Shortly after the Spanish decolonisation of North Africa, the territory of Western Sahara came to be disputed between the Kingdom of Morocco, which regarded the region as the southerly part of its territory, and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, a group of guerrilla fighters who aim to see the Western Sahara be recognised as an independent republic. The two have been locked in a stalemate since conflict erupted in 1974, during which Morocco has come to occupy much of the region save for a small strip of desert in the south-east, which continues to be held by Polisario forces.
While Morocco’s claim and occupation has never been recognised, the Kingdom has been trying to develop the region ever since a ceasefire was brokered in 1991.
Moroccan officials hope that by improving infrastructure in the zones they control, foreign tourism may be encouraged to bolster the local economy. In particular, they hope to entice more visitors from China and Russia.
It seems that King Mohammed VI of Morocco has now ordered the withdrawal of his forces from the contested Guerguerat region, largely at the behest of the UN Secretary-General and due to increasing pressure from the Polisario Front. The Front had recently erected a new military post along the Mauritania border and have been using this as a staging post for new incursions into Moroccan-held territory.
It should be noted that this withdrawal does not reflect a change in attitudes by Marrakesh towards the Western Saharah — the Moroccan Government still considers the region to be an integral part of the kingdom. King Mohammed has also condemned repeated incursions by armed Polisario troops entering into the Guerguerat region, threatening the 1991 ceasefire.
The King has also made a plea to the UN Secretary-General last Friday, where he requested that efforts is made to ensure that the ceasefire be protected against the Polisario Front.
For their part, the Polisario Front wish to see the future of the Western Sahara determined by a region-wide referendum, and have been resisting Moroccan annexation with stubborn determination. They have the unconditional backing of Algeria, traditionally something of a rival to Morocco, who have been unfailingly providing money, food, military equipment and diplomatic support ever since Morocco first advanced into the region. They have also played host to the Front’s headquarters in the Tindouf province of Algeria.