Mauritania says 'time has come' for a solution to Western Sahara conflict

The remarks seemed to indicate a foreign policy shift in favour of Morocco.
Friday 15/11/2019
Mauritania's Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed attends the first joint European Union and Arab League summit at the International Congress Centre in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on February 24. (AFP)
Mauritania's Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed attends the first joint European Union and Arab League summit at the International Congress Centre in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on February 24. (AFP)

TUNIS - Mauritania, in an apparent diplomatic shift after the election of a new leader, said it “hopes to see a solution” to the Western Sahara dispute that has long divided neighbouring Morocco and Algeria.

"We are not onlookers.  We want to see a solution to this conflict as soon as possible,” said Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed at a news conference November 9.

"Mauritania is active and keen to find a solution to this conflict that is accepted by all parties involved in this regional dispute that caused the paralysis of the Maghreb Arab Union," he added.

The statements seem to indicate that Mauritania is shifting its support towards Morocco, which maintains the disputed Western Sahara region as an integral part of the kingdom.

Mauritania previously maintained a position of “positive neutrality” in which it engaged with both sides of the conflict. This stance irked Morocco and strained relations between Rabat and Nouakchott during the reign of former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Mauritania’s engagement in the Western Sahara dispute dates back to the 1970s, when it seized a third of the territory after the Spanish withdrawal and fought an unsuccessful war with the Polisario Front.

After decades of political instability,  the desert Western African nation found its most peaceful era under the leadership of former army general Ould Abdel Aziz starting in 2008.

Ould Abdel Aziz stepped down last August after former Defence Minister Ould Cheikh Mohamed Ahmed el-Ghazouani won the presidential election, paving the way for the country’s first peaceful transition of power.

In his recent remarks, the foreign minister stressed that "the time has come for a just and permanent solution to the (Western Sahara) conflict that would be accepted by all parties” and said the problem had “wreaked great suffering and misery on the people of the  Maghreb.”

Mauritanian analysts said that Ghazouani’s choice of Cheikh Ahmed as foreign minister was a sign of support to Morocco and indicated that Nouakchott, which has open channels of communication with Polisario leaders and good relations with Sahrawi tribal leaders, could play a more active role in negotiations.

The foreign minister’s statements also came as Polisario leaders prepared for a convention December 19-22 to chart a path forward. The Polisario Front demands an independence referendum for the region, but Morocco has insisted it is only willing to provide “expanded autonomy.”

The Polisario's planned convention will take place one week after Algeria’s presidential elections, which could usher in a new foreign policy for the country.

Many analysts say the Maghreb region, struggling with conflict in Libya and threatened with jihadist movements, faces many uncertainness which inhibit from moving forward and stunt its potential.

"The Great Maghreb is pulled from inside by centrifugal forces and is being weakened by events besetting the Sahel region,” said Mehdi Taje, managing director of Global Prospect Intelligence. “The region struggles to emerge as a grouping and faces the risk of dilution in its core geopolitical essence.”

"The stalemate of the Great Maghreb project is because of irreconcilable geopolitical ambitions and unsolved conflicts that open the door for foreign actors determined to weigh in on the strategic balances," he added.

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