Four UTair Mil Mi-8s in Western Sahara

Western Sahara: a New Front in the Great Game

Morocco has severed ties with Iran and rebuked Algeria diplomatically over allegations of military support for Western Saharan insurgents, while rumours circulate that Rabat is withdrawing military assets from the Yemen campaign in order to strengthen its domestic defences. With tensions rising in the region, we examine the situation in Western Sahara and how it may represent another extension of the Great Game being played out across the Arabian Gulf.

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Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita has announced that Rabat will sever diplomatic ties with Tehran over allegations of Iranian military support for the Western-Saharan Polisario Front rebel group. Morocco has stated its intention to close its embassy in Tehran and expel Vahid Ahmadi, the Iranian ambassador to Morocco, and in a statement Minister Bourita claimed that Iran has been training and equipping the Polisario Front through its allies Hezbollah and providing the group with materiel including surface-to-air missiles.

The Western Sahara region remains largely a frozen conflict since the annexation by Morocco after the withdrawal of colonial Spain in 1975, with the 16-year conflict with Sahrawi insurgents ending in a UN-brokered truce in 1991. The territory remains divided by the Western Sahara Wall; a sand berm interspersed with minefields and fortifications that stretches the length of the territory and separates the Moroccan-administered western portion from the Eastern area controlled by the Sahrawi-centric Polisario Front. In recent months, tensions have steadily increased as Polisario – in a move labelled by Rabat as a violation of the ceasefire agreement – has announced that it will set up a new capital in Bir Lahlou and construct additional facilities in Tifariti, in a disputed portion of the territory on the eastern side of the berm. Polisario describes the entire territory east of the berm, including Tifariti and Bir Lahlou, as a “liberated area”, while Morocco describes this territory as a “buffer zone”. Morocco has warned that it will respond militarily if Polisario constructs any permanent facilities in any part of the “buffer zone”, likely driven by Rabat’s desire to keep the group from establishing itself as a credible government in the disputed region.


Fig 1.0 – Map of Western Sahara and the Berm

In early April, Morocco issued notice to the UN Security Council (UNSC) following incursions by Polisario Front forces into the Northeastern town of Mahbes. Following this, Morocco informed Algeria that it would intervene militarily if  the Sahrawi forces did not withdraw. While the UNSC has responded that it has not observed any violations of the agreement by Polisario, Rabat has continued to press the issue for several weeks, including with satellite imagery supposedly showing construction activity in violation of the truce.

Western Sahara international political positions

Fig 2.0 – Global political positions on Western Sahara (with pro-Polisario in green, pro-Morocco in red, supporting self-determination but neutral relations in blue)

The Minister’s statement on Iran suggested that Tehran’s embassy in Algiers played a significant role in trafficking hardware to the Western Sahara, further highlighting the elevated tensions between Morocco and Algeria over the contested territory. Algeria has long supported the Polisario Front and these latest allegations will likely further impact strained relations between the neighbouring nations, which have already been under scrutiny in recent weeks.

In mid-April, around the same time as Rabat’s reports to the UNSC, reports circulated suggesting that the Moroccan Air Force was planning to withdraw its F-16 fighter squadron from the Saudi-led coalition engaged in the Yemen conflict. Rabat was quick to highlight that this move did not represent “a pullout from the coalition but rather a move to strengthen the [domestic] Moroccan military capabilities”. In 2015, Morocco joined the Saudi-led initiative to counteract the Houthi uprising in Southwest Yemen, and has since been an active member of the coalition alongside the United Arab Emirates and five other regional allies of Riyadh. In May 2015, one of the Moroccan squadron’s aircraft was downed over Houthi territory.

Saudi Arabia remains deeply embroiled in a longstanding “Great Game”-type scramble for regional influence and hegemony with Iran, and smaller regional powers have leveraged this dynamic – along with Riyadh’s vast wealth – to gain financial, political and diplomatic benefits through signalling Saudi Arabia as a clear preference.

Due to the fact that tensions are rising in Western Sahara, Rabat’s claims that the repatriation of the F-16 squadron is intended to strengthen the country’s military position – rather than being a withdrawal of support for the Yemen campaign – are likely accurate. Although Morocco continues to maintain its political support for the Yemen coalition, bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia will have been harmed by the withdrawal of key military assets as Riyadh continues to struggles to demonstrate progress in its costly and largely-stalled campaign in Yemen. It is possible, therefore, that the timing of the severance of diplomatic ties with Iran is driven by Rabat’s desire to repair relations with Saudi Arabia while still allowing it to shore up domestic military capabilities. Saudi Arabia remains deeply embroiled in a longstanding “Great Game“-type scramble for regional influence and hegemony with Iran, and smaller regional powers have leveraged this dynamic – along with Riyadh’s vast wealth – to gain financial, political and diplomatic benefits through signalling Saudi Arabia as a clear preference.

This is not the first time that Rabat has severed ties with Iran; in 2009 links were severed as Morocco accused Tehran of “questioning Sunni rule of Bahrain” – a Gulf Arab island that has a Shi’ite majority. Rumours circulated at the time that this move was made at the behest of Saudi Arabia, although relations gradually normalized again by 2014, sespite remaining shaky given Rabat’s traditional closeness with Riyadh. Riyadh has already issued a statement that it “stood by” Rabat’s decision to sever ties with Tehran and “strongly condemns the Iranian interference in Morocco’s internal affairs.”

While Rabat’s irritation at possible – although as of yet unproven – Iranian involvement in Western Sahara may be justified, it is equally likely that this move represents Morocco’s diplomatic navigation of the new great game. It needs to shore up its domestic military, but equally it needs to keep relations with Riyadh healthy.

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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, and the financial sector.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Cover image – Alexander Podolyan // Fig 1.0 – Kmusser // Fig 2.0 – Alinor


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