Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez recently wrote to Moroccan King Mohammed VI that Morocco’s autonomy plan for the Western Sahara is the only “serious, realistic, and credible” solution to the conflict there. Sanchez’s letter marked a surprising reversal in Spanish policy that has roiled diplomatic relations in the region.
Morocco is an important American ally. Its stability in the turbulent North Africa region helps protect against the opportunism of American competitors such as Iran. As a participant in the Abraham Accords, Morocco is also part of the growing rapprochement between Israel and Arab countries, and it cooperates closely with the U.S. on counterterrorism initiatives.
The status of Western Sahara is a delicate issue in the bilateral relationship, though over the last 15 years the U.S. has increasingly backed Morocco’s position. Since 2007, when describing Rabat’s plan—which would grant Western Sahara significant autonomy while affirming Moroccan sovereignty—U.S. officials have used the same “serious, credible, and realistic” formulation that Sanchez recently employed.
By far the biggest development since 2007 in U.S. policy toward the Western Sahara occurred in December 2020, when former President Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara as a quid pro quo for Rabat’s accession to the Abraham Accords.
So far, the Biden administration has not revoked Trump’s act. It has also affirmed its support for the Moroccan autonomy plan, most recently in March 2022 when Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the “serious, credible, and realistic” refrain.
In contrast, Spain traditionally chose to support the position of the Polisario Front, an armed group fighting for Western Saharan independence. As a result, its relationship with Morocco had long been troublesome, and worsened a year ago when the secretary-general of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, was hospitalized with COVID-19 in a Spanish military hospital. Spain hosted Ghali as a favor to Algeria, which finances the Polisario Front and provides more than 40% of Spain’s natural gas.
After nearly a year of tension with Morocco, Spain made its surprise endorsement of Rabat’s plan for the Western Sahara, and Morocco reinstated its ambassador to Madrid that it had recalled during the height of the tensions.
The rapprochement predictably angered Algeria, however, which is at loggerheads with Morocco on a variety of issues. The relationship is so toxic that Algeria shut down the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline in October 2021 in an effort to strangle Morocco’s access to natural gas.
In response to Spain’s change of heart on the Western Sahara, Algeria broke out the same playbook by threatening to stop shipping gas to Spain, recalled its ambassador to Spain, and suspended its 2 decades old friendship treaty with Spain.
The Spanish-Algerian frostiness comes at a time when North Africa—and Algeria in particular—have assumed greater geopolitical importance as potential alternatives for Europe to Russian gas. Yet Algeria is an old Russian ally, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited last month to reaffirm the friendship. Algeria’s standoff with Spain has not affected its willingness to help the rest of Europe break its Russian gas addiction, yet it is also unlikely to dial back its friendliness with Moscow.
Moroccan-Algerian frictions, meanwhile, will continue and perhaps even escalate as another domino—a big one in Spain—falls in Morocco’s quest for decisive international support for its claims on the Western Sahara.
The U.S. should keep encouraging Morocco to not just remain in the Abraham Accords but to deepen its participation. While Algeria likely distrusts the U.S. because of its closeness with Morocco, Washington should nonetheless offer to mediate—or encourage a third country to do so—the tensions between it and Spain and Morocco, particularly as Algeria will likely only grow in importance as an alternative source to Russian gas.
The protracted nature of the tensions over the Western Sahara has sapped American policymakers’ attention, but particularly given North Africa’s increased prominence because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Washington would be wise to refresh its attention toward this delicate and important region.
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