Episode 42. Western Sahara
On the Northwestern edge of the Sahara desert lies the former Spanish colonial possession of Western Sahara. The region has been in various states of conflict for over 50 years, with Morocco's Royal Armed Forces and the Algerian supported Arab Sahrawi Democratic Republic battling it out for control. We look at the origins of this conflict, the difficulties in resolving it, and the consequences for failing to do so for the stability of Western Africa. Faced with the explosive economic potential of Africa over the next few decades, countries like the United States, France, Israel, Turkey and Mauritania have been furthering their involvement in this conflict as it continues to grow in importance for the stability of the region.
Professor at the University of San Francisco
Author of several key books about the history and future of Western Sahara
Project Director for North Africa at the International Crisis Group
Expert on the politics of Morocco and North Africa.
Senior Fellow at Global Initiative
Non-Resident Resarch Fellow at Noira Research
Expert on the Libyan and North African theatre.
Part 1: Africa's Last Colony (02:09)
Unique culture, language and colonial legacies form the foundation of this conflict, and Stephen Zunes takes us on a historical and demographic overview of the Western Sahara to understand these.
We look at the legacy of decolonialisation from Spain, and the impact of Cold War politics on the Polisario Front's fight against Morocco. International law is also a complicated subject deeply relevant to this conflict, as Western Sahara's legal status was never properly resolved, instead dissolving into a 16 year conflict.
This conflict sparked immediately following Spanish withdrawal, as Morocco sought to establish control over much of the region. We look at the back and forth of this conflict, the importance of Western Sahara's natural resources, the international actors involved and how we got to where we are today.
Finally we look at the state of affairs as it stands. Why does Algeria continue to support the Polisario in Western Sahara? What does Europe fear if the conflict goes sideways? And where do the United States and the Gulf States sit in this conflict?
Part 2: Horses and Hand Grenades (24:40)
Riccardo Fabiani helps us focus on the conflict's tactics, strategy and technology.
We analyse the minutiae of each involved nation's interests and domestic factors that are at play, and the potential for the conflict to spiral and upset regional security.
We dive into the use of drones by Morocco; with potential links to Israeli production and US tech, their confirmed use would have significant geopolitical consequences.
In 2020, the Trump administration reached a deal with Morocco to recognise its claims over Western Sahara in return for some normalisation of Moroccan relations with Israel. We look at the details of this deal; its importance in the international political sphere, the domestic US factors at play and the benefits for Morocco.
With a new generation of Sahrawi people growing up in what appears to be a hopeless military and diplomatic situation, and in proximity to many other groups in refugee camps, Fabiani looks at the potential dangers of the Polisario building ties with armed groups in the region, and the security dilemma that may precipitate.
We zoom out to look at the roles Mauritania, Algeria and the Western African region as a whole play in this conflict, particularly in terms of economics.
Finally we look at the deep importance of Western Sahara to the ongoing legitimacy of the Moroccan Monarchy; it has staked a great deal on nationalism and the idea of Greater Morocco. Failing to prosecute this war or maintain domestic support for it would be deeply dangerous for them and their influence on the direction of the region.
Part 3: Overlooked (52:35)
Jalel Harchaoui brings his deep regional knowledge to bear in this part, helping us understand the balances of power in Northern Africa and the role that Western Sahara plays in them.
Rival Gulf States find themselves on the same side in this conflict, alongside the United States and most of the powerful international actors who are involved. Why then, does Algeria continue to involve itself in supporting Western Saharan indepedence and the Polisario front? Harchaoui analyses Algeria's position, outlining what drives them to support the Polisario, and how far they are likely to go.
European involvement in this conflict is somewhat of a misnomer, with Madrid involving itself as little as possible, only Paris has a real say here. We look at what they seek to achieve and how likely they are to ramp up their involvement.
The great powers are unusually uninvolved in this issue; we examine Russia's acceptance of their weapons ending up in Polisario hands, Chinese indifference and inaction overall, and the United States' mixed role as the leader of International Institutions and an arms supplier to Morocco.
We round out by looking at the potential acceleration or intensification of this conflict, and the troubling, far reaching consequences this would have. Guerilla warfare stumped the US in Afghanistan and Iraq; Morocco is having many of the same issues.
Harchaoui helps us understand the dangers that a spiralling of the conflict would present not only for Western Sahara's littoral states, but North African security as a whole.
The Red Line's Western Sahara Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Western Sahara
Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution
Endgame in Western Sahara
Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa
For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/theredlinepodcast
This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Jarrett Chancellor, Thomas Garrison, Dick Johnson, Niklas, and Angus Aitken.