Building roads and expanding cities, ports and industrial parks — Morocco is pressing ahead with economic development in Western Sahara without waiting for a political settlement on the disputed territory.
The latest sign of the kingdom’s assertive approach to the former Spanish colony was on show last weekend at a business forum organised by Moroccan authorities in Laayoune, the region’s largest city.
“This is a very rich region,” said Rokia Derham, Morocco’s secretary of state for foreign trade.
“There is great potential in industry, fishing, agriculture or the relocation of services. We want to see foreign investors coming,” she told AFP.
Morocco and the Polisario Front fought for decades over control of Western Sahara, until a 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire froze the conflict and left Rabat in control of most of the desert area.
The forum urged French companies to “give their business new momentum” by investing in a territory touted as a “model of regional development”.
“We want to push development and the economy,” the region’s president Hamdi Ould Errachid told some 200 entrepreneurs, including 50 from France, at an opening ceremony.
The forum highlighted the “appeal” of the area, situated at the door to sub-Saharan Africa, and the “opportunities” in sectors such as renewable energy, finishing, tourism and construction.
Staged a month before UN-led negotiations on the fate of the territory are set to resume, the forum sparked Polisario Front condemnation.
In an open letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the independence movement said it was an example of Morocco’s “hostile expansionist policy”.
The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by the Polisario in 1976, controls nearly 20 percent of resources-rich Western Sahara.
Some 170,000 Sahrawis live in desert refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria, the Polisario’s staunchest backer.
Morocco, which controls the rest of the territory and its 1,100-kilometre (680-mile) coastline, aims to preserve the kingdom’s “territorial integrity” by granting the area autonomy — but not independence.
On the ground, a berm erected by Moroccan authorities alongside a UN-monitored buffer zone has separated the two sides since the 1991 ceasefire.
“The political issue must be resolved by the United Nations,” said Derham, adding that the region’s development “cannot be linked” to politics.
‘Politics at stake’
Philippe-Edern Klein, president of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Morocco (CFCIM) and co-organiser of the Laayoune forum, said he did not want to talk politics.
“We’re here to do business,” he said, adding that he was “supporting development in Western Sahara”.
Khadija Gamraoui, a local right-wing French lawmaker, thought otherwise.
“No one is fooled. Everyone knows that those who are present are giving a signal — there are politics at stake,” said Gamraoui, who attended the forum with a Moroccan-French political association.
She said she was impressed by the major projects already completed.
With its huge library, Olympic-sized swimming pool and state-of-the-art sports grounds, the city of Laayoune and its palm tree-lined avenues are a showcase of the cash Rabat has poured into the area.
Moroccan authorities plan to spend more than 4.5 billion euros ($5.2 billion) on the region’s development by 2021.
Khalid Hatim, a local official, said “zero taxation” offered an incentive for investors.
French banking groups like BNP-Paribas, Societe Generale and Credit Agricole sent local subsidiaries to Laayoune to the forum.
The Polisario, for its part, is challenging fishing and agricultural accords for Western Sahara signed with the European Union and has filed complaints against French firms operating in the area.
Just like Turkey is using the refugee crisis to crackdown on Kurds in its neighbourhood, Morocco is taking advantage of the fears in Europe to strengthen its grip over Western Sahara.