Last week the Moroccan incarnation of fast food giant McDonald’s felt it appropriate to apologise for producing and distributing an accurate map of Morocco which scandalously omitted to include Western Sahara as a part of the kingdom. The map was apparently included with its “Happy Meal”. McDonald’s dutifully responded to a complaint from the guardians of the occupation by saying that “borders were incorrectly drawn” and exhibting due contrition (1).
I guess this is understandable – small considerations such as respect for international law and UN resolutions, and squeamishness about territorial aggression, occupation of neighbouring territories, and widespread human rights abuses obviously take a back seat when it comes to the important business of selling burgers and making lots of money.
So what’s the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s excuse? Apparently even more eager than McDonalds to appease the Moroccan imperial machine, the FCO includes on its website a map of Morocco which includes all of Western Sahara. As far as I’m aware this isn’t as a result of a public scandal in which an accurate map respecting internationally recognised borders, and Western Sahara’s status as a disputed non-self-governing territory, was distributed to Moroccan kids along with Union Flags or Beefeaters in little plastic tubes. This rather gives the lie to the British government’s claim to support the upholding of international law and UN resolutions, and to favour the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination.
A comparison might be interesting here. Syrian approved maps (2) show the Turkish province of Hatay as part of Syria, which has long claimed this region. As it probably should, the The FCO map of Syria shows Hatay as part of Turkey. Now, this is entirely different, you may think, as Morocco at least exercises de facto control over Western Sahara, whereas Syria has no presence in Hatay. Well, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Moroccan control does not extend throughout all of Western Sahara, with a large swathe of the territory being controlled by the Polisario independence movement. So, the FCO map includes, as part of Morocco, areas which are not formally recognised as Moroccan by any government except that of Morocco, and areas which Morocco does not even control. Furthermore, these latter areas are administered by a functioning government of a state that is recognised by the majority of African nations.
I guess the lesson here is that, if you’re a government that wants the UK to recognise your “sovereignty” over a region (even if only informally), you just have to throw your weight around and convince the poor spineless saps at the FCO that your country is strategically important. Belligerence and intransigence pay, apparently. It doesn’t even matter if the areas you claim are not under your control and are governed by someone else, as long as you are persuasive enough and convince the poor dears at the FCO that said region needs to recognised as “yours” in order to combat the terrorist bogeyman (even if he isn’t there – invoking terrorism is usally enough, regardless of the facts).
When I first visited Western Sahara in 2002 I contacted the FCO to see what their travel advice said (I needed to know about this for my insurance). Even though I told them that I was going to a part of Western Sahara only accessible from Algeria and Mauritania, which was not under Moroccan control, they forwarded my query to the embassy in Rabat. The embassy never replied to me, but no doubt passed the information to their Moroccan buddies responsible for monitoring activity in the Free Zone.
Maybe there are elements in the FCO that regret the passing of the British Empire, who indulge their tastes by assisting other countries with colonial aspirations. Or perhaps the FCO and McDonald’s have more in common than one might think, namely the role of clowns in their business activities. In the FCO’s case, these activities involve supporting things like the sale of weapons and the provision of military training to, er, Morocco (Shelley, 2004, p. 194; War on Want).
(1) AFP. McDonald’s sorry for wiping Western Sahara off map. 1 Dec. 2008: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jNkJV9kHBK656tZKlx5UnPE_uVcw.
(2) 1991 Road Map of the Middle East, published by GEOprojects, PO Box 133.5294, Beirut, Lebanon (purchased in Syria).
Shelley, T. Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Las Colony. Zed Books, London.
UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
Note: the Morocco and Syria pages are those of the respective British embassies, housed on the UK FCO website.