Spaniard Sanchez visits Morocco as tensions ease

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez travels to Morocco on Thursday after Madrid reversed decades of Western Sahara policy to end a year-long diplomatic crisis, a reversal that has angered Algeria.

The historic visit will see King Mohammed VI welcome Sanchez as his guest of honor for iftar, the meal where Muslims break their fast during the day of the holy month of Ramadan.

The visit by Sanchez and his foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares, aims to draw a line under a major standoff between the two kingdoms.

The crisis began a year ago when Madrid authorized Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front which claims the independence of the territory of Western Sahara, to be treated for Covid-19 in a Spanish hospital.

Morocco considers the desert territory as an integral part of the kingdom and a very sensitive issue of security and national pride.

The region is mostly desert, but has rich Atlantic fishing waters, phosphate resources and a route to lucrative markets in West Africa.

Morocco waged a bitter war against the Polisario after the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces in 1975.

Weeks after Ghali was hospitalized, more than 10,000 migrants stormed into Spain’s small North African enclave of Ceuta as Moroccan border forces looked away, in an incident meant to punish Madrid.

On March 18, Madrid announced a “new stage” in relations with Rabat and said it now supports the North African kingdom’s plan for the territory: limited autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

– ‘Ambitious roadmap’ –

This decision was widely seen as a victory for Morocco.

He has infuriated regional rival Algeria, a long-time Polisario backer and a major supplier of natural gas to Spain.

Algiers last month recalled its ambassador from Madrid to protest the move, and Algerian energy giant Sonatrach warned on Friday it could raise the price of its gas sales to the country.

Sanchez, who also faced a domestic backlash over the move, said last month during a visit to Ceuta that for 10 months Spain and Morocco were in “a crisis that couldn’t last. in time, which we had to solve”.

King Mohammed later told Sanchez he wanted to agree an “ambitious roadmap” on “issues of common interest”.

These issues include irregular migration, the reopening of borders and sea links, and smuggling around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which are on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast.

Moroccan analyst Nabil Driouech said “economic cooperation is the main driver of relations” between Morocco and Spain, the North African kingdom’s main trading partner.

– Independence in a hurry –

For Spain, the main objective of repairing the fences was to secure Morocco’s cooperation on irregular migration – which, according to observers, Rabat has often used to pressure Madrid.

After last year’s incident in Ceuta, Madrid accused Rabat of “blackmail” and Morocco withdrew its ambassador, who only recently returned.

For Morocco, the question of Western Sahara is the absolute priority.

“For now, the lines will probably not move, but in the long term the diplomatic room for maneuver of the independence movement is shrinking more and more,” said Riccardo Fabiani, director of the North Africa project at the International think tank. Crisis Group.

Rabat controls 80% of Western Sahara, which the UN considers a “non-self-governing territory”.

The Polisario waged a long armed struggle for Morocco’s independence before reaching a ceasefire in 1991 on the promise of a self-determination referendum.

But it has carried out regular, sometimes deadly, attacks on Moroccan forces since the declaration of a null and void ceasefire in November 2020.

Former US President Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the region the following month, and Rabat has since stepped up efforts to get other world powers, notably within the European Union, to follow suit.

Spain’s former ambassador to Morocco, Jorge Dezcallar, said the latest deal could help build better ties.

“But I wouldn’t be too sure,” he added. “It will depend on internal politics in Morocco”, over which Spain has no control.