Oil Potential Could Provide Catalyst for Change: The Thorny Issue of Sovereignty Has Hampered the Development of the Western Sahara for Decades. but the Possibility of Large Untapped Oil Reserves Could Force Imminent Change. (Western Sahara)

By Ford, Neil | The Middle East, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Oil Potential Could Provide Catalyst for Change: The Thorny Issue of Sovereignty Has Hampered the Development of the Western Sahara for Decades. but the Possibility of Large Untapped Oil Reserves Could Force Imminent Change. (Western Sahara)


Ford, Neil, The Middle East


The fate of the Western Sahara has reappeared on the international agenda over the past year, following the signing of offshore oil exploration agreements and United Nations' proclamations on the subject. The Moroccan government has decided to bypass the issue of sovereignty by assuming territorial ownership, rather than pushing for international recognition. During the first half of 2002, the Moroccan government awarded 12-month exploration contracts to US firm Kerr-McGee, for a 110,000 square kilometre licence off the northern coast, and to French major TotalFinaElf, for a 115,000 square kilometre exploration block off the coast of Dakhla. Both concessions contain maritime territory that would come under the sovereignty of an independent Western Sahara. The two concessions are among 40 awarded by Onarep, the Moroccan state oil company, over the past two years. The other concessions apply to areas recognised as Moroccan sovereign territory under international law. Offshore Morocco, Energy Africa has shot seismic data on its Tiznit blocks, while Shell plans data gathering further north on its Cap Draa and Rimella concessions. Morocco has little tradition of oil exploration but finds offshore north-west Africa has persuaded the government to encourage investment. Moreover, Moroccan oil refining company, Samir, has announced that it will branch out into oil and gas exploration. Samir is currently exploring the onshore Sebou and offshore Essaouira areas.

The signing of the TotalFinaElf and Kerr-McGee contracts were condemned by many foreign governments and campaign groups, and described as "provocative" by the president of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), Mohamed Abdelaziz, who appealed for UN intervention. The UN responded that the licences were technically within international law but added that actual exploration and production work would not be legitimate unless the Saharawis themselves approved the contracts and benefited from them.

Oil companies have not explored Western Sahara since the 1960s, when a consortium of Phillips, Gulf Oil, Caltex and American Hispano Oil explored onshore territory near Faim el Oued. The war in the region prevented Phillips and BP from exploring the offshore concessions they were awarded in 1978. However, interest in the region has been reawakened by discoveries in other frontier areas, particularly offshore neighbouring Mauritania, where Australian independent Woodside has registered several noteworthy finds. The chairman of Fusion, Peter Dolan, expects north-west Africa to "emerge as a major petroleum region" over the coming decade.

The government of the exiled SADR surprised the Moroccans in May 2002, when it responded to the Moroccan oil concessions by signing a cooperation agreement with Anglo-Australian independent Fusion Oil & Gas for the same territory as that covered by the TotalFinaElf and Kerr-McGee contracts.

Fusion is advising SADR on the evaluation of 210,000 square kilometres of offshore territory, and will also receive first refusal on three 20,000 square kilometre exploration blocks. The company is already active offshore Mauritania and the company's director of exploration, Jonathon Taylor, says the geology of the Western Sahara is similar to that offshore Mauritania and areas offshore West Africa.

Given SADR's lack of control over the territory in question, Fusion is unlikely to be able to commence work on site, but the agreement is a signal of SADR's intent. Moreover, a spokesperson for Fusion said the company intended to use surveys of the area--carried out during the 1970s--plus new satellite data to reinterpret the area for a period of 16 months. TotalFinaElf and Kerr-McGee were scheduled to have begun seismic studies of the area by the end of last year.

Morocco seized the territory in 1975, initially in conjunction with Mauritania, following the Spanish withdrawal. Its sovereignty over Western Sahara has never been recognised by the international community. …

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