Geneva Western Sahara Roundtable, New Formula for Business as Usual

Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita at a press conference following the UN Western Sahara roundtable in Geneva. Photo credit:

Washington D.C. – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and his personal envoy have reached an important milestone in the political process. For the first time in more than six years, they were able to hold a roundtable attended by all parties—Morocco, Algeria, Polisario, and Mauritania.

Horst Kohler has, therefore achieved in 14 months what his predecessor was unable to accomplish in nine years. Unlike the nine informal talks former personal envoy, Christopher Ross, held with Morocco and Polisario, this roundtable has also included Algeria and Mauritania.

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However, given Algeria’s insistence that it is not a party to the conflict and Morocco’s firm position that no progress can be made until Algeria takes a key role in direct negotiations, this roundtable is unlikely to result in any substantial progress.

Algeria keeps dodging its responsibility

Morocco has responded favorably to the Security Council’s request for the parties to enter into serious negotiations to reach a political solution. A clear indication of this was King Mohammed VI’s express invitation to Algeria to engage in serious negotiations and consultations during his Green March speech on November 6.

But although Morocco has shown willingness to engage in the UN-led political process, Algeria does not want to negotiate with Morocco a face-saving political formula that would preserve all parties’ interests while maintaining regional stability.

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Influential members of the Security Council are well aware of Morocco’s long-held position that no political solution is possible unless Rabat and Algiers reach a compromise, since the latter is the Polisario’s principal backer.

Algeria has not responded to the Moroccan request. Instead, to sabotage King Mohammed VI’s dialogue initiative and dodge its responsibilities, it has called for a meeting of foreign ministers of the Arab Maghreb countries. Algeria called for the meeting although it is common knowledge that it has weakened the Maghreb Union for many years by prolonging the Western Sahara conflict through its continuous defense of Polisario and the consequent breakdown of relations with Morocco.

In addition to not responding to Morocco’s invitation, immediately after the Security Council adopted Resolution 2440, Algeria concluded a contract with the US public relations firm Keene Consulting, owned by David Keene. Having previously worked for Algeria, Keene is a close friend to US National Security Advisor John Bolton.

The move reveals Algeria’s intention to undo the progress Morocco has made in the Security Council over the past two years.

Algeria knows that Morocco has gained positive momentum recently through the firm language against Polisario in the Security Council resolutions on the Western Sahara. The recent resolution has called on the Polisario to refrain from taking actions that could destabilize the region or change the status quo in the area east of the Moroccan defense wall, including Bir Lahlou and Tifariti, which Polisario claims falls within its “liberated territories.”

Morocco’s momentum is also evident in the inclusion of Algeria in a Security Council resolution on the Western Sahara for the first time since 2002 and the beginning of the political process. Such a mention is a rebuttal to Algeria’s claims that it is not a party to the conflict.

Although the resolution did not expressly designate it as a principal party to the conflict, Algeria is aware that the new language of the Security Council resolution could open the way to more changes in the language of future resolutions and the overall position of the Security Council. That the statement of the UNSG spokesperson issued Tuesday makes no distinction for the first time between Morocco, the Polisario Algeria, and Mauritania is very telling about the current dynamics in the Security Council.

Business as usual

The Geneva meeting has been just another occasion for the parties to show political commitment to the Security Council, while restating their long-held positions. Accordingly, no substantial progress will come out of it in the foreseeable future.

Rather the next few months will bring more competition between Morocco and Algeria to win over the support of the Trump administration and members of the US Congress.

The Algerian government’s hiring of Keene Consulting and Foley Hoag—a PR firm that has been working for Algeria for more than two decades—indicates that it is doubling down on efforts to derail Morocco’s attempts to establish Algeria as a principal party to the conflict.

Aware of the influence of National Security Advisor, John Bolton, in the Trump administration and his previous positions on the conflict, Algeria rushed to hire a lobbyist who has close ties to him. Algeria seeks to prevent any further progress that could serve Morocco’s interests in the coming months.

Because the conflict does not affect US national security and is not on the Trump administration’s priority agenda, the US public and congress members are mostly uneducated about the political and historical facts and geopolitical implications of the conflict, a factor that Algeria has exploited for four decades to advance its agenda.

Algeria has sought to attract the sympathy of members of Congress, particularly senators, towards Polisario, pushing the narrative that it defends the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination.

Morocco must, therefore, redouble its efforts to persuade the Trump administration and Congress to pressure Algiers to fully assume its responsibilities.

Rabat should also use Algiers’ contract with David Keene as proof of its direct involvement in the Western Sahara conflict. Algeria is the only country that politically, financially, militarily, and diplomatically supports Polisario. It spends huge amounts of money on public relations firms to influence the position of the US government on the conflict.

More than ever, Morocco needs to use the media to its advantage to get the message across to the Washington political establishment, educate influential political and media circles about the conflict and increase its outreach efforts to the Congress and US officials to counteract Algeria’s narrative and expose its role in perpetuating the conflict.

Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.