A Proposal for Peace in the Western Sahara: Applications of the Kurdish Model of Regional Autonomy

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GESI Analysis, 1/2019

Abstract: Despite the United Nations’ support of a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people, the Western Sahara has been under de facto Moroccan occupation since a cease-fire with the Polisario Front was signed in 1991.

Today, with thousands of Sahrawis still living either in refugee camps or in exile, the status quo is very much in Morocco’s favor, as the country continues to profit from its exclusive access to the region’s natural resources. An examination of two historically related cases, those of East Timor and Iraqi Kurdistan, shows why a return to guerilla tactics in the pursuit of independence is now an unviable option for the Polisario Front, which should instead consider negotiating a degree of regional autonomy that would have real effects for the people it represents.



Forty-three years since the withdrawal of Spain’s colonial presence in Africa, the Western Sahara remains a colony. Twenty-eight years since the United Nations promised to oversee a referendum for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people, their native land remains the last entry on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories in Africa. As a result of competing global interests and international negligence, two generations of Sahrawis have grown up in the refugee camps of Tindouf, Algeria, conveniently out of the way and without a voice as multinational corporations continue to exploit the Western Sahara’s natural resources. For the Sahrawi people, colonialism is still very much the status quo.

In April 2018, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2414, by which the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was to be extended until the end of October. With this date now passed and no progress having been made with regards to a referendum on self-determination, the time has finally come to admit the failures, annul the empty promises, and adopt a new approach that will have real effects for the Sahrawi people. Nonetheless, before such an approach can be proposed, it is necessary to understand how the situation in the Western Sahara has evolved into its current state of affairs and how the comparable cases of East Timor and Kurdistan could point to practical solutions for the Sahrawi people.


From Colony to Conflict Zone

By the time Africa was divided among the European powers following the Berlin Conference of 1884, the indigenous Berber tribes of the Western Sahara had already experienced a long process of Arabization, as the territory had been passed down from one dynasty to the next since the initial Arab conquest of the Maghreb in the 7th century (Mercer, 1976). Nonetheless, by the beginning of the 20th century, Spain had claimed possession of the Western Sahara while France established colonies in the neighboring territories of present-day Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. In 1947, Spanish geologists discovered large phosphate deposits around the town of Bou Craa in the territory’s northern Saguia el-Hamra region. Apart from its mineral wealth, the coastline of Saguia el-Hamra, along with that of the southern Río de Oro region, proved to be a profitable fishery for Spain’s commercial fleets docked in the nearby Canary Islands (Leite et al., 2006). Despite these discoveries, however, Spanish exploitation of the Western Sahara’s resources would be short-lived. The wave of decolonization in Africa following the Second World War resulted in the independence of French Morocco in 1956, Mauritania in 1960, and Algeria in 1962. As Spain continued to hold onto its African possessions, the United Nations passed Resolution 1514, known as the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People, and later included the Western Sahara on a list of countries to be decolonized through a referendum for self-determination.

In 1973, growing Sahrawi resistance to Spanish rule resulted in the formation of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front) to lead the Sahrawi struggle for independence. Intensifying military pressure from the guerrilla movement effectively made continued presence in the Western Sahara unmanageable for Spain, which agreed to conduct a census in preparation for a referendum to be held the following year. Although the census was conducted, plans to hold a referendum were finally abandoned in the midst of the collapse of the Franco regime and the beginning of Spain’s transition to democracy in 1975. That same year, talks were held in Madrid for Spain to cede the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania, thus violating an earlier decision reached by the International Court of Justice that denied Morocco’s historical claims to the Western Sahara territory. Despite the ruling, the Madrid Accords were signed, and Spain formally withdrew from the Western Sahara on February 26th, 1976 (Mundy, 2007). The next day, the Polisario Front formally proclaimed the Sahara Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), resulting in an invasion on two fronts by Moroccan and Mauritanian troops.

Receiving direct support from Algeria’s revolutionary government as well as Soviet arms channeled through Algeria and Libya alike, the Polisario Front managed to defeat Mauritania by 1978, resulting in the latter’s recognition of the Western Sahara’s right to self-determination as the principle condition of the peace treaty (Leite et al., 2006). Nonetheless, with allies like the United States and France, which remained officially neutral in the conflict but still provided crucial military and economic support, Morocco proved to be a stronger adversary for the Polisario Front. As the conflict continued, the Moroccan military began the construction of a defensive sand wall that would stretch for 3,300 km along the Algerian and Mauritanian borders, effectively isolating the Polisario Front from the western phosphate mines and coastline (Durch, 1993). With a growing humanitarian crisis resulting from the masses of Sahrawi refugees fleeing to camps in Algeria and no end to the conflict in sight, the United Nations decided to intervene directly.


Cease-Fire and Return to Colonialism

The United Nations established MINURSO in 1991 to oversee a cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario Front in preparation for a referendum on self-determination based on the Spanish census of 1974. Initially known as the Settlement Plan, the proposal was rejected by Morocco, which demanded a new census that would include all the Moroccan settlers who had been encouraged to relocate to the occupied territory since the beginning of the conflict. In 1997, former US Secretary of State James Baker was appointed as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy to the Western Sahara. His mediation led to the Houston Accords, establishing new terms for a census that would be based on an extensive demographic survey from both the Moroccan occupied territory as well as the Polisario Front’s liberated zone. Despite the completion of a new census, the Framework Agreement of 2001 proposed several years of Western Saharan autonomy under Moroccan administration before holding a referendum in which the entire population would be eligible to vote (San Martin, 2004). Knowing that the Moroccan government would continue settling the territory with its own citizens as it had been doing since the start of the conflict, the Polisario Front rejected this proposal. Moreover, as the proposal did not explicitly guarantee independence as an option in the referendum, the UN Security Council deemed the plan to be inconsistent with the principles of the MINURSO charter and demanded that it be redrafted. Thus, a less ambiguous draft of the Framework Agreement was presented in 2003. The new document proposed a referendum for integration, continued autonomy, or independence after a period of four to five years under Moroccan administration and limited voter eligibility to the population registered in an updated version of the previous census (Leite et al., 2006). Despite meeting the Security Council’s requirements and being accepted by the Polisario Front, the plan was ultimately rejected by Morocco on the grounds that the referendum offered the option of independence. As the United Nations charter does not give MINURSO the authority to impose any proposal on either of the parties, the plan finally had to be abandoned. James Baker resigned from his post in 2005 and no further plans for a referendum have been made since.

Today, over 90,000 Sahrawis are estimated to be living in the refugee camps of Tindouf, Algeria (UNHCR & WFP, 2011)while some 26,000 more have fled to Mauritania (UNHCR, 2009). The narrow strip of desert controlled by the Polisario Front is largely uninhabited and undeveloped. On the other side of the sand wall, however, the world’s longest conveyor belt transports crude phosphate ore from the Bou Craa mines to the port city of El Aaiún. Holding 75 percent of the world’s phosphate reserves, Morocco is the largest exporter of the mineral, and 10 percent of its total production—about three million tons a year—comes from the mines in Bou Craa (Leite et al., 2006). Apart from being the shipping point of phosphate ore, the port of El Aaiún also plays a crucial role in Morocco’s fishing industry. By 2001, Morocco’s annual catch of sardines, squid, and octopus had reached over one million tons a year. Nonetheless, irresponsible over-fishing has significantly decreased the total sardine catch, and the squid and octopus that constitute 90 percent of the fishing industry’s export earnings are now found almost exclusively in Western Saharan waters (Leite et al., 2006). Morocco is not the only country to profit from the Western Sahara’s coastal fisheries, however, as Spanish ships have constituted the vast majority of foreign fishing vessels due to trade agreements between Morocco and the European Union. In 2016, the European Court of Justice ruled that agricultural trade deals and fishing agreements signed with Morocco do not apply to the Western Sahara (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2016). This ruling was reiterated in February 2018, when the Court decided that the Western Sahara was not to be included in a renewal of the Fisheries Partnership Agreement, which gives European fleets permission to fish in Moroccan-controlled waters (Court of Justice of the European Union, 2018). Despite the Court’s ruling, no amendments regarding the inclusion of the Western Sahara were made when the European Commission and Morocco renewed the agreement in July of the same year.

Besides its active exploitation of Western Saharan mineral deposits and fisheries, Morocco has been pursuing both offshore and onshore oil exploration, granting reconnaissance licenses to the French energy company Total S.A. as well as the American Kerr-McGee Corporation in 2001 after oil and gas were discovered off the Mauritanian coast (Leite et al., 2006). Additionally, an agricultural development project is underway to turn parts of the Western Sahara’s arid desert into fertile farmland through the use of greenhouses and irrigations systems. These developments are largely aimed at Moroccan settlers, who receive higher wages for public posts as well as food and fuel subsidies from the government as incentives to relocate to the Western Sahara. Meanwhile, the Sahrawi people have benefited little. In 1968, the Bou Craa mines employed 1,600 Sahrawi workers, a number that dropped to 567 in the year following the Moroccan takeover. Today, there are only around 200 Sahrawis employed in the mines, most of whom work in low-level jobs. Even excluding the 160,000 troops stationed in the Western Sahara, Moroccan settlers now make up three-quarters of the total population (Leite et al., 2006). 


The Cases of East Timor and Kurdistan

Many parallels can be drawn between the Western Sahara’s post-colonial experience to that of East Timor. The collapse of the Salazar regime in Portugal following the Carnation Revolution of 1974 ended Portuguese colonialism in Africa and Southeast Asia, resulting in a power vacuum that led to conflict between three principle factions: the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (Fretilin) that called for independence outright, the Timor Democratic Union (UDT) that favored continued association with Portugal, and a small group known as the Popular Democratic Association of East Timor (Apodeti) that favored integration with Indonesia (Leite et al., 2006). Despite Fretilin’s victory in the civil war, and in defiance of the United Nations’ support for East Timor’s right to self-determination, Indonesia invaded and annexed the country in December 1975 under the pretext of cultural and historical ties. Nonetheless, Fretilin continued a guerilla resistance to Indonesian occupation until 1998, when the resignation of President Suharto—combined with a financial crisis and international pressure—forced Indonesia to agree to a referendum on self-determination the following year. The referendum, supervised by the United Nations, resulted in a clear vote for independence and the election of Fretilin as the ruling party in East Timor’s first democratic elections (Leite et al., 2006). Unfortunately for the Western Sahara, however, the Polisario Front was never presented with the same window of opportunity to take advantage of its occupier’s political and economic instability as was Fretilin in the aftermath of Suharto’s resignation. Instead, the steady rule of King Hassan II of Morocco throughout the Western Sahara conflict as well as Morocco’s close economic ties with the United States and European powers forced the Polisario Front to agree to a cease-fire that effectively halted the expansion of its military capabilities, a setback from which, in the absence of support from powers like the former Soviet Union, it will never be able to recover. Today, the growth and modernization of the Moroccan military since the 1991 cease-fire makes a return to guerilla warfare an unviable option for the Polisario Front.

Like the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara, the Kurds were never able to achieve the creation of a modern nation-state. Territorially split among Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, it is in Iraq where the Kurdish region currently holds the most autonomy. As a result of the Hussein regime’s genocide of around 100,000 Kurds and the destruction of nearly 2,000 Kurdish villages in the 1980s as well as Iraq’s subsequent defeat in the First Gulf War, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was formed in 1992 to administer Iraqi Kurdistan (Human Rights Watch, 1993). Under the Iraqi constitution of 2005, the KRG controls the military forces known as peshmerga, which consist of soldiers, checkpoint guards, border guards, and intelligence agents. The proposed Kurdish regional constitution of 2009, a draft of which was finally never approved by referendum, sought to give the president the power to deploy the military beyond the Kurdish region with the approval of parliament (Kelly, 2010). Moreover, the draft proposed to give the KRG a limited ability to enter into agreements with foreign entities and sign international deals under the consent of the Iraqi federal government. With respect to natural resources, the current Iraqi constitution only gives the federal government authority over “present” oil fields, or those in production before 2005, thus leaving the administrative status of future oil fields ambiguous (Kelly, 2010). The Kurdish regional constitution proposed to explicitly give the region full control of future oil fields, thus paving the way towards de facto economic independence. Most radically, however, the regional constitution described Kurdistan’s relationship with other federal regions of Iraq as a free association, reserving it the right to leave the federation in the event that the central government either departs from the federal model or abandons basic constitutional principles like democracy and human rights (Kelly, 2010). Nonetheless, though parliament did vote for the constitution, the Kurdish people did not give their consent in referendum, and the draft was ultimately abandoned. In 2017, however, an independence referendum organized by the KRG enjoyed 92.73% approval with a voter turnout of 72.16%, clearly demonstrating the Kurds’ preference for complete sovereignty over increased constitutional autonomy (Independent High Elections and Referendum Comission, 2017). Not surprisingly, the vote was deemed illegal by the Iraqi government and resulted not only in political conflict but also in clashes between peshmerga and federal forces, leading Kurdish president Barzani to step down in order to prevent the situation from escalating. Therefore, it seems today that, despite being in a significantly superior position to the Western Sahara both economically and militarily, Kurdistan is unlikely to achieve its independence from Iraq, and any efforts to do so come at the great cost of political stability, regional development, and human life. Taking this into account, proposing a constitution similar to the one drafted by the KRG might be the optimal solution for the Polisario Front to create an autonomous Western Saharan region within the framework of the Moroccan state, as it would legitimize a Sahrawi government with control over its own borders and, to a large extent, its natural resources, while at the same time granting the central government in Morocco certain administrative rights over the territory.


In Defense of the Kurdish Model

After fifteen years of bloody conflict, Morocco finally managed to subdue the Polisario Front into a cease-fire that resulted in the territory’s return to colonial status. Losing its geopolitical importance after the end of the Cold War, the Western Sahara entered the 21st century without influential allies, largely ignored by global powers and the international community. The United Nations, limited to the role of mediator between the two parties, has only managed to prolong the status quo in Morocco’s favor through its impotence. In the meantime, another generation of Sahrawis is destined to grow up in the refugee camps, while Moroccan troops occupy their ancestral land and multinational corporations profit from its natural wealth. Given these realities, the sensibility of the Polisario Front’s continued efforts to win independence without compromise must be put into question.

Unable to bypass Morocco’s veto of independence as an option in the referendum due to United Nations protocol and in no position to return to armed struggle against Moroccan forces as Fretilin had managed to do in East Timor, the Polisario Front’s most advantageous option for the future of the Western Sahara would be to pursue the Kurdish model of regional autonomy under limited Moroccan administration. As in the case of Kurdistan, negotiations would have to take place in order to establish those limits, especially with regards to the management of the Western Sahara’s natural resources and the conversion of the Polisario Front’s military wing into a local security force. Moreover, as a check on Morocco’s commitment to such a regional constitution, the Polisario Front could push for the inclusion of a clause that would reserve it the right to secede should Morocco infringe the agreement or violate human rights. Of course, preferring to either annex the Western Sahara outright or to at least maintain the status quo, the Moroccan government would not be easily convinced to sign such a treaty. Nonetheless, as the first diplomatic attempt to resolve the stalemate since the Framework Agreement was abandoned in 2003—and complying with Morocco’s rejection of a self-determination referendum that includes the option of independence—the plan would be likely to attract support from the United Nations and the international community, thus putting pressure on Morocco to take part in negotiations. But for the Polisario Front and the people whose interests and wellbeing it is supposed to represent, there is no time to lose. For the Sahrawi refugees, every day is another day in the camps. For the Sahrawi exiles, every day is another day in a foreign land. Without sacrifice and compromise on the part of the Polisario Front, no change will ever come for the Sahrawi people. Without realistic approaches and pragmatic actions, the struggle for the Western Sahara will be all but abandoned. For nearly half a century the Polisario Front has refused to surrender. Now is not the time either, so action must be taken.

Kacper Grass holds a master's degree in political science from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona


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Editado por: Grupo de Estudios en Seguridad Internacional (GESI). Lugar de edición: Granada (España). ISSN: 2340-8421.

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