Will Biden uphold US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara?

Will Biden uphold US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara?
Comment: President Biden is well aware of Morocco's strategic importance to the US in the region, and is unlikely to want to destabilise that relationship, writes Samir Bennis.
6 min read
17 Feb, 2021
Former VP Biden meets Morocco's King Mohammed VI at the 2014 Entrepreneurship Summit [Getty]
While North Africa is unlikely to be among US President Joe Biden's top priorities during his first months in office, Morocco continues to be an essential regional player on which the US relies to maintain its interests in the region, ensure regional stability, and fight against terrorism and extremism.

But as Biden's foreign policy begins to unfold, many Moroccans are apprehensive about whether Biden will answer calls to revoke Donald Trump's decision last December to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Such concerns seem unlikely to materialise. F
irstly, doing so would present legal challenges for Washington as this kind of decision is generally considered under international law to be irrevocable. In addition, the US position is in line with the consistency of practice, a fundamental principle in customary international law.

Over the past 13 years, the UN has consistently called on the parties to reach a mutually acceptable political solution.  This consistency of practice has produced legal consequences that resulted in a change in the legal status of the territory. Meanwhile, the US has consistently provided tacit support for Morocco's autonomy plan,
describing it as "serious and credible." 

Secondly, and in practical terms, doing so would risk shaking crucial bilateral relations between the US and Morocco.

Relations between Morocco and the United States are among the strongest in Africa

The US foreign policy establishment regards the Western Sahara conflict as one of low intensity. It does not constitute a major threat to the stability of the region or to US interests. In addition, Biden made no mention of a potential shift in US foreign policy towards Western Sahara in his first foreign policy address.

Morocco's strategic importance to the US

Relations between Morocco and the United States are among the strongest in Africa. Morocco is the only African country that has a free trade agreement with the US. It is also, along with Egypt and Tunisia, one of the only African countries that the United States considers to be a major non-NATO ally.

This category of allies, described by the US as a "
powerful symbol of the close relationship the United States" is a status governed by law, and offers many advantages in terms of military and security cooperation.

This helps explain why the Biden administration has decided not to freeze the $1 billion arms deal the Trump administration struck with Morocco in December. Meanwhile, Washington has moved to freeze the arms agreements that the Trump administration signed with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, citing the need to ensure the deals align with US strategic interests. 

That the Biden administration has not reviewed Morocco's arms deal demonstrates such alignment. The US considers Morocco one a key pillar of support in addressing challenges threatening North Africa and the Sahel, the most pressing of which are terrorism, extremism and organised crime.

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Morocco is also Africa's biggest importer of US arms, with purchases that reached $8.5 billion in 2020. The October 2020 Morocco-US military agreement, set for implementation over a period of 10 years, is a good indication of the two countries' keenness to enhance cooperation in defense and security to preserve their interests, and face growing regional challenges.

Biden's approach to Africa

In his recent virtual statement marking the 34th African Union Summit, Biden mentioned the US' eagerness to "rebuild partnerships around the world and re-engage with international institutions like the African Union."

Given the emphasis he put on strengthening human rights, especially for minorities including the LGBTQI community, it will also be important for Biden's administration to foster its economic presence in sub-Saharan Africa and curb China's dominance on the continent.

Africa still requires hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investments to upgrade its infrastructure and to face the economic and social challenges of the coming decades. The continent's demographic growth towards an expected population of 2 billion by 2050 should also inform Biden's decision-making. There is fierce competition between a number of global and regional forces - including Washington - to strengthen political and economic leverage in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Morocco's geographical position as the gateway to the Sahara will qualify it to play a pioneering role in the US' economic strategy in Africa. With this, Morocco could become a major platform for the launch of US initiatives.

Bipartisan support in Congress

Morocco has traditionally enjoyed the broad support of the US Congress, leading it to include Western Sahara in the financial assistance it allocated to Morocco over the past several years.

In addition, Morocco reinforced its ties with Israel last year, when it became the third country to sign a "normalisation" deal facilitated by the Trump administration. As a result, Morocco is likely to enjoy greater support among pro-Israel members of Congress who look favourably upon actions that strengthen Israel's security, and lessen what they see as its diplomatic ostracism and isolation.

President Biden is aware of the balances his country must preserve to meet the challenges it will face around the world

Dissenting voices in Congress do of course exist, led by Senators James Inhofe and Patrick Leahy, who wish to see Trump's ruling overturned. And for its part, Algeria is likely to mount efforts in the coming weeks to thwart Morocco's gains. But a a scenario where a sizable number of Congress members successfully campaign to urge the White House to reverse Trump's decision is highly unlikely. 

Morocco's importance in Biden's MENA conflict resolution ambitions

President Biden is aware of the balances his country must preserve to meet the challenges it will face around the world, including in the Middle East and Africa. Morocco could be among the countries on which Biden will rely to form political alliances to confront Chinese expansion and Russia's agenda in the region.

In Libya, for instance, observers expect Biden to revive the political process and the central role that the UN plays in seeking an end to a conflict which has lasted more than five years.

To achieve these aspirations, Biden will need to form an international and regional alliance. This alliance will require Morocco's competence and ability to ease difficulties and bridge the gap between the two conflicting parties.

Morocco's geographical position as the gateway to the Sahara will qualify it to play a pioneering role in the US' economic strategy in Africa

Although Morocco did not take part in the Berlin Conference, it has proven itself once again as the only regional power that can play a central role in achieving Libyan reconciliation. The multiple meetings that Morocco has hosted since the end of last August evidence this. Dialogue in Morocco paved the way for a meeting of members of Libya's rival parties and laid the foundations for the signing of the ceasefire agreement in October. 

Biden could rely on Morocco to continue to play a crucial role in bringing stability to Libya, and Morocco's drive to help achieve Libyan reconciliation stems from its keenness to avoid the emergence of an anti-Moroccan political system, modeled on the regime of former President Muammar Gaddafi. 

If one weighs Western Sahara's importance for Washington against Morocco's value as a strategic ally, the balance undoubtedly favours Morocco. This discrepancy will push the US administration to carefully consider the value of any decision that harms Morocco's interests, and will likely mean upholding Trump's decision.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst and researcher specialising in Morocco's foreign policy. His publications focus in particular on the Sahara issue, relations between Morocco and Spain, Morocco's foreign policy in Africa, as well as relations between Morocco and the United States.

Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.