Bolton’s appointment fuels concern in Morocco

Unlike France, which clearly sides with Morocco’s stand on Western Sahara, the United States has wavered on the issue.
Sunday 01/04/2018
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis (R) greets John Bolton on his arrival for a meeting at the Pentagon, on March 29.  (AFP)
Uncertainties. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis (R) greets John Bolton on his arrival for a meeting at the Pentagon, on March 29. (AFP)

TUNIS - The appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser to US President Donald Trump was warmly welcomed by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front. However, it was warily perceived in Morocco as the ascent of a friend of its foes in the disputed territory.

Bolton is seen as having preset notions about the conflict, challenging Rabat’s diplomatic effort aimed at imposing the kingdom’s view that the Western Sahara is Moroccan sovereign territory.

Trump’s election victory in 2016 fuelled hopes among Polisario’s leaders for a shift in the US position on the African territorial conflict. His opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was widely seen as maintaining close relations with Morocco.

Trump’s administration has yet to announce its position on the issue but the arrival of Bolton at the White House will likely create a window for clarification even when Western Sahara is not a priority for the US administration.

The emergence of a new diplomatic factor with Bolton replacing H.R. McMaster as the national security adviser comes as Morocco and the Polisario Front are locked in an economic fight over the rights to mineral resources in the territory.

“Bolton is a prominent backer of the Polisario Front on the issue of the Moroccan Sahara as he is the only voice from neoconservatives who expressed many times positions against Morocco’s interests, especially regarding the Sahara conflict,” said Moroccan political analyst Abderrahim al-Assri.

Tarik Qattab, a columnist for the Moroccan website Le, perceived as espousing views close to those of the Moroccan palace, said: “In Morocco, John Bolton has made his impact by taking positions openly close to the views of the separatists,” referring to Polisario.

The Independent Sahrawi website, a mouthpiece of the Polisario, could not be blunter as it hailed Bolton’s “known support to the Sahara cause and his opposition to Rabat’s efforts aimed at imposing a reality of colonisation in Western Sahara.”

Despite Washington’s ambivalence over the dispute, Morocco had been traditionally the preferred US ally in the region as shown by the support of former national security adviser and ex-secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s role to Rabat’s move to annex Western Sahara from Spain and sign an agreement with Madrid to take possession of the territory.

Morocco has remained a key strategic ally of the United States in the Maghreb, especially during the Reagan administration. Morocco allows the US Navy access to its port facilities and grants the US Air Force landing, refuelling and overflight rights.

The two countries maintain close cooperation in intelligence and communications exchange.

However, unlike France, which clearly sides with Morocco’s stand on Western Sahara, the United States has wavered on the issue, possibly because it has been building a strong security cooperation with Algeria since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The United States deals with Algeria as a key ally in the Maghreb in the fight against terrorism. Washington has expanded its war on jihadists in the Sahel region where Algiers wields wide influence.

The ambivalence of the US position on the Western Sahara conflict was highlighted on the provisions of the free trade agreement signed by Washington with Morocco in 2004. Goods and services from the Western Saharan territory are excluded from the deal.

The Trump’s administration position on the issue is unknown but the previous views of its new national security adviser are on the record.

“Morocco’s alternative to a referendum was ’autonomy’ for the territory, which meant effectively keeping it under Moroccan control,” Bolton wrote in “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad.”

“In fact, unresolved tensions between Morocco and Algeria, unrelated to Western Sahara, were a major factor in the dispute, not that anyone talked about them very much,” he added.

The impasse over the conflict is becoming increasingly tricky.

While Morocco controls the territory by keeping the Polisario’s threats confined to a no man’s land, the latter is deploying a diplomatic offensive to prevent Morocco from exploiting territorial resources.

In 2016, Morocco temporarily cut diplomatic ties with the European Union in response to a December 2015 ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union to suspend an agricultural trade agreement between the European Union and Morocco because it included Western Sahara within its territorial scope. Also, the European Union’s top court ruled that a fisheries agreement the bloc concluded with Morocco can’t include the waters off the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Rabat is still mulling its response to that decision.