Pedro Sanchez’s New Frenemy, King Mohamed VI, After Recognizing West Saharan Autonomy

  • Pedro Sanchez makes historic flip, recognizing the Western Sahara autonomy deal of 2007
  • King Mohammed essentially wins a decade-long battle for meaningful recognition of the Western Sahara
  • Weakens the possibility of an UN-sponsored referendum for the Sahwari people 
Pedro Sanchez and King Mohammed
Pool Moncloa/Borja Puig de la Bellacasa

Why are King Mohamed and Pedro Sanchez new frenemies?

Answer: Sanchez’s recognition of the Western Sahara reverses a decades-old policy of neutrality between the disputed territory. 

In recent months, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Moroccan King Mohammed VI have been closer diplomatically than ever before. For the past five decades, the Kingdom of Spain has taken a neutral stance on the topic of the Western Sahara, the disputed territory south of Morocco that is partly represented by the Polisario Front. However, following the visit by the Spanish Prime Minister to Morocco on April 7, this dynamic took a turn as Pedro Sanchez recognized the 2007 Moroccan autonomy initiative of the Western Sahara to be the “most serious, realistic and credible” framework for the future of the country. 

The 2007 autonomy plan, which Sanchez has endorsed, would essentially allow the Sahawri people to have an autonomous government, but still under the jurisdiction of the Moroccan crown. Though this solution is not viable for the Sahrawi population, nor the Polisario Front, receiving an endorsement from the ex-colonial power, Spain, opens up the conversation to the rest of the world. 

Prior to the turn in relations from the Spanish Government, the two countries were going through a diplomatic dispute due to Spain’s treatment of the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali in April 2021. Morocco then retaliated against Spain’s decision to treat Ghali by summoning the Spanish ambassador to explain the Spanish government’s decision, sparking a diplomatic row between the two countries. King Mohammed also played into migrant politics by allegedly overwhelming the Spanish borders on the enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta with an influx of migrants, letting them know that “actions have consequences”.

This makes the diplomatic turnaround even more impressive as Morocco and Spain vowed to increase economic and political cooperation in the coming years. Though Pedro Sanchez received bipartisan backlash from the Spanish parliament as well as top energy supplier Algeria, this new era in Spanish-Moroccan relations proves the King and Prime Minister’s new relationship.

What is driving King Mohammed VI?

Answer: Receiving the international recognition of the Western Sahara through the 2007 autonomy deal. 

Geostrategically, King Mohammed VI has been looking to expand his diplomatic strength across North and Sub-Saharan Africa as well as into Europe. King Mohammed VI has a recent track record of searching for recognition of Western Sahara as a part of Morocco across Africa, which he made noticeable progress with Nigeria and Ethiopia just last year. Though noticeable pressure has been put on Spain to recognize the Western Sahara, Morocco also recalled its ambassador to Germany for its “destructive attitude” after Germany called for a Security Council meeting. 

However, with the recognition of the Western Sahara from Pedro Sanchez’s government, King Mohammed VI recognizes it as a gift handed on a golden platter. Following the Sanchez decision, the European Commission and Council had vocalised their support for Spain to act as a broker in the affair, which will offer some economic benefits for the bloc. With Spain’s support for the plan, a wave of European states is expected to follow, most notably the Netherlands, which has recognized the 2007 plan. 

Winning over the Western Sahara as an internationally-recognized autonomous region would give King Mohammed access to the region’s phosphates and fishing resources and a win over Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front. The European Union, Morocco’s main export destination, is constrained by the European Court of Justice from taking part in commerce in or off the coast of the Western Sahara, without consent from the Sahrawi. This came into play in 2021 when the ECJ ruled that previous fishing and trade deals were against European law. However, if the Western Sahara is internationally-recognized as an autonomous region, rules will inevitably change and King Mohammed VI will have more economic (nevermind political) control over the region.  

What is driving Pedro Sanchez?

Answer: Restoring diplomatic ties with Morocco and appeasing the weaponization of migration by King Mohammed. 

One of the main points that is incentivizing Pedro Sanchez to move closer to King Mohammed is the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Kingdom. During the diplomatic fallout between the two states, King Mohammed was noticeably allowing migrants to pass onto Ceuta and Melilla, putting pressure on Madrid. The migration crisis brought domestic political pressure on Pedro Sanchez and also brought the European Union to deplore the actions of the Kingdom.

Prior to Pedro Sanchez’s recognition of the 2007 autonomy deal, Germany recognized the deal, solving their own diplomatic dispute with Morocco. Following Germany’s decision, Sanchez was more inclined to recognize the agreement, solidifying a hopeful dispute-free future between the EU and Morocco. Sanchez was driven to appease King Mohammed’s weaponization of migration with the goal of avoiding another diplomatic standoff with Morocco. Also, recognizing the Western Sahara deal would allow the European Union to reconsider its stance on “consent” when it came to commerce within the Western Sahara. Sanchez likely understood his crucial role and was driven to protect European and Spanish commercial interests in the region. 

What is Sanchez doing?

Answer: Recognizing the 2007 autonomy deal, shifting towards Morocco, and visiting King Mohammed to bud a relationship. 

Sanchez is making a historic move in the relationship between Morocco and Spain, but is also making an important contribution to the future of the Western Sahara. Being a former colonial power and taking a historically neutral stance, Spain’s shift on the issue is one of the most decisive updates on how the international community will deal with the region. Though Spain generally took the Polisario Front into consideration, the Sanchez government essentially distanced themselves from the group, and in effect with Algeria, the Polisario’s staunchest international ally. 

However, by aligning himself with the Kingdom of Morocco over the Polisario, Pedro Sanchez has found a more vocal Algeria. As Algeria is one of Spain’s largest suppliers of gas outside of the European Union, turning away from the Polisario and putting this supply at risk was a risk Pedro Sanchez was willing to take. Although President Tebboune has denied any concerns that Spain would not have access to gas, this does not mean that the two states are in perfect diplomatic standing.

Tebboune was more recently critical of Pedro Sanchez stating that “what Spain has done is unacceptable, ethically, and historically”. Pedro Sanchez knew that his decision had consequences when it came to Algeria, and in the end, may have cost him his own diplomatic relationship with Tebboune. However, due to Algeria’s aim to become a reliable energy supplier in Europe, Sanchez weighed the possibility of significantly tenser relations to be minimal. 

Between King Mohammed and Pedro Sanchez, the two have become noticeably closer since the announcement of the Spanish recognition of the autonomy plan. Pedro Sanchez made a trip to the Kingdom of Morocco to visit the King during the holy month of Ramadan, to break fast during Iftar. The relationship between King Mohammed and Sanchez is not only a historic diplomatic flip but also represents the budding relationship between Spain and Morocco. 

What does that mean for you?

Answer: Little possibility for Sahrawi referendum and potential European access to Moroccan fishing areas. 

For the inhabitants of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawi people, this is a major loss as this essentially takes away the possibility of having a popular referendum. The referendum process started in 1991 following the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario; since then there has been little progress, deteriorating the prospects for a Sahrawi vote. In the end, this deal will essentially remove all autonomy that the Sahrawi people had over their region’s resources. Between the dynamic of Algeria backing the Polisario and the diplomatic row between Morocco and Algeria, the region faces some concern for insecurity as the ceasefire between the Polisario and the Kingdom is no longer respected. 

With the European Union, increasing access to Morocco’s fishing resources will be a win for the Council and the Commission. Though the Court of Justice overruled the previous deal, this will allow the EU another chance to have access to the waters off of the Moroccan territory. With the sustainable fisheries deal continuing, it is likely that we will see the 128 European vessels that were previously stationed in the Western Saharan waters. The deeper integration through the continuation deal will also hopefully mean an end to the migration warfare from King Mohammed which is certainly a win for Spain and the EU.