Following nearly 30 years of ceasefire, the possibility of renewed conflict in Western Sahara between Rabat and the local opposition force, the Polisario Front, has reemerged. After considerable transport, business, and travel disruptions in late October, the Moroccan armed forces launched an operation in the El Guerguerat buffer zone on Nov. 13. The operation was met with a threatening response from the Polisario Front, which has been seeking independence since 1975. The tensions will likely give way to continued clashes and further disruption over the coming weeks.
The Reawakening of a Decades-Old Conflict
On Nov. 14, representatives of the Frente Popular de Liberacion de Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro, Polisario Front) announced the group would end its commitment to the 1991 ceasefire agreement after it called Rabat’s military action in the region as a violation of the agreement the day prior.
Following what Moroccan authorities have described as “provocations” – a disruptive blockade of goods and travelers moving between Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara and Mauritania – the government began a military operation on Nov. 13 to With the stated objective of ending the blockade, ensure freedom of civilian movement and commercial activity, and to insist on maintaining the peace treaty.
Saharawi demonstrators – as the native population of the Western Sahara are known – have caused these supply chain disruptions since Oct. 17, to protest what are perceived to be exorbitant customs fees. While the Polisario Front did not call for the protest or overtly support them, they have neither condemned nor attempted to impede them. Following Rabat’s intervention, Polisario leader Ibrahim Ghali issued a presidential decree stating the group was ending its commitment to the 29-year ceasefire on Nov. 14, as well as the group’s declaration to return to the armed resistence. Moroccan presence in the buffer zone was perceived as an act of war by the independence movement, effectively reawakening the conflict.
Disruptions Amid Clashes
Intermittent clashes continue to be reported since the military operation began. Moroccan authorities have stated that the country's armed forces have been responding to fire by the Polisario Front along the UN-patrolled buffer zone since Nov. 13. Additional exchanges of fire, as well as mortar and other artillery strikes, remain likely along the 2,700 km (1,700 miles) Moroccan defensive wall, which bifurcates the territory. On Nov. 15, the Polisario Front stated it was mobilizing thousands of volunteers to join its fight against Morocco. On Nov. 16, King Mohammad VI, in a phone call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, stated that Morocco was committed to a ceasefire but remained firmly determined to react with the greatest severity and in self-defense against any threat to its security.
Considering Rabat’s on-the-ground presence in the buffer zone and the Polisario Front’s calls for resistance, tensions will likely remain high between both parties through over the coming weeks. As a result, demonstrations remain likely throughout Western Sahara's major cities, including Laayoune, Dakhla, El Guerguerat, and Mahbes. While said demonstrations are unlikely to be excessively disruptive, Moroccan security forces will almost certainly be deployed to monitor all activity. Violence and clashes between security forces and protesters cannot be ruled out. Protests are also possible in Morocco and throughout the region, including Algeria, particularly if the conflict escalates and there are significant military casualties. Moroccan authorities announced the resumption of all commercial activity, normalization of traffic in El Guerguerat, and the establishment of a security cordon by its forces. However, additional disruptions to transport and supply chain remain possible in the event of a military escalation, which will likely prompt the Polisario Front to target Moroccan military outposts and convoys throughout the disputed territory.
The conflict in Western Sahara, a former Spanish protectorate, dates to 1975 when the UN asked Spain to withdraw from the territory. Rabat successively took control of the territory and was engaged in an armed conflict with the Polisario Front until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire between the two parties.
In addition to the territory’s various resources, Moroccan interest in maintaining control over Western Sahara is direct land access to Africa, a strategic necessity, notably as its borders with Algeria have remained closed since 1994. Morocco maintains that Western Sahara is an integral part of its territory; while it has offered autonomy, it has said that it is determined to retain sovereignty over the disputed territory. Morocco controls nearly 80 percent of the territory, while the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) controls the remainder of the territory. Meanwhile, the SADR, which operates a government-in-exile in Algeria's Tindouf Province and receives support from Algiers, is committed to securing independence from Morocco and creating a sovereign country in the territory.
Following the 1991 ceasefire and as part of the agreement between Morocco and the SADR, the UN established a peacekeeping mission - the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) - to oversee the armistice and to hold a plebiscite, in which the people of Western Sahara would vote for either integration with Morocco or self-determination. The referendum has yet to materialize largely due to disagreements over who is eligible to vote within the territory. The UN announced it would extend its peacekeeping mission for one year on Oct. 31, 2020.
Risk Mitigation Measures
Instances of civil unrest and a heightened security presence can significantly disrupt business operations. As the conflict in Western Sahara is concentrated between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front, visitors are unlikely to be adversely affected. However, as tensions escalate, Morocco will likely ban visitors from traveling to the territory. Travelers present in the territory should therefore avoid all military installations, troop convoys, and concentrations of security forces, as these may be targeted for attack by the Polisario Front. It is important to ensure your people understand their personal security risks and the security threats associated with civil unrest.
- If someone in your organization has a trip planned, review the trip brief for that country and share the information with your people.
- Provide intelligence about possible demonstrations or protests so travelers can avoid the situation.
- Remind employees how to access support services, such as a dedicate company hotline, if travelers find themselves in a potentially dangerous situation.
- Heed the advice provided by local law enforcement, especially with regard to any special security zones or military closure areas that may be declared during any future operations.
- Avoid any protests that may materialize in any part of Morocco or Western Sahara.
- Plan accordingly for potential transportation delays and supply chain disruptions in southern Morocco and northern Mauritania.
For more personal safety tips during civil unrest, check out, “Tips for Reducing Your Vulnerability in the Event of Civil Unrest.” Learn more about WorldAware’s risk intelligence platform and hotline services to help you with decision support for your employees and to provide the appropriate duty of care measures for your employees.