US consulate in Western Sahara to bolster ties with Morocco

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said Sunday that “Morocco feels stronger in its legitimate fight for its territorial integrity… with the support of its friends.”
Monday 11/01/2021
US Ambassador in Morocco David T. Fischer (L) and David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, (R) take a selfie wearing Sahrawi, in Dakhla. (AP)
US Ambassador in Morocco David T. Fischer (L) and David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, (R) take a selfie wearing Sahrawi, in Dakhla. (AP)

DAKHLA, Western Sahara - The United States on Sunday started the “process of establishing” a consulate in the Western Sahara, after Washington recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory.

US President Donald Trump agreed last month to extend US recognition of Morocco’s soverignty over the Western Sahara in a deal which included Moroccan King Mohammed VI agreeing to reopen liaison offices between Morocco and Israel.

US Ambassador to Morocco David Fischer visited Sunday the port of Dakhla, 1,440 kilometres south-west of Rabat in the far south of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, to mark the start of work on a diplomatic office there.

“It is such an honour for me to visit this stunningly beautiful and critically important region of Morocco, and to begin the process of establishing a US diplomatic presence here,” Fischer said, according to the US Embassy.

Fischer was joined by the top State Department official for the region, David Schenker. Both diplomats donned flowing white embroidered robes that are traditionally worn in the territory over their suits.

“Our trip today to Dakhla is another historic milestone in more than 200 years of friendship between the Kingdom of Morocco and the United States of America,” the US Embassy in Morocco’s Twitter account quoted Fischer as saying.

In December, the US State Department opened a “virtual” diplomatic post in Western Sahara, ahead of finding “an appropriate site” to build a consulate.

The building is expected to be ready in the coming months, Fischer added.

— Bolstering ties —

Western Sahara is a disputed and divided former Spanish colony, mostly under Morocco’s control, where tensions with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front have simmered since the 1970s.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said Sunday that “Morocco feels stronger in its legitimate fight for its territorial integrity… with the support of its friends.”

He added that Morocco continues to “support the 1991 ceasefire, but will react to any provocation,” adding that Rabat “will support the UN process… to find a solution to this long-standing dispute.”

US and Moroccan flags stand together on the podium in Dakhla, Januray 10, 2021. (AP)
US and Moroccan flags stand together on the podium in Dakhla, Januray 10, 2021. (AP)

On his part, Schenker emphasised that Morocco is a pivotal partner for regional stability.

Since gaining independence from France in 1956, Morocco has been committed to nurturing a special relationship with the United States, based on both nations’ historical ties and on a succession of personal friendships between Mohammed V, Hassan II, and now Mohammed VI and their American presidential counterparts. For decades, the two countries have enjoyed a broad military partnership.

Bourita revealed that an advisory committee will meet next week in order to finalise the 10 year military agreement between Morocco and the United States, noting that this agreement amounts to “a roadmap in the field of defense and military cooperation.”

The US consulate will reportedly host the local office of the Prosper Africa ​​organisation, an American initiative launched in 2018 that includes 17 US agencies. The Moroccan office will be the first outside the United States, where the consulate boasts an economic character related to the African region.

International Relations Professor Khaled Chiat told The Arab Weekly that “there are two possible readings for this visit: The first one is of a political nature, according to which the United States recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The US decision was voiced earlier in the heart of Algiers. This means that Washington will adopt the same position at the United Nations in an approach that will likely determine the course of the final solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara.”

Chiat added that “the second reading could be summarised in Washington’s adoption of a strategic vision to deal with economic competitiveness at a continental level. This perspective springs from the nature of transformations that are witnessed in the field of energy amid a growing scramble for economic influence among great powers, including the United States, China and Russia. All the aforementioned dynamics fit Moroccan openness’ on Africa, ensuring the presence of an economically-oriented partner who provides additional political support.”

Chiat believes that “the opening of a consulate in the city of Dakhla supports Morocco’s strategy with regard to its presence in the African depth, on the economic, diplomatic and political levels, and freedom from the restrictions of the Sahara file.”

— New opportunities —

The shift in US foreign policy creates new opportunities for trade and tourism that will provide a welcome boost for the region and sun-kissed coastal cities like Dakhla.

Addressing the gathering, the US ambassador said the opening of a consulate is a plus for the United States, allowing it to “take further advantage of Morocco’s strategic positioning as a hub for trade in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.”

Investment and development projects will profit the region, he added.

Last month, Fischer said that a consulate would allow Washington “to take further advantage of Morocco’s strategic positioning as a hub for trade in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.”

The US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Morocco hope Dakhla can become a major regional port.

In December, the DFC inked a memorandum of understanding to invest $3 billion over the next four years into Morocco or with Moroccan partners working in sub-Saharan Africa.

It also promised an initiative to “catalyse $1 billion of investments in projects that advance women’s economic empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Khatat Yanja, head of Dakhla’s regional council, said he looks forward to the US arrival opening up his city to new markets and persuading more tourists to enjoy its beaches, local wares and breathtaking sunsets.

He expressed hope for US investment in tourism, renewable energy, farming and especially fishing.

“We appreciate such a gesture,” Yanja said of the future consulate. “It will open a new chapter altogether when it comes to investment in this region, via employing people and creating more resources. It will also open more doors for international trade.”

The main fishing port is the lifeline of the local economy, employing 70% of Dakhla’s work force.

Thousands of boats bring in 500,000 tons of fish per year, for exports worth 2.2 billion dirhams ($249 million) annually, according to port director Bintaleb Elhassan.

— Diplomatic momentum —

US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker visited Dakhla and Western Sahara’s biggest city, Laayoune, on Saturday.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (C) and US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker — who is wearing a traditional Sahrawi dress — (centre-R) pose for a picture after their meeting in Dakhla. (AP)
Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (C) and US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker — who is wearing a traditional Sahrawi dress — (centre-R) pose for a picture after their meeting in Dakhla.(AP)

While the consulate isn’t expected to open for another six to 12 months, Schenker’s trip is a way for the US to cement its commitment to Western Sahara before Trump leaves office.

Trump said the goal of the Western Sahara consulate would be “to promote economic and trade opportunities in the region,” which is about the size of Colorado and is believed to have considerable offshore oil deposits and mineral resources.

Western Sahara’s economy is run by Morocco, which has built most of the territory’s infrastructure and encouraged Moroccans to settle there.

The US will be joining a growing number of countries with consulates in the territory, the most recent representing Gambia.

“Gambia feels a sense of gratitude for Morocco’s support, including Morocco building the new Foreign Ministry building in Gambia. Also, Morocco continues to grant educational grants for Gambian students,” Consul General Ousmane Badjie said in his office.

Some 20 countries, mostly African and Arab nations, have already opened diplomatic offices in the Moroccan-held area, in a clear show of support for Rabat.