ISS Africa
Home / Topics / Conflict prevention and analysis / 01 Apr 2003: Western Sahara - Oil on Troubled Waters
01 Apr 2003: Western Sahara - Oil on Troubled Waters
1 April 2003


April 2003


Oil fields found off the coast of the of Western Sahara have raised the profile of this disputed territory. Among the first indications of this was the United Nations Security Council vote in March to extend by two months the mandate of Minurso, its mission in Western Sahara. Until the game was changed by the discovery of oil, the UN was keeping this 12-year-old mission only just alive by extending its mandate a month at a time.

The Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara has to all intents and purposes completed its task of drawing up a roll of the 200,000 Saharawis eligible to vote in the envisaged referendum on the future of the territory. Morocco has occupied it in defiance of the UN since 1975. The UN force also polices a ceasefire that has held since 1991, whereby the Moroccan forces remain behind a sand wall in the West of the occupied territory. The Saharawi fighters of the Polisario Front move freely about the rest of the zone.

The bulk of the Saharawis (about 160,000 people) live in refugee camps in Algeria. They survive on the grace and favour of the UN and a range of mainly European humanitarian organisations. King Mohamed VI of Morocco confessed earlier this year that Morocco’s promise eventually to go along with the UN peace process in Western Sahara amounted to little more than a stalling tactic. Meanwhile, thorough work by Minurso in compiling the voters’ roll has foiled Rabat’s attempt to manipulate the process by pouring Moroccan settlers into the occupied territory and registering them as voters. Moroccans are, however, well aware that the Saharawis under their heel in the occupied territory would vote with their refugee compatriots in the camps, and they have no intention of going through with the referendum, which was proposed by the UN Security Council, let alone accepting its outcome.

Morocco’s defiant stand on Western Sahara has exacerbated its relations with neighbouring Algeria, which supports and shelters the Saharawis and has paralysed the Maghreb Arab Union comprising Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Morocco has, however, staked everything on France and the United States managing to strong-arm the Saharawis into accepting less than complete independence. The Saharawis, with the consistent support of Algeria, reject any notion of a partial or conditional independence should the people opt for Morocco’s departure. Herein lies the deadlock: Morocco cannot risk withdrawing its troops from the occupied territory and have them return to a kingdom that has unemployment approaching 40%, because it fears that idle soldiers would only contribute to the seething discontent over the new king’s failure to deliver promised reforms.

Until now both France and the United States have concurred with this analysis. They have supported a so-called third way proposed by former United States secretary of state, James Baker, acting as special envoy for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. After failing three times to get UN Security Council approval of what become known as the Baker Plan, Annan attempted a pressure play and threatened that the withdrawal of Minurso was one of four options. The second option was to implement the 1998 peace plan, which would mean holding the election. The other options were to discuss a division of the territory and to revise the Baker plan.

Baker has no illusions that Morocco will ever agree to any plan that could result in its having to quit the territory. His new proposal thus still amounts to a Moroccan wish list and is unlikely to have any more success on a Security Council that currently includes Spain. Madrid has recently had something of a crisis of conscience about abandoning its former colony in 1975. In addition, Spanish relations with Morocco hit an all-time low last year when Moroccan soldiers had to be ejected from the Spanish Mediterranean island of Persil. Morocco’s vigorous opposition to the Iraq war has, moreover, soured its relations with Washington.

Support for the SADR

Not surprisingly, Baker Plan II met with a decided thumbs down from the Saharawis and their supporters. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is a member of the African Union and can count the vast majority of African states among its supporters. South Africa has given de facto recognition to the SADR, which has an ambassador in Pretoria. The Saharawis continue to press Pretoria to fulfil written promises made by former President Nelson Mandela and Foreign Minister Nkosazana Zuma to establish formal ties between the two countries. President Thabo Mbeki, who is under pressure from Washington, Paris and Annan to maintain the status quo, has said he is waiting for an opportune time to do this. In addition to its advocates in Africa, the Saharawis enjoy significant moral support from political parties in Europe and the Americas.

When the Australian-based Fusion Oil & Gas Company was looking to explore off the Western Sahara coast, it was pointed to the SADR government by British civil servants. Fusion struck a deal with the SADR that allowed drilling now and getting first option after independence to pump any oil it found. Morocco’s state-owned oil company Onarep, meanwhile, gave exploration rights in the disputed territory to multinational oil companies Kerr-McGee and TotalFinaElf. This prompted the Security Council to seek an opinion from UN legal counsel Hans Corel, who found that Morocco’s illegal occupation of the territory did not give it any jurisdiction—and certainly no right to issue licences over its mineral resources.

The Norwegian company TGS-NOPEC has subsequently stopped its seismic exploration on behalf of the Onarep licensees and admitted that it was imprudent to have operated in the occupied territory. TotalFinaElf and Kerr-McGee have held their fire, insisting that the Onarep licence is for exploration not exploitation. The need to achieve a political solution becomes more pressing as the oilrigs move in and money blurs the issues.

The UN’s very survival has been thrown into the balance by the attack of US-led coalition on forces loyal to Saddam Hussein. Another crisis of credibility would lead yet more people to question the usefulness of the UN. However, this is exactly what Morocco threatens. The Western Sahara peace plan that was approved by the Security Council is still on the table. Morocco, having repeatedly promised to implement it, remains unconvinced.