Morocco goes shopping for territorial waters

The essentials: Morocco's parliament has passed two laws that formalize the annexation of Western Saharan territorial waters under Moroccan sovereignty. While this does not present a fundamental change of the status quo, the unilateral move underscores the intractability of the conflict and the risks Morocco is willing to take to secure its economic interests. It comes shortly after an attempt by Israel's government to ensure normalization of relations with Morocco, in return for recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara by the United States, has become public.

The background: On January 22, Morocco's lower chamber of parliament voted unanimously to amend legislation defining the country's maritime borders to include the territorial waters of Western Sahara. Another second measure that creates an exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles off the coast of the territory was also accepted.

Western Sahara is a territory formerly colonized by Spain and claimed and occupied by Morocco. There are indeed some historical facts that indicate a Moroccan presence in Western Sahara before Spanish colonization. But a 1975 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice stated that these ties were not deep enough to justify Moroccan sovereignty of Western Sahara, and the issue should be decided by the Sahrawis themselves in a referendum.

From 1970, the Polisario Front, with the backing of Algeria, has fought for the independence of the Sahrawi people, although a cease-fire with Morocco took effect in 1991. Morocco's claim is not recognized by the United Nations and most countries, which hasn't hindered Morocco in exploiting Western Sahara's considerable natural resources.

Moroccan economic interests are currently centered primarily on the exploitation of phosphates and fishing. Between 15 and 20 percent of Moroccan exports can be traced back to Western Sahara in some way. The territorial waters of Western Sahara may also harbor substantial oil and natural gas reserves, which could become a significant source of income in the future.

The continued occupation of Western Sahara has complicated Morocco's external relations for decades. Concerning the European Union, Morocco's claims have led to conflict with Spain, which has territory in the form of the Canary Islands only 50 miles off the Western Saharan coast. The issue also has complicated trade deals between the EU and Morocco. For years, it kept Morocco out of the African Union, which, similarly to the United Nations, recognizes Polisario as the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people.

That Morocco's government and parliament are continuing to push the issue now may also be a reflection of waning international interest in the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. The US government seems to consider accepting Moroccan sovereignty in exchange for Morocco normalizing its ties to Israel. While the United Nations continues to mediate between the parties involved, there is no discernible progress since 1991. The EU, possibly the actor with the most significant economic influence over Morocco, has mostly relegated the question of Sahrawi independence behind its economic interests.

The future: Morocco's government is happy to continue its strategy of slowly normalizing the status quo. With little in the way of coordinated international pressure over the issue, the economic benefits of occupying Western Sahara far outweigh the occasional diplomatic problems. This strategy is not without risks, of course. While armed conflict with Polisario seems unlikely at the moment, this situation could certainly change. This perspective also neglects the victims of Morocco's policy: Sahrawi's who live in refugee camps in Algeria or who are victims of suppression due to their agitation for independence.