21 November 2013
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


The ‘politics first’ route of the Arab Spring has largely disappointed. Building economic and social progress, as the king of Morocco has proposed in Western Sahara, could be a way forward for human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

King Mohammed VI’s official visit to the US this week comes at an opportune moment to discuss not only Morocco’s role in the Western Sahara, but also the innovative ways the King has recently proposed to advance human rights there. The recent election of Morocco to the UN Human Rights Council has been heralded in the Moroccan press as a vindication of King Mohammed VI’s role in improving human rights in recent years. It has also been used to counter a renewed spat between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara, claimed by Morocco as sovereign territory since the departure of the Sahara’s Spanish colonial protectors in the mid-1970s.

The row started with a speech at the end of October speech by Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika urging the UN to revive proposals dropped earlier this year to introduce international monitoring of human rights in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Following the recall of the Moroccan ambassador from Algiers in protest, a group of Moroccan demonstrators pulled down the flag from the Algerian consulate in Casablanca. King Mohammed then used the occasion of the 38th anniversary of the ‘Green March’ marking Morocco’s annexation of the Sahara to rebuke Algeria in all but name for making human rights allegations when the Algerians regularly violate them at home.

This might all seem depressingly familiar in the light of the failure of Algeria and Morocco to move beyond a conflict dividing them for nearly 40 years. Re-opening their common border has long been a distant dream of their populations as well as keen, but currently thwarted, international investors. Neither state has a perfect human rights record, even if the scale of abuse pales in comparison to current-day Syria. Yet, it would be a mistake to overlook other parts of King Mohammed’s speech of 6 November which explores other ways the region might escape its current impasses.

The king proposes giving new impetus to a large-scale plan of ‘megaprojects’ in the Sahara to invest in jobs, equal access to resources and better infrastructure as a means of improving human rights through socio-economic means. This is consistent with regional autonomy plans proposed in 2011 for the whole of Morocco; for the Sahara, a regional autonomy plan has been on the cards since 2007, but not yet implemented for reasons associated as much with blockages in Morocco’s wider political establishment as with any failure on the part of the King.

The link with improving human rights at the political level has not yet been spelt out in ways that would satisfy long-standing international demands for a self-determination process organized under UN auspices in Western Sahara. However, focusing on improvements to local living standards at least acknowledges that recent unrest in the Sahara stems as much from high unemployment and economic inequalities as from the region’s unresolved political status. If accompanied by improvements in policing and local judicial processes, it might also keep the Sahara’s youthful population from becoming embroiled in the new regional security threats emerging from the Mali crisis and the terrorist attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in early 2013.

Others need to pay attention to this approach not least since the ‘politics first’ route has clearly failed in most of the major transition states heralded as the forerunners for change at the onset of the ‘Arab Spring’. Democratic processes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and beyond have lacked political maturity, have made the MENA region less secure, and have pulled attention away from meeting the socio-economic demands of the original protest movements.

If Morocco’s leaders were encouraged to address the economic and social needs of the Saharan population prior to moving towards a more balanced political process, then this could provide the US and Europe with a new set of incentives to break out of current UN deadlocks over Western Sahara’s legal status. Above all, it would link developments on the ground with the realization of UN-sanctioned objectives to improve conditions in the territory, and would situate these developments within the context of wider regional security concerns, rather than on legal arguments and precedents dating back as long as 40 years alone.

Sceptics will doubtless say that the Moroccan establishment has promised long, but delivered little on this type of objective in the past. But Middle Eastern leaders currently prepared to talk openly and frankly about the underlying requirements for ensuring human rights are thin on the ground. As Syria has shown, once politics rides roughshod over the basic security needs of the region’s populations, the ensuing violence is virtually impossible to stem without deploying resources on a scale that no one in the international community is currently prepared to expend.

The king’s visit to the US offers an excellent opportunity for the outside world to put the willingness of the Moroccan system to deliver to the test. Offering the financial and technical assistance required for the king’s vision to materialize would clearly benefit the West’s own security objectives in the region. It also represents a far more constructive approach to the defence of Saharan human rights than dismissing the king’s speech as mere rhetoric to counter the accusations of its bullish neighbour.

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