Western Sahara: Obama to chose sides

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Western Sahara is under microscopic scrutiny in the United States. Last week, two reports, one put together by foreign policy experts and the other by Senators, urged President Barack Obama to position himself on the future of the northern African territory. For over thirty years, this non-autonomous area south the of Moroccan Kingdom has been the bone of contention between Morocco and Algeria. Coveted for its natural wealth, Western Sahara represents both political and economic interests for north African countries as well as the United States.

In his inaugural address, U.S. President revealed his intention to end the stigmatization of Muslims and the deterioration of the image of the United States in the Islamic world. “In the Muslim world: we want to find a new approach based on interest and mutual respect,” he said in January. Upon these promises, U.S. Senators, are urging him to position himself on the question of Western Sahara.

The US and Western Sahara: A long story

Four members of the US Senate, in a letter to Barack Obama and his administration, called for support for the people of Western Sahara in exercising their right to self-determination “through a free, fair and transparent referendum”. Ensuring that their demand is recognized as being in conformity with international law, Senators Russel D. Feingold, James M. Inhofe, Edward M. Kennedy and Patrick J. Leahy pointed out that the International Criminal Court of Justice in 1975 acknowledged the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people. This revelation indicates that the rather thorny issue has been gathering dust on the shelves of the Oval Office for some time now. In her farewell tour last September former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, stressed the need to resolve the Western Saharan conflict as quickly as possible. Morocco and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), founded by the Polisario Front in 1976, are both claiming the territory. The latter is an independence movement supported financially, militarily and diplomatically by Algeria.

The Maghreb (North Africa), a challenge for Obama

The Western Saharan region, coveted by both Algeria and Morocco, is a major foreign policy play for the United States in terms of energy supply as well as the fight against terrorism. “Why the Maghreb matters” a special report by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (PIPS) and the conflict management department at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) reminds the U.S. administration of its position: autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. This group does not see the need to involve the nationals of Western Sahara to determine their own political status. According to study, the idea, which is too dangerous, means that an independent Western Sahara would become one of the poorest countries in the world, due to the fact that it has no arable land and very few natural resources. What they are driving at is that under these circumstances it would be almost impossible to promote the independence of Western Sahara. But the real reason lies elsewhere.

Western Sahara, the new US El Dorado?

A Western Saharan autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, as advocated by a panel of foreign policy experts, including former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is “favorable”. This is because it protects the economic interests of the United States in the region. According to a study released Tuesday, March 31, this regional integration in North Africa will support a series of U.S. interests that are central to the pursuit of strategic stability, security and economic objectives.

The CIA factbook on Western sahara indicates that the territory has many natural resources including oil, fishing, and phosphate which accounted for more than 60% of exports in 2007. For the United States, which in 2006 signed a free trade agreement with Morocco, this could well be a boon. In 2008, Moroccan exports to the United States stood at US$812 million, representing a record growth of 42% over the previous year. A great business deal for both the Moroccan Kingdom and the United States.

The Algerian impasse

In advocating for the independence of Western Sahara, the American experts have chosen sides, that is, the Morrocan Kingdom. Algeria’s bid for the right to self-determination of the Saharawi people has therefore been rejected. The document plainly states that even if [Algeria] is an important ally of the United States because of its oil and gas, it must not under any circumstances, stifle a successful outcome of the Western Sahara conflict. Does this mean Algerian support for the Saharawi people is perceived as a simple whim? To calm the situation, the report recommends an enticing solution: free trade with the United States. In fact, the US government cannot discard Algeria’s essential support. Recognized and widely praised for its experience in the fight against armed Islamist groups, Algeria is an asset for America’s search for Arab allies to fight terrorism.

In both the United States and the Maghreb, the issue of Western Sahara has provoked a political debate. For over thirty years now, the conflict has been mired in numerous unsuccessful negotiations. But with his vision of “Yes we can!”, Barack Obama looks poised to settle the conflict. Last January, the Western Saharan head of State, Mohamed Abdelaziz, expressed hopes that “during the Obama presidency, the independence of Western Sahara will finally be recognized by the UN”. But for now, we just have to wait …

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