The Polisario Opens a Front in the Battle for the Resources of Western Sahara

Morocco shamelessly exploits the resources of Western Sahara, sometimes through companies belonging to King Mohamed VI in person. But the Polisario Front has decided to take the issue to court and is waging international battles, calling these companies to task.

Phosphate conveyor, Boucraa, Western Sahara

Faced with a status quo unchanged since 19751, the Polisario Front, with the help of the attorneys and other champions of the Sahrawi cause, is denouncing the illegality of the exploitation of the Sahara’s natural resources and their commercialisation by Morocco. At a conference dealing with “The sovereignty of the Sahrawi people over their natural resources” held last 15 November on the premises of the French Senate in Paris at the initiative of Communist Senator Christine Prunaud and l’Association des amis de la République arabe sahraouie démocratique (AARASD), Morocco’s role, that of its client States and of the companies involved in the looting of Western Sahara were laid out in detail.

The issue raised by the participants was simple enough: by what right does Morocco, which occupies 80% of the former Spanish colony, exploit and commercialise its natural resources? In 1963, the United Nations placed Western Sahara on the list of “non-self-governing territories” and it is still on it after a half-century of conflict.

Hence Morocco does not exercise sovereign control over the Western Sahara. Nor is it the administering Power, since Spain has held this role since 1965. Morocco is therefore the occupying Power, administering the population and exploiting the zone’s natural resources.

Withdrawal of the oil companies

At the beginning of the new millennium, Morocco definitively turned down the UN proposal for a referendum and ultimately opted for a self-governing Western Sahara as an autonomous community within Morocco. The self-determination demanded by the Polisario Front was thus implicitly rejected. The movement felt it was being sidelined and denounced the Moroccan appropriation of the Sahara and exploitation of its resources. In 2001 it discovered that two multinational oil companies, the French Total and the US Kerr McGee2 had acquired licenses to explore an offshore block on the Sahara coast. These were the first licenses of this type to be granted and they were an embarrassment to the UN Security Council, who solicited the opinion of the Organisation’s legal adviser.

In 2002, the latter delivered his opinion: these exploring and exploiting activities must not be carried out without taking into account the interests and wishes of the Sahrawi people. Otherwise “they would be violating the principles of international law applicable to activities pertaining to the mineral resources of non-autonomous territories”. This opinion, which did not provide grounds for branding such activities as illegal nevertheless was a boon to the Polisario Front enabling it to stress the illegal nature of these agreements and to appeal to the companies carrying out the drilling. Considering that today the notion of corporate social responsibility is beginning to be raised in business circles across the world, the Polisario Front made it a part of its strategy.

And it paid off: in 2005, Kerr McGee withdrew and in 2013 so did Total when the Norwegian pension fund KLP announced that in was dropping Total SA from its portfolio because of the firm’s prospecting activities in the coastal waters of Western Sahara.

Tracing the phosphate ships

Phosphate is a case in point. In 1947, the Spanish discovered a phosphate deposit which they named Phosboucra, where the mineral is easy to mine, almost by the open-pit method. Since the Spanish left, Morocco has been selling Phosboucra around the world.

To denounce this trade, the Polisario Front has been relying on an international network, Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW). Involving some forty organisations and personalities. The network identifies the firms implicated in the shipping, treatment and marketing of the mineral and lobbies them to stop buying the phosphate until the conflict is settled.

In 2017, thanks to the efforts of this network, ships carrying the phosphate were blocked in Cape Town and Panama harbours. The following year, no ship carrying phosphate from Morocco was able to round the Cape of Good Hope or pass through the Panama Canal.

Which does not mean that this illicit mineral trade has stopped. The WSRW’s 2018 report shows that the Office chérifien des phosphates (OCP) exported 1.93 million tones of Sahara phosphates, representing 10% of all sales of Moroccan phosphates, mostly to New Zealand and India. The activism of associations sympathetic to the Polisario Front has failed to prevent the export and marketing of the mineral. But they are able to trace the movements of the ships and put pressure on certain harbour authorities. Ships bound for New Zealand can no longer call at any Chilean ports on their way to the Magellan Straits.

The fruit and vegetable sector has also been singled out by the Polisario Front, all the more so as it is highly water-intensive. For example, cherry tomatoes are grown in hothouses in the Dakhla region. They are then shipped out through Agadir, 1,200 km away. Packaged and marketed by French and Moroccan firms working hand in hand, they are sold in French supermarkets under one of two labels, Azura or Idyl. On the Moroccan side, the firms operating in this sector belong, either in part or in whole, to King Mohamed VI.

Battle over the fishing agreement

The issue of the exploitation of natural resources also concerns the fish stocks of Western Sahara waters, reputed among the world’s most plentiful. In 2012 the Polisario Front issued a formal request regarding the fishing agreement between the European Union (EU) and Morocco, considering that its application to the Sahara was in violation of international law and of the EU’s commitments. The request was examined by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) which found in favour of the Polisario and suspended the agreement, because it made no provision for the Western Sahara.

This was a very important legal ruling in the diplomatic battle waged by the Polisario Front. The CJEU judges noted that “the Council of the European Union has failed in its obligation” to ascertain whether or not the exploitation of the natural resources of Western Sahara under Moroccan control was beneficial to the Sahrawi population.

This decision greatly angered the Moroccan authorities who declared on 25 February 2016 that they suspended all contact with European institutions, denouncing the “highly political nature” of a decision “contrary to international law”. Several European countries were anxious to allay Moroccan anger, considering that what was at stake in their relations with Morocco took precedence over the ruling of the European court. In February 2016, the foreign ministers of France, Spain, Germany, Portugal and Belgium appealed the decision. And to make sure that the dispute between the EU and Morocco would definitely be resolved, Federica Moguerini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, went to Rabat.

On 13 September 2016, the Advocates General of the CJEU, while stipulating that “Western Sahara is not part of Moroccan territory” ruled in favour of the cancellation of the court’s judgement on the grounds that “the Polisario Front is neither directly nor individually concerned by the contested decision and therefore its appeal must also be rejected.” The Court considered the appeal inadmissible because the EU has never recognized the Polisario Front as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people.

In the end, the European Parliament voted in favour of the fishing agreement between the EU and Morocco on 12 February of this year. It was signed in Rabat and concerns an area which extends beyond Morocco internationally recognized boundaries. The Sahrawi’s had no say in this new agreement, any more than in the previous one, for that matter.

There are several ways in which this agreement matters: first of all it will earn for Morocco over 40 million euros per annum (£34 million, $33 million). But above all it brings confirmation that, for many years now, the Western Sahara issue has been eminently political. Despite the rulings of European courts and UN resolutions, the Polisario Front is up against a country which has the solid backing of France, Spain and the USA.

France at the forefront

Yet despite the imbalance of power, the Polisario refuses to give up and continues to use the arsenal of legal recourse to raise public awareness. Attorney Gilles Devers, who represented the Front’s interests at that conference organised on the premises of the French Senate, explained that several legal battles have been won; but he added: “Our problem is, in the first place, France, and in the second place, Spain”. Indeed it was the French administration, in 1938, that laid down the Trinquet Line between Morocco and Algeria. It was France as well that sent some ten Jaguar fighter planes to help the Mauritanian government push back the Polisario troops in an operation dubbed “Lamatin” (December 1977-July 1978).

France also helped Morocco build six defence walls (1982–1987) around the “useful Sahara” and put an end to the Polisario Front’s offensive. In the Arab world, Morocco is France’s best ally—not to say friend. And the interests of Paris can at times converge with those of Madrid and the EU.

The Front Polisario’s struggle is a legitimate one and is more visible today than it used to be, yet it is up against the unconditional support which several countries provide for Morocco, viewed as a precious ally and stable business partner.

1The United Nations has the task of settling the conflict between the Polisario Front and Morocco but continually comes up against the same obstacle. For Rabat the only solution is provincial autonomy, for the Polisario Front, nothing will do but a referendum of self-determination.

2This firm disappeared in 2006, absorbed by Anadarko, another US oil company.