Western Sahara: A Victory for Morocco? New Oil Discoveries May Further Strengthen the Moroccan Grip on Western Sahara. (Feature)
Ford, Neil, New African
Following years of occupation, Morocco seems to be trying to take over Western Sahara by stealth rather than through the highly publicised projects of the past.
For many, the sovereignty of the territory seems to be something of a forgotten problem but the recent signing of offshore oil exploration agreements and UN announcements on the subject have pushed the dispute back into the media spotlight.
The oil agreements involved the French giant TotalFinaElf and the American company Kerr-McGee. Contrary to some press reports, the Energy Africa agreement concerns exploration blocks offshore Morocco, in maritime territory not lying inside future Western Saharan sovereignty.
The 12-month exploration contracts have been signed despite the fact that the international community does not recognise Morocco's sovereignty over the territory that it seized in 1975. The contracts have been condemned by Western Sahara support groups and by Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, who said the contracts were a "provocation" and appealed to the United Nations to intervene.
Until Morocco began to award new contracts for territory offshore both Western Sahara and Morocco over the past year, the area had not been explored by oil firms since the 1960s. However, recent discoveries in neighbouring Mauritania by the Australian company Woodside, have renewed oil sector interest in the territory.
Following complaints by Polisario to the UN over the oil exploration licences, UN officials are investigating the position of the agreements under international law. It is feared that oil revenues will be used by Morocco to tighten its grip on the territory.
Apart from the threat to Western Sahara's future economic sovereignty, the oil agreements will complicate the long-running peace process yet further. The spokesperson for the Western Sahara Campaign UK, Richard Stanforth, says that the oil companies are "trampling over the basic human rights of the Saharawi people. They are an attempt to legitimise the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara."
The Polisario Front launched its military campaign in 1975 to overthrow the Spanish colonial rulers of the Western Sahara. Once the Spanish had withdrawn, Morocco claimed the territory as part of its vision of Greater Morocco, so the UN began to prepare a referendum on the fate of the country.
An International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in the mid-1970s defined Western Sahara as a "non-self-governing territory" and recognised the right of its people to independence. …