Morocco draws diplomatic red line over Western Sahara sovereignty

Vehement reaction to Spain seen as preempting any foreign infringement upon the kingdom’s territorial integrity.

Thursday 03/06/2021
A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest against Polisario chief Brahim Ghali, outside Spanish High Court in Madrid, Spain, June 1, 2021. (REUTERS)
A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest against Polisario chief Brahim Ghali, outside Spanish High Court in Madrid, Spain, June 1, 2021. (REUTERS)

RABAT - Throughout the crisis triggered by Spain admitting Polisario leader Ibrahim Ghali for medical treatment on its soil, Morocco has seemed to draw a red line regarding its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, in a way that would pre-empt any future moves against its territorial integrity.

Accordingly, it sent a clear message that Rabat will not separate its sovereignty over the Western Sahara from its economic or security interests with any regional or international party.

The recent escalation with Spain also showed that Morocco possesses many cards that should make others think twice before any provocative moves. The most important of these is the strategic role Morocco plays with Europe in the fight against terrorism and illegal migration, in addition to its important economic ties with the EU.

Analysts take the view that Ghali’s hasty exit from Spain would not have been possible without Moroccan pressure, which prompted Madrid to search for a way out that saves face.  While avoiding giving the impression of expelling Ghali under duress, it nonetheless whisked him out from Spain after a brief court hearing.

Moroccan foreign policy experts pointed out that the most important concern for Rabat is to pre-empt similar moves in the future. They believe Madrid is unlikely now-on to host any Polisario representative, whether openly or in disguise, as was the case with Ghali

The Moroccan message was also seen as directed at Algeria, which will find itself compelled to stop exploiting the silence of the Europeans and the ambiguities of some of their positions.

They stress that even though no one expected the escalation to evolve into a full-fledged confrontation, Morocco won the diplomatic showdown despite Spain’s attempt to involve the European Union and transform the issue into a border and migration row threatening European interests.

Morocco reacted vigorously to Europe’s siding with Spain seeking leverage from the American support for its sovereignty over the Western Sahara and its territorial integrity.

The Polisario leader had arrived in Spain in complete secrecy on April 18 on a medical flight that the Algerian presidency had put at his disposal as well giving him a “diplomatic passport.” He was admitted in a critical condition to Logroño Hospital under an assumed name for “security reasons”.

On May 19, after Rabat recalled its ambassador from Madrid, Vice-President of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas accused Morocco of “blackmailing” Europe through the migration issue.

“No one can intimidate or blackmail the European Union … with regard to the migration issue,” Schinas told a radio station, in clear reference to Morocco.

The Moroccan response was vehement.  Its News Agency MAP published an article entitled “When the European Union loses its way in the crisis between Morocco and Spain”. It launched  a sharp attack on the EU accusing it of “arrogance” and of “defending colonialism.”

It added that the EU “implicated itself in the crisis between Madrid and Rabat, not to denounce the admission of a war criminal on European soil, but to defend the European character of the Moroccan occupied enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.”

It wondered, “How can the European Union, which is driven by insignificant political calculations, forget even for a brief moment the efforts devoted by Morocco to managing the migration crisis in a spirit of responsibility, wisdom and loyalty towards its partners.”

The Moroccan position found significant support from within Europe itself, where voices were raised calling for calm and taking into account the fact that Morocco is a strategic partner whose role is indispensable to Europe, in conjunction with sensitive issues such as the war on terrorism or illegal migration.

Former Spanish Defence Minister José Bono, who is also a the former chief of Spanish intelligence services, stressed the fundamental importance of Morocco’s role in his country’s fight against terrorist networks.

“As a former minister of defence and former head of intelligence services, I want to emphasise that thanks to the kingdom of Morocco, Spain has been able to arrest several radical terrorists and thanks to Morocco, we have been able to prevent deadly attacks,” Bono said in televised statements.

Lebanese political commentator Khairallah Khairallah said that if there is a lesson to be learned from the way Spain got rid of Ibrahim Ghali, it is that Morocco has the means of defending itself and its interests.

Diplomatic analysts believe this does not  only apply to Spain, but also to Morocco’s neighbours and the rest of Europe.

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Khairallah asked, “Did Spain learn anything from the experience it went through with Morocco?” He answered by saying that it is clear that Madrid must have understood that harassing Morocco carries consequences.

Khaled Cherkaoui Semmouni, director of the Moroccan Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, pointed out that the “Morocco of today is not the Morocco of yesterday”.

“The political and economic achievements of Morocco at the internal, regional and international levels, as well as its security and stability in the turbulent regional environment of North Africa, gives it a significant position within the international community “.

Semmouni added further told The Arab Weekly that although Morocco has always extended its hand to Spain to in brotherly relations and a partnership that serves the interests of the two countries, Spain did not respect bilateral relations when it received an enemy of Morocco on its soil, and more than that, it admitted him under a false identity.

He pointed out that the “wavering of the Spanish diplomatic stances and the inconsistency of its positions towards Morocco are likely to have repercussions on the bilateral relations between the two countries, especially in the security field and the fight against illegal migration, because Morocco is a country with principled positions and will not accept any type of behaviour or dealings that infringe upon its territorial integrity and national sovereignty.