Morocco chalked up another diplomatic success this month when, on 27 October, the UAE announced it was planning to open a general consulate in Laayoune. This was confirmed during an October call between King Mohamed VI and Abu Dhabi’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Over recent years the Kingdom has been working hard to try to convince states to open consulates in the Western Sahara in obtain international recognition of its sovereignty over the disputed territory. It has had several successes with African states. In early 2020, Côte d’Ivoire opening an official consulate in Laayoune, following the Comoros, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principle and the Central African Republic (CAR). Meanwhile both Gambia and Guinea have consulates in Dakhla which is 500 kms south of Laayoune. Last month consulates were opened in: Laayoune by Zambia and Eswatini; and in Dakhla by Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Burkina Faso.
While this has bolstered Morocco’s claims, especially in Africa, the UAE’s decision carries considerable weight. Having an Arab consulate in the Western Sahara will further solidify Rabat’s claims to rule the territory. It also hopes to garner support from other conservative Arab states but will undoubtedly anger Algeria which is the main supporter of the indigenous Polisario group.
The UAE’s move is also important because of the strains that have marred bilateral relationship in recent years. Morocco’s neutrality in the Gulf crisis which erupted in 2017 was a problem and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh were angered by Rabat’s unwillingness to cut ties with Qatar. The Emiratis were also upset by Morocco’s withdrawal from the Saudi-led military campaign against the Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
Relations deteriorated to a point that the UAE recalled its ambassador from Morocco in April 2019. A year later, Rabat withdrew its ambassador as well as two consuls, the military attaché, and other embassy staff, but provided no for doing so. Bilateral relations have recently improved, however, with the appointment of a new ambassador to the UAE in July followed by a new Emirati ambassador to Morocco in August.
This latest decision about the Laayoune consulate is a major coup for Morocco. Unsurprisingly, Polisario strongly objected to the news and so too did Algeria. It described the opening of consulates in Western Sahara as ‘an irresponsible step’ and ‘an unjustified aggression.’ Polisario’s head of foreign affairs, Mohamed Salim Oud Saliq, told the Algerian media that Polisario was considering signing a defence pact with friendly countries, and especially those in Africa, to confront Morocco and to force it to stick to its international legal obligations regarding the territory.
Polisario is becoming increasingly angered by the gains that Morocco is making over the Western Sahara, both through its diplomatic efforts and its insistence on building infrastructure on the west side of the berm (sand wall). It is also frustrated at the impotence of the Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental (MINURSO). Although MINURSO’s mandate, which was due to expire on 31 October, will in all likelihood be renewed, there is real frustration at the lack of concrete progress as reflected in the UN’s failure to appoint a successor to Germany’s former president, Horst Köhler, who resigned from his post as personal envoy of the UN Secretary General in May 2019.
Some of this frustration was evident at the end of October when members of Polisario blocked the flow of commercial traffic in the buffer strip at Guerguerat on the border between Western Sahara and Mauritania. Around 50 Polisario members and supporters blocked the traffic in protest at the lack of progress in the Western Sahara file.
These actions irritated Morocco. However, with the UN’s lacklustre approach to resolving the conflict, and with the world’s attention focused elsewhere, the Kingdom is on a roll. It will do everything it can to capitalise on its recent diplomatic successes to foster even more support for its claims to sovereignty over the territory which it has occupied since November 1975.