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Since the current wave of Arab revolutions first ignited in Western Sahara in November 2010, February and March have seen a new upsurge in protests across Morocco and its illegal Occupied Territory of Western Sahara, writes Konstantina Isidoros. As the extraordinary events sweeping the Arab world bring down republic government figureheads, a new question is whether these social reset buttons will have the tenacity to tackle Arab monarchies.

For international analysts closely observing Morocco’s awakening uprisings, the absolute monarchy’s financially draining, vice-like grip on the Western Sahara might prove to be its Achilles heel. Unlike its fellow Gulf monarchs or the respected North African power of Algeria, Morocco has no oil wealth to lavishly soothe grievances.

The former French president Charles de Gaulle once described Morocco as a country whose revolution was still to come. The escalating discord and protests may yet see Morocco’s own population giving voice to what the full detrimental magnitude of the monarchy’s colossal expenditure in its 35-year war and occupation of the Western Sahara means for their desperate socio-economic woes.

Meanwhile, cities across the occupied Western Sahara such as El Aaiun, Boujdour and Dakhla have seen continuous non-violent protest rallies by the indigenous Western Saharans and the now systematic pattern of violent counter-attacks by Moroccan military forces.


The Western Sahara conflict is in all actuality a hot geopolitical potato, with potent economic and political security–stability implications as the superpower dynamics between US and France engage in fierce rivalry over coveted natural resources, strategic supremacy and regional economic alliances.

At the ground level, Morocco's invasion and 35-year occupation of the Western Sahara threatens the fundamental tenets of our Western modern political system, which espouses the inviolable sanctity of a nation-state's own sovereignty, the basic rights of human beings and regional socio-economic stability.

As Zunes and Mundy (2010) emphasise, ‘The on-going Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara is one of the most egregious … affronts to the international system in existence today… The [United Nations] Security Council has turned a blind eye to Morocco’s blatant contravention of the UN Charter (1945).’ Morocco has not only flouted the International Court of Justice’s original legal opinion in 1975 – and thereafter over 100 United Nations Resolutions – but its Israeli-like policy of moving settlers into the Western Sahara and thereby changing the demographics to three Moroccans for one Sahrawi constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibition of moving civilians into a militarily occupied territory. So too has its exploitation and plunder of Western Sahara’s natural resources brought it disgrace.

Yet although much attention goes to Morocco's international legal contraventions, it is ultimately the US and France who are violating the very legal and moral principles that they so publicly avow. For over 35 years, the US and France have been complicit in financing and morally permitting Morocco's aggressive territorial expansion, as well as tactically blocking the conflict’s solutions at the UN Security Council. Without this US–French support, Morocco would never have been able to get away with, let alone sustain, such blatant violations of international law.

Western Sahara is not just the ‘last colony of Africa’, it is a country that has undergone uncompleted decolonisation and then been re-colonised – a subtle new order of modern economic colonisation by Western powers, primarily US and France vying for regional hegemony and economic self-interest. Playing out like re-coloured footage from the colonial past, Algeria fiercely defends its independence from France’s modern economic courting, while Morocco appears, as ever, eager to be the beloved child of France. If Algeria, the slumbering lion of North Africa, were to summon the strength for a mighty roar in warning, would the US and France take note? If Algeria harnessed its regionally respected courage and power to take skilful control of France’s unrequited desire of its beloved jewel in North Africa, would France drop Morocco like a hot protectorate brick again?


Morocco’s war and occupation of Western Sahara has done nothing for the country or its people other than drain vast amounts of wealth from ordinary Moroccan people. Will Morocco’s population now find the courage to voice dissent on the impacts on their own socio-economic woes from the relentless economic burden of their regime’s colossal expenditures on Western Sahara? How did they end up so cheated and what are the costs of war?

Morocco’s national–ideological obsession for the Western Sahara began during King Hassan II’s reign when the monarchy faced a volatile political landscape. The concept of a ‘Greater Morocco’ (originally including Mauritania and parts of Algeria and Mali) was formed by nationalist elites threatening the monarchy’s survival. Adopting this powerful idea enabled Hassan II to reassert royal legitimacy by portraying it as a national emergency to successfully distract public attention and political dissenters away from domestic problems. To this day, the illegal occupation of Western Sahara remains a central orthodoxy in Moroccan politics, with the monarchy’s legitimacy said to still be dependent upon it.

Morocco’s invasion and war for Western Sahara between 1975 and 1991 corroded the existing domestic economic–political deterioration and social inequities. Since the 1991 ceasefire, the costs of occupation have continued to undermine Morocco’s socio-economic potential. Cited as a weak state since independence in 1956, the regime has been heavily dependent on income to sustain the hierarchical clientelist authoritarian ‘Makhzen’ which governs the country under the absolute control of its ‘Alawi monarchy.

Although the occupation of Western Sahara brought opportunities to plunder natural resources such as phosphate mining and Atlantic fishing, Morocco’s colossal expenditures to prop up its war and occupation brings a bigger and economically devastating picture into focus.

Its biannual military expenditure rose rapidly from $270 million in 1972 to $367 million (1974), $755 million (1976) and $770 million in 1978 (Stork and Paul 1983 p. 6). By the mid-1980s, the average cost of war and occupation was estimated at $1.5 million per day (Africa Report, May–June 1986). In 1990, the estimated annual military expenditure – including infrastructure investment – reached $430 million (Damis 1990). Damis’s study in 2000 using Moroccan-published data estimated the cost of war at $1.17 million a day between 1976–86. While this figure accounts for only 3 per cent of government spending and 9 per cent of GDP, Morocco received lavish financial war grants and arms sales from the US, France and Saudi Arabia, such as, for example, $1 billion a year between 1979–81.

Despite this extensive foreign financial support, the statistics show that it has actually been phenomenally expensive for Morocco, and financially devastating even with the foreign war grants. The sheer focus of the monarchy’s obsession to sustain its war effectively drained what should have been full attention on socio-economic development for the Moroccan population itself.

Seddon’s 1989 analyses calculated Morocco’s cost of war as much higher, even with foreign war grants: for example, in 1979, the war cost between $2 million and $5 million a day, and that Moroccan defence spending was ‘no less than 40 per cent of the … national budget’. Tessler calculated Morocco’s total defence spending had risen from 13 per cent in 1975 to 23 per cent by 1977 (1985). Although in 1991 Saudi Arabia wrote off Morocco’s debt for Moroccan participation in the first US-led war against Iraq (Economist Intelligence Unit 2003), Zoubir has shown how Morocco had to resort to additional domestic ‘national solidarity taxes’ (1990).

Even after the 1991 ceasefire, Morocco’s illegal occupation and military defence costs remained an expensive redirection of funds that could otherwise have benefitted the Moroccan population itself. US Department of State figures show that between 1975–99, Morocco’s daily military expenditure averaged $4.1 million per day. And the costs were even higher due to arms purchases – Morocco bought $529 million in arms every year between 1975–91, dropping to $145 million each year between 1992–99.

Morocco’s implementation of the 1978 austerity plan to finance the war occurred as its debt burden increased phenomenally, triggering major labour strikes (Leveau 1997). Throughout the 1970s, Morocco’s unemployment grew, while poor rainfall reduced crop yields and herd stocks, making food prices rise higher than personal incomes. With this rapidly deteriorating socio-economic situation, in 1980 Morocco resorted to an IMF economic rescue package, which at that time was the second-largest of its kind across the developing world. Again labour and student strikes hit Morocco in 1981, leading to civil unrest and army retaliation. Under pressure, Morocco succumbed to the World Bank and IMF’s deeper debt and again the burden fell on Moroccan society, with yet more rises in food prices and unemployment. Yet more strikes broke out in 1984 after further food price rises and education cuts (Tessler 1985). By the late 1980s, the picture in Morocco was still of continuing social discontent. And the 1990s still showed signs of an economy in trouble: unemployment, inflation and national debt had risen from $8.47 billion in 1980 to $20.66 billion in 1993 (Layachi 1998).

The 1991 ceasefire should have eased the burdens of the cost of war for Morocco and allowed it to stabilise its appalling domestic socio-economic position. Observers note however that not much has changed. The monarchy still retains unqualified power without any financial separation from the state, the biggest landowner and controller of state contracts and holding companies which remain the ‘personal vehicle of the king’s economic and commercial interests’ (Leveau 1997).

Will these tragic statistics provide the historical window of opportunity for the Moroccan people to also demand an end to the billions of dollars being misappropriated to prop up their regime’s Western Sahara ‘distraction’ instead of on their own social and economic needs?


With the current revolutions successfully challenging the heads of Arab republics, how safe are the Arab monarchies and does their ‘divine’ position leave any hope for protesters?

Taking analyses of recent events in Saudi Arabia as a reference point, Saudi author Mai Yamani has written in The Guardian that, ‘No kingdom is an island, particularly when it sits in a sea of revolution.’ Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud conveyed in The New York Times that, ‘Arab governments can no longer afford to take their populations for granted … The winds of change are blowing across our region with force and it would be folly to suppose that they will soon dissipate.’ Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Centre, suggests that the Saudi ‘regime is learning all the wrong lessons from Egypt and Tunisia – the unrest in the region is not fundamentally economic, it's fundamentally about politics’. Eman al-Nafjan, a professional and mother of three who blogs as Saudiwoman, writes, ‘Across the board, there's a demand for a constitutional monarchy and accountability and the end of corruption in the handling of the nation's wealth’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March).

The Middle East Foreign Policy (4 March) evaluates how the Gulf States’ dynastic nature of monarchy helped them survive the last period of political upheaval in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. Their wide presence in society provided a built-in intelligence service, keeping the families close to those they ruled. Many heads were better for monarchical survival than the single heads of rulers in Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Yemen that were lopped off, either figuratively or literally, in the Arab revolts of that earlier age. Since the first constituency of any dynastic monarch is his own family, proposing political reforms that would vastly decrease family power is likely to excite opposition not just to the reforms, but possibly to the ruler himself. Whatever reforms and promises Morocco makes to its people, they will not occur without the elite ensuring their wealth interests remain secure.

In the Financial Times’s ‘Arab monarchs nervously watch Morocco’ (2 March), Victor Mallet’s discussion suggests that Arab monarchs are far from immune to the people’s revolution. In Morocco, royalists believe that traditional regal and Muslim religious credentials (the king claims to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed and styles himself as ‘commander of the faithful’) will protect Morocco’s absolute monarchy from the reality of its economic injustices, a ‘medieval’ foundation to its current constitution and the absence of any real democracy. Despite this divine, sacrosanct untouchability, reports suggest that the 20 February protest marked the first time where pictures of the king, which normally symbolise loyalty, were not necessarily carried. Said Benjebli, a 32-year-old blogger and the chair of the Moroccan Bloggers’ Association, tells Mallet that if the king does not face the populations’ demands for change, ‘… the level of demands will increase and then people will want a republic. There is not much time to save the monarchy.’

So too does Imad Mesdoua explore the likely outcomes of Morocco’s uprisings in Morocco in ‘The “tranquil” kingdom?’ (2 March). She discusses how Morocco has sought to portray itself as the regional exception – the ‘tranquil kingdom’ – in the chaos of shaking republics and monarchies across the Arab world. The possibility of institutional reforms that would relegate the king to a ceremonial monarch/head of state in a constitutional model such as those of Europe’s monarchies would break one of Morocco’s chief taboos in a long history of Moroccan monarchs wielding sacrosanct and unchallengeable power over every institution. The current king is undoubtedly more popular than his father, bringing a ‘greater leniency and modernity’ to his reign alongside successfully portraying a ‘model of democracy’ with Western praise. However, the fundamental pillars of his father’s reign – corruption, nepotism, human rights violations and feared power of the ‘Makhzen’ – have not been reformed. WikiLeaks reports suggest the current monarch institutionalised bribery and coercion at the start of his reign to ensure his family’s businesses gain the upper hand over local and international competitors. Political freedom and freedom of speech only exists if it does not touch on the ultimate taboos: to criticise the monarchy or question the Western Sahara issue is a direct attack on the sacred. The vocabulary in the monarchy’s official speeches gives some clue as to gravity of it all.


As Noam Chomsky pointed out in a recent interview, the brutal dawn raid by Moroccan military forces on a Sahrawi peace camp in the occupied Western Sahara in November 2010 was the start of the current waves of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.

In cities across Western Sahara such as Dakhla, El Aaiun and Smara, civil society and human rights advocates have long embarked on waves of pro-democracy protests, now seen echoing through the Moroccan population itself. It is widely believed that the Sahrawi do not want to divert attention from the Moroccan populations’ own protests. But how serious the Moroccan regime takes these multi-directional campaigns can be seen in contradicting reports emerging about Moroccan military movements. In February, several sources said military troops had been moved north to prepare for the announced protests in Morocco-proper. Then in March local sources reported that large army contingents were being moved back into the Occupied Territory. Reports on 8 March indicated that the occupied city of Boujdour was under military siege.

Although the king’s two recent televised speeches announced a wide set of reforms, he nevertheless made it clear these would be carried out on his own initiative. Such reforms will prove decisive in whether the kingdom can retain its ‘tranquillity’. The risk is that Arab leaders will remain ‘behind closed doors in gilded palaces and well-guarded mansions, asking what can we give them and still stay in power?’ (Gardner, BBC, 4 March). As much as for any republic leader, a monarch’s legitimacy depends on ‘a social contract that treats the population as citizens rather than subjects, and has as its primary goal the economic and social advancement of society’ (Kaplan, Financial Times, 2 March).

Algeria’s wealth and independence on the international scene enables it much room to manoeuvre in responding to its population’s demands. Morocco does not have this luxury. What remains to be seen is just how much longer the monarchy can justify its archaic Western Sahara myth to the international community, the Sahrawi living under a repressive occupation and ultimately to the Moroccan population’s own socio-economic woes.


* Konstantina Isidoros is a doctoral researcher in anthropology at the University of Oxford. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author. This document is an original transcript and copyrighted property of the author. Changes to this original transcript are not permitted without prior approval from the author.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


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