Disagreement over Ban Ki-moon's position on the Sahara affair peaked in March. Consequently, the UN's annual April meeting to renew the mandate for the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was expected to add fuel to the fire. Despite being a personal opinion, Ban's Sahara "occupation" comments sparked popular marches in Rabat and Laayoune to be added to hectic diplomatic activity following his visit to the contested Bir Lahlou gulag. The ensuing tension pushed Abdelilah Benkiran, the head of the Moroccan government, to describe the Sahara affair as a matter of life or death for Moroccans, lest Ban's personal opinions commingled with the report and subsequent resolutions.
Morocco had invited the UN chief to visit the region before the April meeting; early signs of possible controversy arose when Ban's agenda did not allow for a visit in late 2015. Morocco then demanded that it be postponed until after April to avoid affecting the annual report with hasty remarks. Contrary to predictions, the report content is more balanced than – or may be resulting from – the measures and quarrel that preceded it.
Three key issues characterise the UN Secretary General's report. It stresses that the region undergoes "frustrations…coupled with the expansion of criminal and extremist networks in the Sahel-Sahara region." These growing sources of vulnerability "present increased risks for the stability and security of all the countries of this region," it adds.
Frustration, though linked to a trans-border conflict that involves regional and international powers, pervades the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and has pushed youth to seek the democratisation of their countries without opting for separatism. Moroccans are also possibly frustrated at the international and regional communities' collective inability to forge a solution to a lengthy and costly affair. Part of the costly aspect of the conflict is that division will amplify the potential for criminality and radicalisation that proximity to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), Daesh and drug- and human-trafficking fuels.
In the second key issue, the report explains that solving the "Western Sahara conflict would mitigate these potential risks and promote regional cooperation in the face of common threats and regional integration to bolster economic opportunity." A key common threat in North Africa are radicalised hot spots along the borders between Morocco and Algeria, Algeria-Tunisia, Tunisia-Libya and the triangle between Morocco-Algeria and Mauritania. Thus, bringing the Sahara affair to a satisfactory conclusion will not only mitigate radicalisation but also bring about economic integrity and social stability. Division will do just the opposite.
Thirdly, the report admits that the MINURSO financial and staff cuts carried out by Morocco shrink the role of the mandate. Thus, Morocco somehow deprived the April meeting of the suspense to extend the MINURSO mission to monitor human rights. Though the Secretary General expects war to erupt if the cuts are not cancelled, the UN is being pushed to recognise the conflict's financial and strategic costs for Morocco. Improving Morocco's image at home and abroad, especially through the National Human Rights Council, necessitate minimising abuses and communicating reforms.
For Morocco, the Sahara affair, especially within the regional context, transcends being a cold war left-over to become part of a revived version of Sykes-Picot. That is why, a few days before the UN report was publicised, Morocco's King Mohammed VI – despite infrequent visibility at Arab meetings – delivered an unprecedented speech at a Morocco-Gulf summit in Riyadh.
The king's speech stressed three key points. The first was regaining the discourse of collective destiny, especially as foreign intervention has rendered the Arab Spring into a gloomy autumn. Due to geo-political affinities, notwithstanding geographical distances, MENA peoples are squeezed between dictatorship and chaos, even when regimes accept change and favour stability. Democracy, on the other hand, is only allowed for the Zionist entity of Israel.
The second was openly mentioning a division project that Morocco faces. In several earlier speeches the king referred to the country's challenges in the Sahara. This time, he addressed a summit of leaders – not the Moroccan public – and drew potential similarities with Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Nevertheless, despite foreign intervention, civil wars in the region result from a lack of democracy and political plurality, the furthering of which can guarantee more solid domestic fronts.
The third was a message to foreign powers: while Morocco cooperates to promote mutual interests, it is not anyone's "protectorate". The countries implied by his speech are numerous, especially from the West; chief among them is the US. The US administration seems to agree with Congress in opposing Morocco's presence in the Sahara. A congress committee hearing clearly convicted Morocco of occupation, exploitation and human rights abuses in the Sahara The hearing even likened the relationship between Morocco and the Sahara to Saddam Hussein and Kuwait or Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. Meanwhile Susan Rice, US representative at the UN, led the initiative in 2014 to support MINURSO's human rights monitoring mechanism.
France may be another potential "protector" state. The term "protectorate" suggests irritation with the French policies that pressurise Morocco to accept an economic and cultural presence and cross-Mediterranean security cooperation in order to guarantee a French veto against anti-Morocco UN resolutions.
A third possible "protector" is Spain. The Spanish Congress voted in support of a UN resolution to push self-determination forward as a solution. Also, Ban's visit to Tindouf was facilitated by the generous offer of a military helicopter from Spain. Moreover, especially for French and American ears, King Mohammed talked about a strategic shift towards Russia, China and India.
In a time of unprecedented shifts, Moroccan public mobility, especially for the UN, sent a message that the Sahara affair concerns the country as a whole and that polemics serve only to further tarnish the UN role in MENA conflicts. The main shift needed by the region is balanced treatment. Otherwise, despotism, radicalisation and backwardness will gain more territory, though these are the woes that foreign and local powers claim to be fighting.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.