There’s no denying that US President Joe Biden has set out to effect a reset of equations in the Middle East. This is exemplified by the several steps that his administration has already taken. For example, it was recently announced that the US was withdrawing its support for the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen, opening the door to ending what has been described as the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis. Subsequently, the Biden administration also announced that it was removing the terror designation for Yemen’s Houthi rebels – who are said to be backed by Iran – to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Yemini population.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has also announced that it will be restoring aid to the Palestinians that was cut by former president Donald Trump, as well as re-establishing diplomatic relations with the Palestinian leadership. At the same time, Biden has reiterated US support for Israel and backed the normalisation of relations between the Jewish state and four Arab nations – UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – as part of Trump’s so-called Abraham Accords. Then while Biden has said that the US would be willing to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal should Tehran return to its obligations, Washington is now saying that it won’t be making the first move and will wait for the Iranians to return to compliance first.
Taken together, the picture that is forming is that the Biden administration is seeking to achieve some sort of balance in the Middle East. And this would necessarily entail a balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran – the two regional heavyweights. There’s no denying that Trump went too far in the direction of Riyadh. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, reimposed sanctions on Tehran and facilitated rapprochement between Tel Aviv and the Gulf Arabs. But this approach created an imbalance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, resulting in region-wide instability. After all, Iran too is a country with rich history, inherent resiliency and significant regional influence and strategic depth.
Thus, by giving its blessings to the Abraham Accords and trying to renegotiate its way back to the Iran nuclear deal – albeit cautiously – the Biden administration is creating a new regional balance whereby one will have the Arab states and Israel at one pole and presumably an Iran with normalised relations with the world at the other pole. This is a welcome endeavour and the Biden administration needs to be supported towards this end. But where Washington seems to be missing a trick is with respect to Morocco.
There has been much speculation about whether the Biden administration will stick to the presidential proclamation that Trump had issued in December recognising Moroccan sovereignty over all of Moroccan Sahara. While the new American regime has welcomed Israel’s normalisation with Arab nations, it has been evasive on the Moroccan Sahara issue. This has led to apprehensions that Biden may not honour Trump’s Moroccan Sahara proclamation, leading to considerable complications down the road. But the confusion arises because Trump’s proclamation and Morocco’s decision to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel came on the same day. While these may have been part of a deal between the US and Morocco, operationally they are two separate issues.
In fact, Trump’s Moroccan Sahara proclamation says nothing about Israel or a quid pro quo. Therefore, for Biden to strike the right balance in the Middle East, it will be better for Washington to stick to recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara. In any case, Morocco’s claims over the Sahara are backed by history, legality and customary laws. The territory was forcibly hived off from Morocco by 19th century European colonial powers and was a Spanish exclave till 1975. The Madrid Accords subsequently gave this part of the Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania, but Mauritania relinquished its claims in 1979. This left only Morocco’s claims intact. But an Algeria-backed Sahrawi separatist group called Polisario Front continues to agitate for a separate Sahrawi state in the Sahara, even as it exploits the Sahrawi refugees in its Tindouf camps, diverts humanitarian aid meant for them to purchase arms, and refuses to even conduct a census of the inmates at the camps.
In such a scenario, the Biden administration would be undoing a great injustice to Morocco by sticking to the presidential proclamation on the Sahara and putting this baggage of history to rest. Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for the Sahara – that guarantees a high degree of autonomy for the Sahara provinces to manage their own affairs under Moroccan sovereignty – is the only fair and credible solution to the Moroccan Sahara issue. Besides, the US already knows that Morocco is a great force for stability and progress in north Africa. And Morocco is also a strong supporter of Palestinian rights and the Two State Solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Thus, taken together, it fits Biden’s Middle East stability plan to support the Abraham Accords, rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and stick to recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Moroccan Sahara.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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