March 30, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 371

Spain Changes Course On Morocco And Western Sahara

March 30, 2022 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
North Africa | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 371

What a difference a year makes. It was actually less than a year ago. On May 18, 2021 Morocco unleashed a flood of migrants – up to 10,000 in one day – on the Spanish North Africa enclave of Ceuta.[1] The move was in response to Spain welcoming the head of the leftist Western Sahara guerrilla group POLISARIO to Spain, supposedly for health reasons. Morocco regards the Algerian-supported POLISARIO as little better than terrorists.

Now on March 18, 2022, the Moroccan government revealed that Spain had changed its long-standing policy on Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until 1975. Spain has now accepted Morocco's 2007 autonomy plan over Western Sahara, essentially endorsing Morocco's continued rule over the region. Spain followed the path recently hewed by the Trump Administration and Israel in 2020, policy shifts favoring Morocco on Western Sahara in return for improvement in bilateral relations. In the case of the U.S. and Israel, the policy shift resulted in a formalizing of diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco as part of the Trump Administration's Abraham Accords. Spain's letter to Morocco agreeing to the change in policy seems to have been rushed, filled with grammatical and typographic errors.[2]

For Madrid, the policy shift caused anger within the ruling leftist coalition of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. The Sahrawi cause has traditionally been a cause particularly supported among the Spanish Left in the same way that the European Left has supported Palestinian revolutionaries and other left-wing "national liberation" movements. Sanchez's junior partners in government, the communist Unidas Podemos (Podemos-IU or UP) alliance, were furious to learn of the shift in Spanish government policy, a government they are a part of, from the Moroccans.[3] UP deputies would later break out the POLISARIO flag in protest in the Spanish parliament.[4] But the Socialist Sanchez had picked his moment well. His key communist allies are unhappy (also unhappy with Spain's support for NATO on Ukraine) but polls show that if national elections were held today, the scandal-ridden UP would lose heavily in the polls, losing votes to their PSOE Socialist allies and even to the surging right-wing VOX party.[5] So, all the communists can do is complain while keeping the current government in place.

Although Morocco has not and will not change its position that the Spanish enclaves in North Africa should be part of Morocco (the Spanish diplomatic note mentions neither Ceuta nor Melilla), the deal seems to give Spain temporary relief from further Moroccan use of migration (coming from both Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa) as a tool of statecraft. Not only did the wave of migrants to Ceuta and Melilla and the Canary Islands threaten to overwhelm local Spanish governments, it also helped the Spanish political opposition. Sanchez lauded the agreement as solving a problematic situation which was "unsustainable."[6]

Sanchez sought to reassure Algeria, which is not only the principal patron of the Sahrawi revolutionaries but also a major supplier of natural gas to Spain. Spain's electricity prices are the highest in the European Union and the issue has surged in the public discourse in 2021. Like Joe Biden, Sanchez has sought to blame Putin for the surge in energy costs, but Spaniards, like Americans, can read a calendar and few accept this excuse. Algerian analysts see Spain's policy shift on Western Sahara as an "inexplicable" betrayal, "a stab in the back" coming only two weeks after Sanchez had spoken to Algerian President Tebboune. And like the Spanish communists, the Algerians learned of the policy change from their Moroccan rivals. The sense is that the Algerians will certainly not stop pumping natural gas to Spain, there is a contract and Algeria is making money (a large part of Spain's LNG comes from Algeria but the percentage has declined over the past year, replaced by American gas imports to Spain).[7] Rather it is likely that Algeria will respond by favoring Italy over Spain as a major transshipment point for its future energy exports to Europe.[8] And in contrast with Rabat, Algeria will certainly continue to allow its territory to be used by smuggling networks bringing in thousands of migrants into Spain by fast launches from Oran to Almeria.

Indeed, the use of the migration weapon by Algeria will not only put pressure on Spain but relieve pressure on Algeria as at some of those leaving for the Spanish coasts are local youth (these migrants are overwhelmingly young men) caught up in opposition demonstrations and frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity and political space in Algeria.[9] Syrians, Egyptians and Bangladeshis are also using the Algerian track to get into Europe, considered less dangerous than the Libyan one.

In the end, Spain's decision seems a fateful one, offering short term migration relief but revealing an essential weakness that will be exploited by both Morocco and Algeria. The Algerians said that they will review or revise all agreements with Spain as a result of the policy change. And Morocco has learned in a very graphic way the power of the "migration bomb" which it can use in future crises with Spain or, like the Algerians, to address internal concerns and export restive populations north. In this the two North African states are not so much outliers as pioneers. In Tunisia and Libya, revolution and chaos led to migration north across the Mediterranean Sea. But neither Morocco nor Algeria is in chaos or in a war situation, both are functioning states. In this they join countries like Turkey and Cuba that have and will continue to use migration and refugee flows as one more part of a foreign policy toolkit against their adversaries.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 280, Ceuta Countdown: Morocco's Hybrid Struggle With Spain, June 1, 2021.

[2], March 26, 2022.

[3], March 19, 2022.

[4], accessed March 29, 2022.

[5], February 17, 2019.

[6], March 23, 2022.

[7], March 26, 2022.

[8], March 27, 2022.

[9], July 13, 2021.

Share this Report: