Aaiun, Smara, Awserd and Dakhla. “February 27” is a small camp and the administration is run from the Rabouni camp. There are reports of widespread malnutrition and related illnesses in the camps, which rely largely on shipments of food and other aid from the international community (Sahara Press Service [El-Aaiun], November 13).

Political development in the refugee camps has calcified, with government remaining in the hands of an old guard led by Muhammad Abdelaziz, who was elected as Polisario Front secretary-general and president of the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic in August 1976 and has remained in these posts ever since, ruling with the help of a small but powerful group of loyalists.

The sole political formation is the Polisario Front, a creation intended to put aside local political rivalries in the interests of presenting a common front demanding self-determination for the Western Sahara. However, this state of affairs is increasingly unable to restrain a growing number of youths (over 50% of the population in the camps is now under 18) who have never set foot in their “homeland,” see no future in the refugee camps and are growingly inclined to resume the armed conflict with Morocco in the face of the apparent satisfaction of the international community with the status quo.  As even President Abdelaziz concedes, “Patience has its limits” (Global Post, November 13).

Abdelaziz has been clear that renewing the armed conflict remains the legitimate right of Sahrawis, but is seeking to avoid new clashes with a far stronger power that could easily devastate the Sahrawi community in open warfare. Time is not working in favor of the Sahrawis holding out for independence in the refugee camps – with the gradual return of some refugees and a growing population of Moroccan migrants, the Western Saharan administrative capital of al-Aaiun alone now holds twice as many people as the combined refugee camps in Algeria.

Security in the camps is provided by Polisario internal security forces and the 6,000 to 7,000 man Ejercito de Liberación Popular Saharaui (ELPS – Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army), the military wing of the Polisario Front. The ELPS fields a variety of vintage Soviet equipment donated by Algeria and a range of equipment captured from the Spanish, Moroccans and Mauritanians. The Polisario administers its own justice and maintains its own detention facilities. Sahrawi dissidents accuse the movement of human rights abuses, including the torture and disappearance of dissidents (Sahara News, August 7).

Morocco has the upper hand in the constant propaganda warfare with the Polisario Front, disseminating its views and castigating the Polisario for alleged human rights abuses and purported ties to Islamist terrorist groups in a number of English-language websites designed to influence Western (especially American) opinion. For its part, the Polisario accuse Rabat of paying former refugees to produce lurid accounts of torture, illegal imprisonment and repression in the Polisario camps.

The Moroccan Approach

Morocco has devised a plan for regional autonomy as an alternative to holding a referendum on independence and has tried to gain international support for its claim by announcing an $18 billion investment plan intended to double the region’s GDP and create 120,000 jobs (African Energy, November 25).

Though efforts to obtain diplomatic recognition of its claim over the Western Sahara have faltered, Morocco has proceeded with the economic development of the territory based on an ambiguous legal ruling issued by the UN in 2002. Morocco inherited a major phosphates mining operation from Spain and is in negotiations with the EU to expand its fishing zone to include the profitable waters of Western Sahara. Now Kosmos Energy and partner Cairn Energy plan to begin oil exploration in a Moroccan-licensed offshore block next year. This latest development has enraged the Polisario Front, which stated that it was against “exploiting the sovereign resources of the Saharawi people without their consent while we remain under an illegal occupation… Western Sahara remains occupied as a matter of international law and so the taking of petroleum is clearly a war crime” (African Energy, November 25).

Map Showing the Division of the Western Sahara by the Berm

Diplomatic Tensions Between Morocco and Algeria

Despite Morocco’s efforts to depict an atmosphere of calm satisfaction in the Western Sahara, demonstrations in al-Aaiun demanding the immediate withdrawal of Moroccan forces from the Western Sahara and an end to resource exploitation in the region erupted into clashes with police as the protesters raised the banned Sahrawi flag during an October visit by Christopher Ross, the UN Secretary General’s envoy to the Western Sahara (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], November 12).  The Polisario claimed over 100 injured during a crackdown by authorities, but local government in al-Aaiun claimed the incident involved only “children who wanted to throw stones at the security forces”(Agencia EFE [Madrid], October 20). Pro-Moroccan sources accused “infiltrators” of disguising themselves in Moroccan police uniforms before entering homes, abusing residents and looting valuables (Polisario-Confidential.org, October 24).

In an October 29 speech (read on his behalf by Algerian justice minister Tayeb Louh), Algerian president Abdelaziz urged new responsibilities for the UN peacekeeping force operating in the Western Sahara: “The necessity to set up a human rights monitoring mechanism in Western Sahara is more topical than ever… Algeria remains convinced that the expansion of the MINURSO (Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental – United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara) mandate to include human rights monitoring is a necessity” (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], October 29). At present, MINURSO does not include human rights monitors amongst its roughly 250 uniformed and civilian personnel.

An outraged Morocco recalled its ambassador to Algeria on October 30, though Algiers described the move as “an unfortunate decision based and spurious motives and detrimental to the sovereignty of Algeria” (Institute for Security Studies [Addis Ababa], November 11). Bouteflika’s remarks were interpreted by Moroccan foreign minister Salaheddine Mezouar as an indication of Algeria’s direct involvement in trying to influence the West Sahara issue and its “calculated plans” to challenge Morocco’s territorial integrity (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 8). Morocco’s monarchist Istiqlal Party issued renewed calls for the government to retake the southeastern provinces of Tindouf and Bechar, transferred to Algeria by France during the colonial era. Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra called Istiqlal’s statement “totally unacceptable and irresponsible” (al-Arabiya/AFP, October 30; North Africa Post, October 31). Morocco tried unsuccessfully to retake the provinces as part of its “Greater Morocco” strategy in 1963’s “Sand War” with Algeria. The war did, however, see the introduction of massive defensive sand berms by Morocco, a tactic later successfully applied in Western Sahara to isolate the Polisario.

Morocco’s King Muhammad VI declared that his nation would not be lectured to by “those who systematically trample on human rights.” Bouteflika’s remarks also sparked a November 1 (Algeria’s national day) demonstration outside the Algerian consulate in Casablanca in which a young Moroccan member of the Jeunnesses Royalistes (Royal Youth) tore down the Algerian flag in the consulate compound. Though authorities charged the individual, Foreign Minister Lamamra protested that the detainee was treated as a hero in some quarters of Morocco and termed the incident an “insult” to Algeria (AFP, November 14; North Africa Post, November 11). Lamamra, a veteran diplomat, is considered an expert on the West Saharan issue and can be expected to take a hardline on the matter. Algeria’s press called the incident a deliberate provocation and “an attack on the sovereignty of the country” (Le Jeune Indépendant [Algiers], November 2; Le Quotidien d’Oran, November 2). The Polisario Front jumped into the dispute as well, expressing its “outrage against this despicable act which once again confirms the contempt of the Moroccan State in respect of international law, values of brotherhood and good neighborliness and diplomatic practice” (L’Expression [Algiers], November 6).

In a speech given on November 6, the 38th anniversary of the “Green March” that claimed the Western Sahara for Morocco, King Muhammad VI accused Algeria of paying various human rights organizations to produce reports critical of Morocco’s administration in the Western Sahara. Other critics “unfairly and inimically believe anyone who claims that his rights were trampled or that he was tortured,” adding that all nations had the right to preserve their own security in the face of dangers. Referring to the Polisario specifically, the King said: “Anybody who takes issue with Morocco only has to go down to Tindouf and witness violations to the most basic of human rights…” (Al Monitor, November 8).

Bouteflika’s position on human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara was nearly identical to that advanced by the United States at the UN in April before angry reaction from Rabat and Paris convinced Washington to move more quietly on the issue.  Rabat is extremely sensitive to accusations of human rights abuses in Western Sahara, going so far as to declare the UN Secretary General’s envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, persona non grata in Morocco after he made a statement on the issue last year.

The Western Sahara issue has prevented the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) from achieving anything of consequence, with its two largest members at permanent odds. There are very real costs associated with this disharmony: according to the African Economic Commission, a functioning Maghreb Union would result in a five percent growth of GDP in each of the five member nations, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania (al-Jazeera, July 31). Bachir Mustapha Essayd, a member of the Polisario’s National Secretariat, recently suggested that the 1975 Madrid Agreement and Morocco’s interpretation of it pose a significant obstacle in developing relationships between Maghreb region nations: “Morocco is the only [country] responsible for the instability in the region… These agreements stand as an obstacle to all Maghreb countries… Spain gave territory to Morocco that did not belong to it” (Sahara Press Service [al-Aaiun], November 14).

The border between Algeria and Morocco was closed in 1994 after Rabat accused Algeria’s secret services and the Islamist militant Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) of the bombing of a hotel in Marrakesh in which two Spaniards were killed. Algeria in turn accused Rabat of hosting the GIA and the border has been closed (except to an active smuggling trade) ever since.

A Growing Security Threat?

Cooperation between Morocco and Algeria on security issues and other matters has reached low ebb. A mid-November conference of 17 regional foreign ministers hosted by Rabat and intended to strengthen border security in north and west Africa was forced to go ahead without the presence of an Algerian deputation, a crippling absence given that Algeria is the largest and most powerful nation in the region (Middle East Online, November 14). Regional security efforts mean little when the two strongest militaries in the region refuse to cooperate.

Malian foreign minister Tiéman Coulibaly claimed in March that the al-Qaeda-associated Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) was recruiting Sahrawi youths from the refugee camps as mercenaries (LeMag [Marrakesh], March 16). A Sahrawi was among those captured after the battle in northern Mali in which AQIM commander Abu Zeid was killed (Le Figaro [Paris], March 1). There are also reports that Sahrawis from the Polisario camps are participating in smuggling networks that cross the region, though it appears that the opportunity for young unemployed Sahrawis to make money is a greater factor than ideology in leading individuals to the criminal and terrorist networks operating in the Sahel-Sahara region. The camps remain a potential source of militants for AQIM and MUJWA, but at the present, young Sahrawi youth appear to be more interested in resuming a nationalist fight against Morocco than in joining the global jihad.

The kidnapping of three European aid workers from the Tindouf camp by AQIM operatives in October, 2011 appeared to be a sign that the North African jihad was beginning to encroach on the Sahrawi refugee camps, with Moroccan sources suggesting the abductions were carried out by Polisario itself in league with jihadists working under the late Amir Abu Zeid (Polisario-confidential.org, December 2, 2011; AFP, October 30, 2011). Pro-Moroccan sources said the kidnappings had confirmed “the active complicity between Polisario elements and AQIM,” though incriminating details were not forthcoming (Polisario-confidential.org, November 14, 2011). The hostages were eventually freed in Mali in July, 2012 after payment of a ransom.

Cooperation between the secular Polisario Front and the Islamist extremists of the type suggested by Morocco seems unlikely – as Polisario president Muhammad Abdelaziz notes, the Islamists don’t consider Polisario to be a Muslim movement: “They will not forgive us for being a democratic movement. They will not forgive us for having equality for men and women” (PBS, October 25).


Growing resource development and the spread of Islamist militancy in the region are both capable of either intensifying the Western Sahara conflict or compelling a final settlement. The existing ceasefire has allowed the West, the UN and the African Union to assign a low priority to such a settlement, but changing conditions will demand action on this front. Renewed U.S. and French interest in resolving the problem is a promising development, but both parties will have to deal with the competing narratives offered by Morocco (an independent Western Sahara will represent a regional security threat) and the Polisario and their Algerian sponsors (Sahrawis have the right to self-determination as mandated by the United Nations). Should international indifference continue, the leaders of the Polisario Front will experience growing difficulty in keeping frustrated Sahrawi youth trapped in the camps of Tindouf from renewing the armed struggle and shattering the political solidarity and common purpose that is the cornerstone of the Polisario Front. Given that the resumption of such a conflict using guerrilla tactics would be largely futile against Moroccan defenses and overall military might, this would raise the possibility asymmetric tactics such as bombings, assassinations and kidnappings could be introduced to press Morocco to accept a vote on self-determination. Though the Salafist-Jihadist ideology has yet to make significant inroads in the refugee camps, an assault on the Polisario political consensus would likely create new political/militant formations, some of which might be agreeable to accepting assistance from the Islamist militants operating in the region.

This article first appeared in the November 28, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.