The country's divided loyalties make it vulnerable to great power manipulation
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, one crucial American ally in North Africa tried to maintain a neutral stance: Morocco. At the meetings of the UN General Assembly in early March, Morocco abstained from condemning Russia’s “special military operation”. This stance was largely the result of strong commercial relationships between Rabat and Moscow, with Morocco being Russia’s largest trading partner in Africa.
However, in a sign that the world is increasingly dividing into two camps, this position of neutrality has now been dropped. This is partly because of considerable diplomatic pressure from Washington, which ultimately led to Morocco participating in a US-led military summit in Germany. Rabat joined Nato members, and 13 other non-Nato countries, in pledging more support for Ukraine.
This change may also reflect a hardening of public opinion within Morocco. Russia is perceived by many across North Africa and the Middle East to be responsible for rising food prices across the region. Russia’s naval blockade of Ukrainian grain exports in the Black Sea has disrupted global supplies and contributed to higher inflation for essential goods. Moroccans were also outraged after a dual Moroccan-Ukrainian national, Brahim Saaudun, was sentenced to death by Russian separatists in Donetsk, alongside Britons Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner.
While Rabat is keen not to voice support for Ukraine too loudly, and has been notably quiet on the plight of Brahim Saaudun, Morocco’s clear alignment with the US on this issue could have important ramifications in the Western Sahara. Since Spain withdrew from its former colony in 1975, Morocco has claimed sovereignty over the territory, while neighbouring Algeria supports the indigenous Sahrawi people in their quest for self-determination. Algeria has also poured money and weapons into the Polisario Front, an independence movement frequently engaged in armed struggle against Morocco.
While Morocco continues to occupy around 75% of the Western Sahara, there are signs that the conflict in Ukraine could unsettle the balance of power in the region. For one, the tightening of global oil and gas supplies has offered greater leverage to energy-exporting Algeria. In the past, Algiers has cut gas supplies to Europe, via pipelines in Morocco, as a way of applying pressure on the issue of the Western Sahara.
Furthermore, the Polisario Front has long appealed to Moscow for support, which has occasionally flirted with backing the group — mainly as a way to exert pressure on Rabat and Washington when needed. Now Morocco has dropped its neutral stance, there’s the distinct possibility Russia could retaliate by offering greater encouragement and resources to the Polisario Front.
Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made an unannounced visit to Morocco’s main adversary, Algeria, with Moscow declaring that “the two countries see eye to eye on all key issues of international politics”. Could Russia be about to join Algeria in assertively supporting separatists in the Western Sahara?
Kremlin-aligned groups have helped to destabilise various countries in North Africa and the Middle East — from Libya to Mali to Sudan — and there’s reason to suspect Moscow may now attempt the same trick in the Western Sahara. Instability and tension in the Maghreb is known to foster the conditions in which extremism and organised crime flourish, undermining security both in the region and further afield.
The conflict in Ukraine is affecting global politics in unexpected and dangerous ways. The Western Sahara is yet another region where tensions are rising — with unpredictable consequences.