Morocco has agreed to normalise relations with Israel, as part of a deal in which the US agreed to recognise its claim over the disputed Western Sahara region.
Western Sahara is a vast, arid region and a former Spanish colony in northwest Africa that is larger than the size of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, but with less than six lakh inhabitants.
It is mineral rich: home to abundant reserves of phosphate, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of synthetic fertilisers. It has also lucrative fish resources and is believed to have off-shore oil.
The region first came under Spanish control in 1884, and was made a province called ‘Spanish Sahara’ by the European country in 1934.
In 1957, its northern neighbour Morocco staked its claim over the entire territory, reasserting a centuries-old position.
Western Sahara’s Sahrawi ethnic group began efforts to gain independence from Spain. In 1973, a guerrilla movement sprang up called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front).
In 1975, Spain withdrew from Western Sahara, partitioning the region between Morocco, which received the region’s northern two-thirds, and Mauritania the remaining third in the south.
The partition took place despite a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) calling the claims by both Morocco and Mauritania to the region as tenuous, and which favoured self-determination for the Sahrawis.
Morocco annexed Mauritania’s share of Western Sahara, after the latter decided to withdraw from the region and the conflict. An UN-brokered ceasefire stopped the war in 1991.
Morocco has controlled around 80 percent of Western Sahara, including its phosphate reserves and rich fishing grounds.
Combined with its own deposits of the mineral, Morocco currently holds over 72 percent of the world’s phosphate reserves.
The SADR has been recognised by around 70 countries, and is a member of the African Union, but lacks recognition from the world’s major powers, as well as the United Nations.
Morocco had agreed to hold an independence referendum for the Sahrawis. In 2001, however, Morocco’s newly inaugurated King announced that the country would no longer agree to the poll as planned.
Morocco has encouraged tens of thousands of its people to relocate to Western Sahara, thus sharply shifting its demographic balance.
Implications of US decisions
The recognition by Washington is a major symbolic victory for Morocco, which has tried for to get its claim over Western Sahara acknowledged by major powers. It now hopes that more countries follow the US’ lead.
The possible outcome of US decision could be an increase in hostilities in the region, which in turn would further destabilise Western Africa and undermine peace efforts.
US decision is also expected to harm its relations with Algeria, which actively supports the SADR and its independence.