This month relations between Morocco and Spain reached a crisis point after plummeting to new lows with the two sides lashing out at each other in the strongest of terms.
This crisis has not come out of the blue. Tensions have been escalating for some time including over the issue of the disputed Western Sahara. Spain was furious when the Moroccan parliament ratified two laws in January 2020 which delineating its maritime boundaries to extend the Kingdom’s legal authority over waters off the Western Sahara. This included those near the Canary Islands which it is believed contain mineral-rich reserves.
Rabat was angry when Spain, and other EU member states, made clear their preference for an UN-brokered solution to the Western Sahara crisis. They refused to support the December 2020 trilateral agreement hatched by Jared Kushner whereby Morocco recognised Israel in return for Washington’s recognition of the Kingdom’s sovereignty over the disputed territory.
Things reached a critical level in April, however, when Madrid facilitated the entry into Spain of Polisario’s leader Brahim Ghali (b.1949) to enable him to receive medical treatment including for a serious case of COVID-19. He entered the country under a false name using travel documents provided by Algeria.
Madrid asserted that Ghali had been allowed into the country ‘strictly for humanitarian reasons, for medical treatment.’ Morocco exploded with anger, not only because Spain had been willing to accept Ghali, but it was also furious that it had chosen not to consult Rabat about it. Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita described it as being ‘inconsistent with the spirit of partnership and good neighbourliness’ while Minister of State for Human Rights, Mustafa Ramid, accused Madrid of committing a ‘reckless and totally unacceptable act’, and asserted that Morocco had ‘the right to lean back’ in response.
Opening the floodgates
Morocco relaxed its border controls next to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in mid-May and in 36 hours around 8,000 would-be migrants either swam around the border fence into Ceuta or walked across the beach at low tide, while Moroccan border guards did nothing. A panicked Spain deployed 3,000 troops to Ceuta plus police reinforcements. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited the enclave and vowed to defend it. It has subsequently repatriated migrants back to Morocco with around 6,500 having returned by 21 May. The authorities have also tried to reunite some of the 438 unaccompanied minors who arrived in Ceuta without their families. Rabat blamed the sudden influx of migrants on the weather and on tired border guards, but Madrid clearly viewed it as a deliberate tactic of revenge.
Rabat had hoped that, when Pedro Sánchez came to power, it would usher in an era of improved bilateral relations but it remains deeply suspicious of the left-wing Podemos Party which is part of the current ruling coalition. Last year Podemos’ leader and the current Second Deputy Prime Minister, Pablo Iglesias Turrión, called for a referendum to determine Western Sahara’s future and some believe that Podemos was behind Ghali’s being allowed into Spain for medical treatment.
Morocco is also unhappy about at the humanitarian aid Spain provides to the Polisario camps in and around the Algerian border town of Tindouf. Rabat also fears that Spain is edging closer to its regional rival, Algeria, at the expense of its relationship with the Kingdom.
Morocco is likewise angered by the fact that Brahim Ghali will almost certainly not stand trial in Spain. He has been summoned by to appear in court on 1 June in relation to a war crimes case brought by a Sahrawi human rights association and a Spanish national of Sahrawi origin. Ghali is, however, planning to leave the country without answering any charges brought against him and the unwillingness to detain him has infuriated Rabat.
Relations could deteriorate with Morocco, not only increasing its demands on the Western Sahara, but also upping the ante over the status of Ceuta and Melilla. Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani incensed Spain at the end of 2020 when he told Saudi Arabia’s al-Sharq television channel that Morocco should begin discussing the situation of the two Spanish enclaves. He stated that, ‘Ceuta and Melilla are among the points on which it is necessary to open discussion,’ and added ‘this file has been suspended for five to six centuries, but it will be reopened one day.’ Consequently, there are fears in Spain that Morocco may try to take the issue to the United Nations.
There is still room for this spat to worsen. Ultimately, however, it will most likely blow over given that the two sides have so much invested in their relationship and because they need each other. Moreover, the EU will do its utmost to intervene in order to smooth things over. France has already stepped up and is trying to mediate between the two sides so it is unlikely that bilateral relations will reach the point of no return. Meanwhile however, tensions will remain strained and a further escalation is certainly possible.