Politics

Why Is Spain Pandering to Morocco on Western Sahara?



Spain’s overseas coverage strives to safe the nation’s standing as a related center energy with a voice in Latin America, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin. In North Africa, nevertheless, Madrid is skating on skinny ice.

Matters first turned bitter following then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition in December 2020 of Moroccan sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara—a former Spanish colony. Spain refused to observe go well with and confronted months of wrath from the Moroccan monarchy after authorities allowed Brahim Ghali—the chief of the Polisario Front, which resists Moroccan management of the territory—right into a Spanish hospital for COVID-19 therapy. Rabat retaliated by recalling its ambassador.

The 15-month-long row included a number of spats by which Morocco weaponized hundreds of individuals—together with lots of of its personal underage nationals—as diplomatic ammunition. The kingdom repeatedly halted border patrols, letting dozens of migrant boats attain the Spanish Canary Islands and permitting hundreds of fence crossings into the Spanish exclaves Ceuta and Melilla, on Africa’s mainland.

In May and June 2021, through the peak of the confrontation, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s telephone was twice hacked by the Israel-developed malware Pegasus. So was a telephone belonging to then-Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya, in addition to the telephones of Defense Minister Margarita Robles and Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska. Agriculture Minister Luis Planas, a former Spanish ambassador to Morocco, suffered a failed try.

Given {that a} single Pegasus buyer focused over 200 Spanish telephones, together with the Morocco-focused journalist Ignacio Cembrero’s, all indicators level to Morocco. Since the scandal erupted earlier this month, the Spanish authorities has denied Morocco’s duty and sacked Madrid’s spy chief. Despite understanding concerning the assaults from the onset, Spain launched into a bunch of efforts at reconciliation with Morocco after welcoming the Polisario’s chief.

According to Ali Lmrabet, a Moroccan journalist exiled in Spain and longtime goal of the Makhzen—the nation’s deep state—Rabat might properly be blackmailing Sánchez. He means that Morocco’s intelligence providers possible discovered one thing throughout the virtually 3 gigabytes of information siphoned from Sánchez’s telephone. “Blackmailing foreign politicians is their specialty,” he stated.

Last July, Sánchez used a cupboard reshuffle to fireside González Laya, who had been vilified within the Moroccan press. The pro-Moroccan diplomat and former ambassador in Paris José Manuel Albares took her place. Weeks later, Spanish King Felipe VI highlighted the 2 nations’ “deep shared friendship” in a written tribute to mark Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s twenty second anniversary on the throne. When, final fall, Algeria lower off gasoline shipments to its neighbor Spain intervened to safe Morocco’s vitality provide. Still, not one of the gestures appeared to fulfill Rabat.

Eventually, Sánchez caved on the largest situation of all—fearing the implications of Rabat’s freeze in immigration deterrence and the financial asphyxia attributable to the Moroccan border closures on the frontier with Ceuta and Melilla. In a letter to King Mohammed VI dated March 14, Sánchez dubbed the 2007 Moroccan proposal of Sahrawi autonomy below Rabat’s management in Western Sahara “the most serious, credible, and realistic basis” towards resolving the battle. Four days later, the Moroccan palace leaked the diplomatic missive to the press.


The tilt towards Morocco undoes half a century of formal Spanish neutrality within the battle between Morocco and the Polisario. Crucially, the brand new stance lands Madrid nearer to Rabat’s place than both Berlin’s or Paris’s; each Germany and France have acknowledged the autonomy plan as merely “a contribution” however abstained from superlatives. After 10 months, the lights are on once more in Morocco’s ambassadorial residence in Madrid. It hasn’t been cost-free.

“To exit the Rabat quagmire, you have triggered a crisis with Algeria, a crisis within the government, and a crisis … in this chamber,” Cuca Gamarra, the spokesperson of Spain’s primary opposition celebration, chastised Sánchez on March 30. Several events had summoned the prime minister to the Spanish parliament to elucidate a historic about-face they solely discovered about from the Moroccan palace. “It’s humiliating,” Gamarra stated.

Indeed, the pivot has sparked widespread condemnation throughout the political spectrum, a rarity in Spain’s fragmented political panorama. Far-right Vox referred to as it “a damn insult.” In flip, the ruling coalition’s junior leftist associate, Podemos, deplored it as “regrettable.” In the lead-up to Sánchez and Albares’s upcoming go to to Rabat, the spokesperson of the Basque Nationalist Party, Aitor Esteban, reminded the overseas minister of his lack of an endorsement from parliament.

But, above all, the U-turn has enraged Algeria, the EU’s third-largest gasoline supplier but additionally Morocco’s foe and the Polisario’s staunchest ally, at a crucial time. Russia has lower gasoline to Poland and Bulgaria, and Algeria’s goodwill is as crucial as ever. The nation swiftly withdrew its ambassador to Madrid after the pivot. For Eduard Soler, a senior researcher on the Barcelona Center for International Affairs, “Whoever says that they know what the Algerian response will be is giving you inaccurate information.” Soler instructed Foreign Policy that “Algeria is currently going through a process to craft one.”

Indeed, Algiers warned Madrid it could evaluation “all its agreements … in all areas.” In the aftermath of the shift, Spain tried to appease Algeria by swiftly handing over asylum-seeker Mohamed Benhalima, a former navy officer who grew to become outstanding after exposing the Algerian regime’s corruption and becoming a member of the nation’s Hirak protests. Despite Amnesty International’s warnings of the “high risk of torture” he confronted again dwelling, Spain ignored its worldwide obligations as a signatory of the United Nations’ Convention in opposition to Torture and summarily rejected his asylum request. Algeria has since stopped accepting repatriations of its irregular migrants from Spain and drastically slashed the variety of flights between the 2 nations.

Benhalima, for his half, swiftly “confessed” all costs in opposition to him on Algerian TV after his refoulement. In a earlier video, although, the dissident warned that any such confession would represent proof of “severe torture.” The Spanish authorities has not but responded to a congressional petition asking the Ministry of the Interior to justify the repatriation. This week, Benhalima was sentenced to dying.


The solely silver lining in Spain’s latest Maghreb disaster appeared to be that the gasoline faucet wouldn’t be shut off. (Spain sources virtually half of its gasoline wants from Algeria.) “Algeria wants to build the image of a reliable supplier,” Soler stated, a sentiment echoed by Gonzalo Escribano, director of the Energy and Climate Program at Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute.

Escribano notes that Algiers can’t do with out income originating from exports to Spain. Still, the sword of Damocles is hanging over Madrid. Late final month, Algeria threatened to terminate gasoline exports ought to Spain provide Morocco with Algerian oil. Madrid has since vowed to solely pump non-Algerian gasoline via the pipeline that connects Spain to Morocco.

“There’s been a lot of talk of Spain missing the chance to become Europe’s energy hub due to Algerian retaliation after the pivot,” Escribano stated. “Honestly, it doesn’t make sense; Algeria lacks the ability to make up for a hypothetical halt in Russian exports, and, in turn, Spain lacks the capacity to export it northward through the Pyrenees.” Algeria has, nevertheless, declared its relationship with Italy “strategic” and vowed to extend its gasoline exports by 50 p.c to the nation. Algiers additionally intends to favor Rome over Madrid sooner or later. The affect of this riposte is restricted. While the CEO of Sonatrach—Algeria’s nationwide state-owned oil firm—doesn’t rule out a value enhance, its penalties could be removed from catastrophic.

“It’s a mistake how the ministry is handling all this affair with Morocco. It’s a capitulation,” stated a Spanish diplomat who has been stationed within the area a number of occasions, talking on situation of anonymity. “When it comes to Rabat, you don’t assert your interests [by] yielding every time there’s an incident.” Asked concerning the ostensible hastiness of the transfer, the diplomat replied that the overseas minister’s political survival was contingent on his dealing with of the affair.

Diplomatic sources confirmed to Foreign Policy that Albares and his staff had negotiated the pivot with out in search of recommendation from the standard casual diplomatic community of consultants on Western Sahara.

And thus far, the federal government has little to point out for it. Although the border crossings between Morocco and two North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are scheduled to open subsequent week—however with out customs checks, as Spain had promised earlier—Morocco has continued to develop more and more aggressive. Amnesty International reported that “Moroccan authorities have stepped up their harassment of human rights defenders and activists in the past two months.” In April, Algeria denounced Morocco’s bombing of a truck convoy on the border between Mauritania and Western Sahara.

Regarding the prospects for Morocco-Spain relations, Soler is cautious of pompous speak of a basic revamp. He puzzled “To what extent having closed the diplomatic crisis like this lays a more solid foundation?” in reference to the overseas ministry’s secretive methods and Morocco’s leak of Sánchez’s letter.

The former diplomat quoted above concurred with Soler’s qualms about the way forward for bilateral relations, particularly on the subject of the weaponization of migrants—a transfer described by Spain as “blackmail.”

“These are the ways and means of the palace, now and in the future,” the diplomat asserted, referring to the Moroccan monarchy. Various consultants consulted for this text repeatedly recognized worry of Morocco’s weaponization of migration as Spain’s “Achilles’ heel.” At the identical time, Spain welcomed 134,000 Ukrainians within the first two months after the beginning of the conflict, exhibiting humane therapy of migrants is feasible, in response to Human Rights Watch. Not so within the Mediterranean, it appears, the place stasis and the securitization of borders are alive and properly. In 2019—earlier than the outbreak of the Morocco-Spain disaster—Rabat claimed to have stopped 70,000 makes an attempt at irregular migration that yr.

Finally, Spain’s rapprochement with Morocco takes place at a time when the North African kingdom’s diplomacy is treading a tightrope. Regarding Ukraine, Morocco’s no-show at two U.N. General Assembly decision votes on Russia’s invasion testifies to Rabat’s entente with Moscow—a lot in order that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recalled his ambassador to Rabat after Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita burst into laughter at a journalist’s query about Morocco’s stance on the conflict.


By endorsing the Moroccan autonomy plan in Western Sahara and tilting towards a Russia-friendly Rabat, Madrid’s declare that it’s selling a rules-based worldwide order rings hole. One could be hard-pressed to think about Spain declaring autonomy inside Russia as “the most serious, credible, and realistic basis” to resolve the battle in Ukraine’s Donbas area. Why then, Spanish residents appear to be asking, is it acceptable to take action in Western Sahara?

With 70 p.c of Spaniards backing Sahrawi independence and greater than 80 p.c of Sánchez’s voters doing so, the transfer is way from common. Several hundred individuals confirmed up in entrance of the Spanish overseas affairs ministry’s headquarters to protest the pivot.

In the top, Spain has proven the Moroccan monarchy that tantrum diplomacy pays off. The EU has for years espoused a trade-centered overseas coverage, each eastward and southward. It is telling that Germany’s “change through trade” coverage is crumbling in Russia concurrently Spain’s “mattress of interests” does so in Morocco. The “mattress” expression posits {that a} host of shared pursuits would cushion the Rabat-Madrid relationship if frictions arose. Yet, it has proved futile regardless of Spain being Morocco’s greatest buying and selling associate.

To break the impasse, the previous Spanish diplomat suggests a means ahead. “The Moroccans have very successfully diagnosed our weaknesses … and they are determined to take it to the limit. Our rulers, though, have miserably failed to identify what levers we have,” he stated.

These vary from commerce, human rights, improvement help, and gasoline despatched to Morocco via the Maghreb-Europe pipeline to the peace course of with the Polisario, northern Morocco’s financial dependence on Ceuta and Melilla, and Spain’s mediation in favor of Morocco in EU boards. Virtually every shared curiosity that makes up the so-called mattress will be wielded as diplomatic leverage in opposition to Rabat, however the Sánchez authorities is utilizing none of those instruments.

Ultimately, it’s as much as Spain’s authorities to scrub up the mess it has manufactured from the nation’s Western Sahara coverage. Having a plan for subsequent time Morocco’s tantrum diplomacy is ready in movement is the one means.



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