Ukraine Crisis and Shifting Sands in North Africa

Published date01 October 2022
Date01 October 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
59(4) 409 –434, 2022
© 2022 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/00208817221127519
Research Article
Ukraine Crisis and
Shifting Sands in
North Africa
Samir Bhattacharya1
Located in northwest Africa, Western Sahara was under Spanish occupation
from 1884–1975. Some of the world’s richest fishing waters can be found in
Western Sahara. It also holds one of the world’s most extensive phosphates
reserves. Since 1975, Morocco has been de facto governing over 80% of the
land known as the Moroccan Sahara. Polisario Front, backed by Algeria, has been
fighting for the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Despite
an UN-mediated ceasefire in 1991 for a referendum for self-determination and
the presence of Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western
Sahara (MINURSO) to oversee the process, the referendum never took
place. In December 2020, President Trump recognized Moroccan claim over
Western Sahara in exchange for a normalization deal between Morocco and
Israel. While President Biden’s administration now appears to support Trump’s
policy tacitly, the Ukraine crisis has provided Algeria with a fresh opportunity.
Algeria is Europe’s biggest gas exporter in Africa. Moreover, it is also a strong
ally of Russia. As Spain backed Morocco’s proposition to create an autonomous
Western Sahara territory under Moroccan control, this change of position
will undoubtedly disturb the North-African diplomatic equilibrium, and the
implications could be dangerous.
Africa, Algeria, China, Energy Security, India, Mauritania, Morocco, North Africa,
Polisario, SADR, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, Western Sahara
1 School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India
Corresponding author:
Samir Bhattacharya, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Mehrauli
Road, JNU Ring Rd, New Delhi 110067, India.
410 International Studies 59(4)
18 March 2022 will go down in North African history (Reuters, 2022). On that
day, Spain declared a substantial shift in its North Africa policy and backed
Morocco’s proposition to create an autonomous Western Sahara territory under
Moroccan control. The Moroccan proposal is also endorsed by the United States
as their Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman described the idea as ‘serious,
credible, and feasible, and a viable strategy to satisfy the aspirations of the people
of the territory’ (Middle East Eye, 2022b).
The Spanish government described the event as the start of ‘a new phase in
relations between Spain and Morocco based on mutual respect, the completion of
agreements, the absence of unilateral actions and the permanent transparency of
communication’ (DW, 2022); the Spanish endorsement of the Moroccan proposal
has only irked Algeria. Morocco’s regional adversary, Algeria, shelters and
supports the Sahrawi Liberation Front Polisario, an acronym in Spanish for their
popular front for the liberation of the country. Polisario, an indigenous guerrilla
group, is still fighting for Western Sahara independence. Algeria has also provided
refuge to more than 176,000 Saharawi people (Hilton, 2021). As a reaction to the
Spanish decision, Algeria’s ambassador to Spain was summoned back shortly
after Spain announced its support for Morocco over the Western Sahara dispute
(Daily Sabah, 2022).
With the never-ending metastasizing war between Russia and Ukraine, the timing
of this Spanish move is unique. As it appears, after years of stagnation, the Ukraine
crisis might finally bring the Western Sahara conflict to a close. As the world is
scrambling for peace in Eastern Europe, this North-African standoff over Western
Sahara concerns Europe and the United States in a multiple of ways.
Europe has become overly reliant on Russian gas and it urgently requires
Algerian gas to ensure its energy security. On the other hand, caught in surprise by
the Spanish announcement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited both
Morocco and Algeria within ten days of the Spanish endorsement. The continuation
of the current American policy of hyphenating Morocco and Algeria indicates the
sincere American pursuit to avoid another diplomatic imbroglio in North Africa
(Lee, 2022b).
Geography and Natural Resources of Western Sahara
Located in the northwest of Africa, Western Sahara is a largely desert tract bordered
by the Atlantic Ocean, Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. With a surface area of
266,000 square km, Western Sahara is nearly the size of Britain (France 24, 2021a).
As per the Special Committee on Decolonisation, it is the last African colony. As a
matter of fact, during the latest third and fourth meetings of the 2022 session in
June, the concerns over its decolonization were duly discussed (United Nations,
2022). Today, about 500,000 locals live in the area, known as Sahrawis (Heller,
2022). They are indigenous people of mixed descent—Berber and Arab. They
primarily speak an Arabic dialect known as Hassaniya (Middle East Eye, 2020).

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