The Untapped Promises of Western Sahara’s Future

Yu Xuan Chia - Singapore

Dashed lines are the best that most maps will do to demarcate the disputed territory of the Western Sahara. On the ground, this line is a sand wall or the “Berm”, a complex structure of barbed wire, bunkers, surveillance systems, and millions of landmines about 2,500km in length. It was built by Morocco in the 1980s to divide the territory and was supported by financial assistance from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US. The Berm is the second longest manmade structure after the Great Wall of China, and yet its existence has received little comment besides being contrary to international humanitarian law—much like the situation of Western Sahara’s people.  The conflict over the former Spanish Sahara is often forgotten for what it is: the last remaining colony on the African continent. And like all colonial relationships, the subject, Western Sahara, is bled and exploited for its resources illegally under UN law. Now that the vast, inhospitable swaths of sandy desert and rocky terrain have shown promising value for mineral and oil resources, there is revived but cautious interest in the colony.

With the ongoing wrestle for power, the wealth of resources is being tapped illegally. Although technically controlled by Morocco, the territory is officially under UN mandate and the debate for development and extraction centers on a legal opinion issued by UN general counsel Hans Corell in 2002, which stated that exploration and extraction of mineral resources in Western Sahara would be illegal “only if conducted in disregard of the needs and interests of the people of that territory.”

The needs and interests of these people are difficult to assess because they have no power. The Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara are among the last people to be waiting to realize the right to self-determination (a core principle of international law which denotes the legal right of people to decide their own destiny in the international order), a right that in its protection and assurance is the foremost duty of the international community. More than half their population lives in refugee exile in desert camps and others under military occupation. Morocco has rejected any notions of a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara since 2002. King Mohammed VI rejected a referendum, declaring Morocco’s claimed sovereignty over its so-called Southern Provinces to be irrevocable in a speech:  “Morocco will not cede a single inch, nor a grain of sand of its dear Sahara.” The future of the Sahrawi is at an impasse. The UN has proven ineffective because of a Security Council that is unwilling to act and a General Assembly which has not fulfilled its outdated role to oversee decolonization.

Some energy companies have already invested in Western Sahara, but the instability of the region has diminished much of its promising economic temptation. Kosmos Energy spent $85 million drilling a well which successfully encountered hydrocarbons in offshore Western Sahara in March of this year. The discovery is non-commercial, the company says, and the well will be plugged and abandoned. Kosmos’ approaches to farm into the territory have been declined by companies opting to remain interested in entering Morocco ‘above the line’ of the Berm, avoiding possible complications in the unsecure land south of the Berm. The value of natural resources exported from occupied Western Sahara in 2012, primarily phosphate mineral rock and fish, exceeded $500 million. However, former UN special representative Francesco Bastagli commented that these exports are not legal under international law and a leader of Polisario (Western Sahara’s Independence Movement), Emhamed Khadad, said the law was “quite clear” about petroleum development: “Western Sahara remains occupied as a matter of international law and so the taking of petroleum is clearly a war crime.”

Bastagli agrees that there is a moral barrier to entry: “the oil companies rather than investing now, which is frankly unethical, should maybe lobby with their governments so that they make a real effort to legalize whatever status the Western Sahara should have.”

Working a way out of this stalemate, which hinders both international trade and the development of economic sovereignty of Western Sahara, requires overcoming the catch-22 of its status as an illegally occupied territory. Since Morocco presented an autonomy proposal in 2007, the Security Council has called for negotiations to find a political solution that will achieve self-determination for Western Sahara. The problem is that Polisario insists on a self-determination referendum that includes an independence option, whereas Morocco will only consider a referendum that confirms or rejects its autonomy proposal. The peace process sits on a knife’s edge, threatened by bouts of intermittent violence.

If there is no political sovereignty, it is not for Morocco or its partners to decide whether the exploitation of resources is benefitting the Sahrawi people. Yet the Sahrawi people themselves are unable to decide this for themselves. They have no voice in politics or in business. When the Sahrawi’s leadership, Polisario, was pushed into exile in Algeria in the 1970s, the world promised Western Sahara a referendum and independence. Since then, the Sahrawi have seen their resources be unlawfully taken from them and been unable to formulate a response without their long over-due referendum for self-determination.

The tantalizing possibilities of development in Western Sahara are null and void so long as the territory remains a “question” on international agendas rather than an issue of decolonization and self-determination that the UN resolution mandated four decades ago. Self-determination was successful in a shorter period of time in Namibia and Timor-Leste.

It is possible that the impassivity of the international community has grown over time, as the people of the Western Sahara are forgotten as specks in the desert, and whose refugee status has come to be seen as almost natural. Two generations have been born and raised within these camps, and the powerlessness the lack of sovereignty engenders must be combated before the identity of Western Sahara is embodied by inaction. The untapped promises of this unauthorized land have the potential of transforming Western Sahara into a key economic power in the region once the Sahrawi are somehow able to harness these resources.