GCC backs Morocco over Western Sahara
RIYADH - While attention was focused on US President Barack Obama’s meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI was receiving crucial support from GCC countries over Western Sahara.
King Mohammed VI defended Morocco’s stance after a spat with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had made comments about the huge disputed region of north-western Africa as being under “occupation”.
Moroccan officials refused the United Nations’ expression of regret of the “misunderstandings” and its explanation that the remarks were not deliberate. Rabat, rather, expelled more than 80 members of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The mission included about 500 people.
King Mohammed VI turned to the GCC for support on the issue. In a statement, Morocco and GCC leaders backed Rabat’s insistence on sovereignty over Western Sahara. They also stated that Morocco’s autonomy plan was viewed as “the basis for any solution” to the issue.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud personally endorsed “all political and security causes that are important for your brotherly country, mainly the Western Sahara”.
The GCC position is seen as a signal to Algeria, the main backer of the pro-independence Polisario Front and Morocco’s regional nemesis.
Morocco, which claims the vast, sparsely populated former Spanish possession as part of its southern provinces, has controlled most of the territory for 40 years.
Conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the Western Sahara peaked between 1976 and a UN-brokered 1991 ceasefire. The Polisario Front rejected a proposal by Rabat for “wide autonomy” for Western Sahara, calling for “the right of the Sahrawi people to determine their own future”.
At the GCC summit, King Mohammed VI lamented the “destruction, chaos and human tragedies” since “Arab spring” uprisings.
“The hostile plots that seek to undermine our stability are continuing,” he said. “They will not stop. Several countries in the eastern part of the Arab world have been torn apart and destroyed.
“Today, it is the western part that is targeted and the most recent of these conspiracies has been hatched against the territorial integrity of your second home, Morocco.”
Diplomatic sniping over Western Sahara, a relatively quiet issue for years, resumed in recent months. France has generally adopted a pro-Moroccan stance on Western Sahara; the United States’ tone has been mostly neutral.
King Mohammed VI told Gulf leaders that the country wanted to “diversify its partnerships” with Russia and China, among others — possibly prompting Washington to engage more on the Western Sahara issue to maintain its relationship with a GCC-linked country.
The support from Gulf rulers for Morocco’s position reflected an unprecedented level of regional polarisation over the issue. In a statement at the end of the summit, GCC leaders and the Moroccan monarch lashed out at “separatism”, a reference to pro-Polisario backers.
Ban has warned that a likely outcome of Morocco’s decision to reduce MINURSO staff would weaken UN presence in the region, creating a situation that would be exploited by terrorists and radicals.
In a document obtained by the Agence France-Presse news agency, Ban was reported as calling on a renewed UN mandate for the mission, which he said was necessary to prevent “full-scale war”. Between April 2014 and March 2015, MINURSO conducted almost 10,000 patrols to check whether Moroccan and Polisario forces were adhering to the ceasefire.
With signals coming out of Algeria, where the Polisario Front is based, and with Rabat’s unrelenting position on the dispute, fears are growing that the long-running ceasefire could be under threat.