The Geopolitics of natural resources of Western Sahara


In the post-bipolar international legal literature, the right to self-determination is part of the broader concept of human rights, and the only aspect of self-determination that remains in current international relations is the right to self-determination for peoples to dispense with their natural wealth, a concept related of the right of development.

Western Sahara is regarded by the UN as the last colony in Africa. However, Morocco continues to occupy the Saharawi territory without any respect to UN resolutions on decolonization. The main driver of this colonisation is natural resources.

In fact, with the natural resources of Western Sahara that Morocco buys the political positions of the States, to finance lobbyists in the EU and the USA to defend the Moroccan thesis of occupation, and at the same time to develop its internal economy and encourage the movement of Moroccan populations to Western Sahara, to make Sahrawi a minority in their homeland.

Natural resources determining factor in conflicts

There is a high likelihood that most of the important (armed) conflicts in our twenty-first century will be those concerning resources. All the conflicts have an economic aspect, with greater or lesser weight in their emergence and development. Indeed, the French sociologist Gaston Bouthoul states that Germany had to resort to the 1914 war as a result of the too costly economic struggle that it had sustained against others great industrial and exporting powers.

With the same idea, the famous phrase of the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz “War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means”, one could say that geopolitics is nothing more than the concentrated expression of geo-economics.

This left Lenin the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917, to observe that “politics is the concentrated expression of the economy”, something that we live and that is perfectly valid for all times, economic aspects have been the main engine of interstate relations, the economic realities that truly set the pace for the rest of the politics, including the bellicose or the pacific, which leaves Napoléon Bonaparte to say, “war is done with three things: money, money, money”.

The natural resources and their economic exploitation have contributed, and continue to do so, to favour a kind of occupation of the Western Sahara Territory, which would introduce a more complex resolution of a conflict encysted for more than forty-four years.

The marginalized and impoverished of Saharawi people, whether during the Spanish colonial era or during the Moroccan colonial period

We can say that the economic side of the colonialism phenomenon constitutes the decisive characteristic feature of Spanish presence in Western Sahara. Indeed, the international economic crisis which began in the 1870s contributed to the origin of spurred Spain to rush its colonization of the southern flank of Western Sahara, while the other parts of Western Sahara were only pacified late in 1934, by stimulating the imagination of those caught up in it to find means of escaping from a precarious situations.

Historically, since 1884  and until the arrival of the Franco in power in Spain, Western Sahara, had an essentially economic value, both for its proximity to the old caravan routes, and mainly for the very rich fishing bank that runs along its coasts, since one of the most important in the world and has represented the grease between both banks along of history. In addition, the political interest of Western Sahara lay in its geostrategic position in the Atlantic as a rearguard of the Canary archipelago.

The occupation of Western Sahara aims to build up a powerful national economy, whose production is geared to the needs of the mother country while isolating the colonial economy which is just the supplier of the raw materials needed for the economy of the colonial state. This will be amplified with the exploitation of Saharawi phosphates in the region of Boukraa in 1967.

In view of these 44 years of Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, the Moroccan practice use the same process as that of the Spanish colonial era. In fact, Morocco will start relentlessly to exploit the natural resources (fishing, phosphates, agriculture, other precious metals solar and wind energy, ) of the Saharawi people while marginalizing indigenous populations, by favouring Moroccan settlers who today represent an undeniable majority in the daily life of the occupied territories.

Spain and Morocco they have an important common denominator, that of being despotic regimes and their objective aims to eliminate Saharawi political and cultural identity. However, the international law of the Non-Self-Governing Territories distorts the equation of the colonizing country

The low profile of UN action in Western Sahara to protect the natural resources of the Saharawi people

In 1975 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) Advisory Opinion insisted that the people of Western Sahara should be fully decolonised and allowed their right to self- determination.

From then until today, this opinion has had its political and legal importance, since it has served as a support for the Polisario Front position and explains in a clear way the favouring votes to the self-determination of the Saharawi people within the AU and UN.

The legal aspect will be strengthened in favour of the right of the Saharawi people and their sovereignty over their natural wealth in the opinion of the UN legal counsel Hans Corell stated succinctly in 2002,in accordance with the international law, one cannot exploit the natural resources of an occupied country without the express consent of the indigenous population. To do so is plunder.

These legal instruments in favour of the Saharawi people will be reinforced by the two judgments of the European Court of Justice of 2016 and 2018 regarding raw materials exploited by Morocco with connivance and complicity of some EU states.

However, like MINURSO the only mission of the UN without wings to supervise the human rights in Western Sahara, so how will be protected the natural resources of the Saharawi people:it is a bubble dream.

You have to notice, the discrete role of the UN which is constant, already in 1975, Spain retired without holding the referendum of self-determination, we see that the Security Council does not show a special interest, it is more likely favourable to the role that Morocco plays in the area as an ally of France and Europe from the geostrategicpoint view to leave the situation as it is in an endless status quo.the UN is unable or unwilling to force Morocco to respect the referendum.

We can conclude that the UN has never taken a firm and clear position around Western Sahara and has never used all the mechanisms at its disposal, as would be the use of Chapter VII of the UN Charter and maintain the application of Chapter VI concerning the peaceful rule of controversy and supports negotiations between Morocco and Polisario, as if they are two equal parties.

Ali El Aallaoui
Ali El Aallaoui
PhD in International Relations