Obama and Congress Aligned on Supporting Morocco in Western Sahara

Edward M. Gabriel (Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Gabriel’s January 20, 2014 special to Middle East Online.

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Every example of bipartisanship—and even more rarely, cooperation—between the Executive and Congress is to be cherished these days, especially when it comes to foreign policy. So the passage of the Omnibus Appropriations bill with important bipartisan language supporting our close ally Morocco’s efforts to secure and stabilize a key part of troubled North Africa is one such occasion. Just as importantly, it provides welcome additional momentum towards a resolution of the conflict in the Western Sahara.

Often forgotten among the current crises in the Middle East and North Africa, the unresolved territorial dispute over the Western Sahara has continued to impede closer cooperation among the countries of North Africa for more than 35 years. Approximately the size of Colorado, the territory is administered by the Government of Morocco and contested by a group known as the Polisario Front that operates refugee camps of between 35,000 and 90,000 people near Tindouf, Algeria. For years, bipartisan majorities of Congress and the last three Presidents have advocated for a solution to this issue based on a formula of Moroccan sovereignty and local autonomy. This compromise recognizes our ally Morocco’s historic claims and guarantees local autonomy; and it is based in the reality that an independent state with such few people would fail, contributing further instability in an already volatile region.

Less than two months after the White House meeting where President Obama and King Mohammed VI stressed their “shared commitment” to improve the lives of the people in the Western Sahara, the 2014 Appropriations Bill mandates for the first time that US assistance to Morocco be extended to Western Sahara. This Congressional action helps President Obama put solid deeds behind the commitment he made to the US’s oldest friend, a strategic partner in a region of the world where we need our friends more than ever. With so much turmoil throughout the region – from Syria to Libya to Mali to Iran — the US is fortunate to have such a partnership with a country noted for its continuing stability and progress toward democracy. Taking these steps to reaffirm our commitment to that partnership provides tangible US support where we can actually make a difference in the Arab world.

Furthermore, it makes sense to aim US funding where it is truly needed – aiding in the economic and political development of the Western Sahara, where USAID funds will now bolster Morocco’s own decade-long, multi-billion dollar investment to create a thriving society. Sahrawis who have been fortunate – and brave – enough to escape the repressive rule of the Polisario in dreadful refugee camps in Algeria have returned to Morocco to find economic opportunity and political inclusion. With US support, even more can be done.

This is especially important given that the Western Sahara conflict has stood in the way of regional political and economic cooperation sorely needed to bring peace, security, and development to North Africa. As the UN has warned, the desolate conditions in the Polisario refugee camps have created a “tinderbox” ready to explode into extremism and provide recruits for a growing terrorist threat. Congress’s tangible action together with President Obama’s recent expression of support, demonstrate America’s resolve to firmly address this issue. The sooner and more clearly the surrounding countries of North Africa recognize this new US support, the more likely it is that the United Nations negotiator charged with formulating a political compromise will find a solution that provides autonomy for the people of the Sahara under the stable and friendly country of Morocco.

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