King Mohammed VI and Pedro Sanchez Become Frenemies as their Relationship Turns Cold

  • + Tense relationship between the two leaders due to territorial issues.
  • + King Mohammed VI pushes for Western Sahara’s recognition as an independent territory under Morocco’s rule.
  • + Pedro Sánchez at a crossroads between the UN and one of Spain’s biggest allies. 
Source: Abc.Spain

Why are King Mohammed VI frenemies with Pedro Sánchez?

Answer: The relationship between the leaders has become more volatile over the issue of Western Sahara.

The cancelation of the second High-level meeting between the Spanish president and the Moroccan king proves that the relationship between the two leaders is not as good as they portray to the Westphalian world.

The first meeting which was supposed to take place in mid-December was cancelled because of the COVID-19 situation. Although both governments decided to postpone it for February, no new date has been set yet. The fact that neither Spain nor Morocco seem too keen on celebrating this meeting proves that the relationship between the leaders is not the best at the moment. 

The relations between the countries have never been easy, specially since Mohammed VI was crowned King, but it can’t be denied that now they are tenser than ever. Morocco’s territorial integrity has always been one of King Mohammed’s main priorities. Because of this, the issue of the territory known as Western Sahara has made the two leaders crash. 

Western Sahara is a non-self-governing territory located on the western coast of Africa, sharing borders with Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. Approximately 20% of the territory is under the control of the self-proclaimed Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic and the remaining 80% is occupied and administered by Morocco. )

The main issue is that Western Sahara became a Spanish colony in the Berlin Conference of 1884. In 1975 the decolonization process that was taking place all over the world and the inability of Spain to maintain the colony led to the Madrid Agreement. By means of this Agreement, Spain ceded the administration of Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania. Later on, Mauritania withdrew its claim, and the territory became fully Morocco’s.  

However, the UN declared the Madrid Agreement null as under article 73 of the Charter the UN; Members are responsible for the administration of their territories and thus, need to ensure they develop a self-government. Therefore, according to the UN Western Sahara is still a territory in the process of decolonization under Spanish administration and responsibility. 

Even though Western Sahara is under Spanish rule, none of the governments of the country have properly addressed the issue, leaving it in the hands of the UN and not fully supporting Morocco’s claim. This is something that King Mohammed sees as an attack to his sovereignty.

The issue has been on a stand-still since the 1991 ceasefire and the establishment of the UN mission on Western Sahara, MINURSO. However, things have been escalating quickly during the past few months which has led to the frenemy status between the heads of both countries. 

Firstly, Spanish vice-president Pablo Iglesias tweeted in November about the need of an auto determination referendum in Western Sahara which moved away from the government’s general position of neutrality. An auto determination referendum would go completely against King Mohammed’s wishes and plans as, if approved, it would mean that Western Sahara would become a proper country and Morocco’s claims over it would be overruled.  

The vice-president’s claim and the inaction of Pedro Sánchez towards the issue led to a counter attack, in which Morocco stated that Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish autonomous cities in the African coast, are also part of Morocco’s territory. 

Secondly, if the situation wasn’t tense enough, the 10th of December President Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, which is a major advance on Morocco’s plan for the territory. 

What does King Mohammed VI want?

Answer: Recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara

Since he came into power in 1999, King Mohammed’s main interest has been set on Morocco’s sovereignty and territorial integrity which directly involves Western Sahara because of Morocco’s alleged cultural, historical and political ties to the region, although its natural resources also play an important role. 

Due to the Spanish government’s inaction, the King has an important chance of getting control over the area. Because of this, Mohammed VI alongside with his government, have come up with a plan that might improve their chances within the international community. 

The Moroccan Plan of Action for Western Sahara pledges to submit an autonomy proposal for the region, within the framework of Morocco’s sovereignty and national unity. What this means is that Western Sahara would become autonomous but still under the control of Morocco. The King would still have the last say in the decisions related to defense, external relations and constitutional and religious matters. 

Although the King’s plan would require the Spanish government’s collaboration, he is doing well in the international sphere, gathering other countries’ support. The issue of Western Sahara has dominated King Mohammed’s foreign policy and has led to the country’s involvement in Maghreb, Arab and African matters, alongside with the establishment of good relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf countries.

As it has been mentioned, Morocco recently got the US’ direct support thanks to the latters decision to establish ties with Israel. Alongside with the US other European countries, such as Portugal and Italy, Spain’s historical allies, are starting to shift towards Morocco and pushing for a possible autonomous referendum in the Sahara region. 

What does Pedro Sánchez want?

Answer: He wants to stay out of the problem as much as possible.

In spite of the conflictive state of the relations between the Moroccan and Spanish government’s, both nations collaborate in numerous areas essential for the development of both. 

Regardless of the continuing erred judgement of King Mohammed VI with respect to the Spanish government and therefore its president, Pedro Sánchez, the latter does not have much field of action to respond. He requires the collaboration of the Moroccan monarch and government on essential issues such as fishing, immigration and the situation of Ceuta and Melilla. 

Right now, Sánchez is at a crossroads. While the issue of Western Sahara was at standpoint, it was of no greater concern to the Spanish president. However, now that the situation seems to be changing, Sánchez will be forced to make a decision.

The various Spanish governments have sought to maintain as neutral a position as possible on the Saharawi conflict. 

On the one hand, according to article 73 of the charter of the United Nations and the organization’s resolution regarding the Madrid Agreement, Western Sahara remains a Spanish colony and it is therefore, it is the responsibility of the Spanish government to ensure that it becomes a nation and that its own government is established through a referendum on self-determination. 

On the other hand, directly supporting the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic would mean directly confronting one of the most important Spanish allies in Africa. An ally that could make things very difficult for Sánchez, especially when it comes to immigration. 

At the moment, Sánchez is walking on thin ice and King Mohammed’s insistence on the issue of Western Sahara couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time. The Spanish president is facing numerous internal issues, both within the country and his own coalition government that would be definitely worsened by the Western Sahara issue. Therefore, he is trying to remain as neutral as possible so he can postpone the problem preferably indefinitely.

What is Pedro Sánchez doing?

Answer: He is trying to maintain a neutral position while not looking weak.

Right now, Sánchez is trying to maintain a neutral position on the subject. However, Morocco’s actions appear to be tilting the scales towards the UN’s plan of a self-determination referendum. 

Sánchez’s administration did not take the intervention of US President Donald Trump in the conflict very well and stated that the issue could not end on the basis of a single country’s unilateral decision.  In the same line, Morocco’s comments about the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which would fall within the Moroccan King’s plan to maintain the territorial integrity of the country, couldn’t be ignored by the President, who demanded explanations to the Moroccan ambassador in Spain. 

Despite everything, Sánchez tries to return to a cordial relationship with the monarch. The latter has the upper hand because of the international support he has managed to gather and the problems he can cause to Spain if he decides to change Morocco’s migration policy. However, if the King keeps pushing the issue further Sánchez will be forced to act in order to maintain a strong position both within the national and international levels and not appear weak. Nevertheless, the King’s somewhat aggressive actions may push Sánchez to make a decision contrary to what the Moroccan government needs. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: No winner can be declared yet as the international community’s reaction is essential. 

It is hard to establish who is winning at the moment. Sánchez is trying to maintain the cordiality within the relations with Morocco and the King. Nevertheless, he might change his mind if the King continues postponing their meeting, which was supposed to take place last December. 

In terms of the Saharawi issue, both countries have established their positions and now it is in the hands of the international community to decide. Either the UN moves towards the independence referendum and the recognition of the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic or more countries decide to support Morocco’s claim. 

What would it mean for Africa? The African Union recognizes Western Sahara as its own nation, therefore if Mohammed VI finally manages to get that autonomy referendum this might lead to problems within the organization. Also, the situation might lead to an armed conflict, as the self-proclaimed Republic won’t give up easily. In addition to this, it is important to consider that Morocco’s neighbour, Algeria, is one of the main supporters of the Saharawi cause. 

What would mean for Europe? This would depend on what terms Sánchez and King Mohammed VI end up in. Europe as a whole also has very close relations with Morocco due to Frontex. Thus, the organization will push for good relations with Morocco in order to protect one of its few external borders.