The White House announced Thursday that it had brokered an agreement for Morocco to normalize relations with Israel. In exchange, the United States will recognize Morocco’s claim to the disputed Western Sahara region, a quid pro quo that President Trump announced over Twitter. Western Sahara, a resource-rich territory about the size of Colorado, contains a significant reserve of the world’s phosphates, which are required to make fertilizer and therefore crucial to the future of global food production. The announcement continues the Trump administration’s pattern of acceding to the desires of various Arab governments in exchange for those governments’ agreement to normalize relations with Israel, raising the question of why Trump prioritizes Israel’s interests above all other considerations, including American security.
The motivation for Morocco’s decades-long quest to affirm its assertion of sovereignty over Western Sahara is partly economic: mining accounts for about a third of Morocco’s GDP, specifically phosphate mining. With the inclusion of Western Sahara, Morocco controls about 73 percent of global phosphate reserves. A non-renewable resource that cannot be synthesized, phosphates are required to produce fertilizer, making control of phosphate reserves an asset of global significance. Morocco is currently the third largest producer of phosphates after the United States and China, but, given its massive reserve, Morocco stands to dictate the world’s future ability to grow food crops.
Given its centrality to Morocco’s economic calculus, the Western Sahara dispute has been central to Moroccan politics for decades. Every year, the Moroccan government commemorates November 6, the date in 1975 when Moroccan King Hassan II orchestrated the so-called “Green March”: 350,000 Moroccans crossed the border into what was then known as Spanish Sahara to pressure Madrid to give up its colony, which occurred the following year. The local inhabitants declared their determination to establish the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic, backed up by the Polisario Front, an independence movement that subsequently engaged in guerrilla-style attacks in an effort to win the territory’s freedom. The UN and the international community supported the Sahrawis’ right to self determination, but Morocco responded by colonizing the territory and exploiting its resources. Conflict persisted until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991 that guaranteed a referendum to decide the territory’s future, but Morocco refused to allow the vote to occur, preferring to maintain de facto control. With Trump’s announcement, Western Sahara’s hopes for independence look increasingly dim.
Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, its brutal crackdowns on local resistance, and its intransigence in the face of international condemnation help to explain why Morocco may feel more inclined towards the Israelis’ perspective than towards that of the Palestinians. Both conflicts arose from a botched exit by European colonial powers — Great Britain from Palestine, Spain from Western Sahara — and both the occupying governments of Israel and Morocco have relied on de facto control of territory to slowly wear down feckless international opposition over time, while maintaining police states to control the inhabitants of their respective occupied territories.
Morocco’s contumacy on the matter has undermined relations with its neighbors. The government of Algeria actively supports the Sahrawis’ right to self determination, offering refuge for members of the Polisario Front and support for refugee camps along the border, thus contributing to persistent tensions between the Moroccan and Algerian governments. Morocco’s intransigence on the issue of Western Sahara also cost its membership in the African Union: when the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic was admitted as a member state in 1984, Morocco withdrew from the African continent’s most important international body, only rejoining in 2017.
Although Morocco and Israel already had friendly, if quiet relations, popular support for Palestine was historically too great for the Moroccan government to risk open rebellion by normalizing ties with Israel. Yet the salience of the Israel/Palestine conflict has declined in relation to more pressing issues for many Arab publics. As with the other normalization agreements, none of the countries posed a significant threat to Israel, either under contemporary circumstances or historically; therefore, the normalization agreements are not in fact “peace deals.”
After the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel in August, followed by Bahrain and Sudan, Morocco was considered a likely candidate to follow suit. Like the UAE, Morocco has invested significantly in its image as a crucial partner in combating terrorism: with Canada, Morocco currently co-chairs the Global Combatting Terrorism Force (GCTF), the first global counterterror platform. Also, like the UAE, the Moroccan government has strenuously promoted its image as a bastion of religious tolerance. On this front, the Moroccan government has stressed the actions of King Mohammed V to protect Morocco’s Jews during World War II. The Vichy government of France passed laws to force Morocco’s quarter million Jews into ghettos. Although Morocco was a French Protectorate, King Mohammed V refused to enforce the laws, allegedly declaring “There are no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan subjects.” No Moroccan Jews were rounded up or killed. This historical anecdote aside, Morocco’s once robust Jewish population, like many Jews around the Middle East, chose to immigrate to Israel due to the restrictions and discrimination they faced in their countries of origin. Although few Jews remain in Morocco, Moroccan Christians continue to experience routine persecution.
The Moroccan government’s official narrative portrays Moroccan Islam as uniquely tolerant, a public relations campaign that has earned sufficient international buy-in that both African and European governments send imams to be trained at the Mohammed VI Imam Training Institute. In 2016, the Moroccan government convened a group of Muslim religious scholars to condemn ISIS’ treatment of Yazidis and other religious minorities. The meeting culminated in the release of the Marrakesh Declaration, which affirmed the Prophet Mohammed’s historical protection of non-Muslims; the declaration enjoyed international plaudits, including praise from President Obama. Yet Morocco’s allegations of promoting a uniquely tolerant interpretation of Islam did not prevent over a thousand Moroccans from traveling to join ISIS during its heyday, and the Moroccan government’s allegations about the efficacy of its form of Islam in discouraging violent extremism have yet to be evaluated. Again, like the UAE, building a reputation for religious toleration and so-called “moderate Islam” has proven sufficient for enhancing the country’s standing on the world stage.
With the announcement that Washington will recognize Western Sahara as Moroccan territory, a lingering stain on Morocco’s reputation may be effectively expunged, as other countries may follow the U.S. lead on the matter. Trump gets the opportunity to pose as a deal maker once more before leaving office, securing support from pro-Zionist GOP donors for a 2024 presidential run.
It is highly unlikely that the incoming Biden administration would reverse Trump’s decision for fear that Morocco might renege on the normalization agreement. Although the Biden administration may be less captured by pro-Israel interests than Trump, Anthony Blinken’s State Department will not wish to re-open the issue and risk undermining a normalization agreement with Israel. The question now is whether the Moroccan government will push for additional arms purchases — in 2019, it bought more American weapons than Saudi Arabia — potentially sparking an arms race in North Africa that will mirror the growing security dilemma in the Persian Gulf and threatening to pull the United States into more endless wars in the Middle East.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.