Clowning around, or McForeign Policy

December 10, 2008

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:

(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:

Western Sahara page:

Morocco page:

Syria page:

Note: the Morocco and Syria pages are those of the respective British embassies, housed on the UK FCO website.


Way smoothed for genocide in Western Sahara

February 27, 2007
The following is extracted and edited from a letter to Charles Clarke, my Member of Parliament. Morocco is being extremely active in promoting its new plan for the the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which it partially occupies, and has had a number of “constructive” talks with European politicians in recent weeks. Morocco has been praised for its efforts by a number of individuals and bodies, including political representatives of the EU. It appears that the way is being smoothed for Morocco to implement its own, unilateral “solution” to the problem of Western Sahara.The Moroccan plan involves what Morocco calls “regional autonomy” for the territory of Western Sahara within a greater Morocco. This plan rejects any future negotiations with the Polisario Independence government regarding the region’s status, and excludes a referendum on independence, counter to the rulings of the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, and the public position of the government of the United Kingdom, all of which claim to support the right of self-determination of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Morocco’s strategy appears to be to normalise its occupation of Western Sahara by appearing to give ground by granting autonomy, while in actual fact consolidating its control and neutralising the efforts of the international community to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.

Western Sahara is in reality partitioned between a Moroccan-occupied zone (the majority of the territory) and what the Sahrawi refer to as the “Free Zone”. The latter consists of most of the regions bordering Algeria and Mauritania in the east, and is of significant size. It is in the Free Zone that I and my colleagues conduct our field research, so I can speak on this matter on the basis of first hand experience.

If the international community supports Morocco’s plan to incorporate Western Sahara into a greater Morocco, the status of the Free Zone will be a key issue. Most commentators and politicians seem to be under the impression that Morocco occupies the entire territory of Western Sahara, and that support for its position would simply involve accepting the existing annexation, meaning nothing much would change. I suspect that if the reality of the situation (and the geography of the region) was understood better, there would be more concern about the security implications of the Moroccan approach.

Accepting the Moroccan position that Western Sahara is a part of Morocco is likely to lead to one of the following outcomes, all of which have severe security implications:

1. Morocco consolidates its occupation of existing territory but does not attempt to occupy the Free Zone, which remains under Polisario control, essentially becoming a de facto Sahrawi state. An uneasy peace continues as Algeria exerts pressure on the Polisario to avoid conflict with Morocco, but continues to support them as part of its ongoing political conflict with Morocco.

2. Morocco consolidates its occupation but does not enter the Free Zone. However, under pressure from the exiled Sahrawi population the Polisario declares war against Morocco, once it is apparent that they have nothing to lose, the international community having washed its hands of the issue. The scale and consequences of the ensuing conflict depend largely on the position of Algeria.

3. Morocco immediately attempts to occupy the Free Zone to extend its control over the entire territory of Western Sahara and in order to remove a potential future threat from a Polisario-controlled Free Zone. The Polisario resist, and the conflict drags in Algeria, and possibly Mauritania. (The Moroccan wall which separates the occupied territories from the Free Zone has already annexed a small area of Mauritanian territory. This is not shown on any maps – perhaps to avoid embarrassment to Mauritania – but is apparent on the ground and visible on satellite imagery.)

4. With the help of the West, Morocco makes a deal with Algeria in which Algeria agrees to restrain the Polisario from restarting the conflict as Morocco completes its occupation. A best case outcome under this scenario would be the dispersal of the exiled Sahrawi population in Algeria, Mauritania and other countries (including the EU and countries such as the UK). A worst case outcome would be that the Sahrawi in the camps resist and are expelled or exterminated by the Algerian security forces. With nothing to lose, the Sahrawi, who have to date been vehemently against terrorism in support of their cause, might change this position. Eschewing terrorism has certainly not helped them regain their homeland.

None of these scenarios is particularly optimistic, ranging from a festering of the conflict for decades to come to the possibility of actual genocide, with the emergence of new recruits to terrorism a possibility.

We can be certain that in its desire for the Sahrawi to disappear and in its repeated denial of the existence of the Sahrawi people, the Moroccan state is on the road to genocide, at least of the cultural variety. Whether this translates into actual extermination remains to be seen and will depend on whether the physical conflict resumes.

While this is on the one hand a question of justice and human rights, it is also an issue of international security. No-one will benefit from renewed war in the Maghreb. The only options for ending this conflict are to allow Morocco effectively to exterminate the Sahrawi people and their culture (the likely consequence of “political realism” on the part of the West), or to exert pressure on Morocco to enter into real and meaningful negotiations on self determination aimed at restoring Western Sahara to the Sahrawi people. The latter has been the preferred approach (at least in principle) of the United Nations and the international community, but efforts to this end have failed because of the lack of pressure on Morocco from UN member states. Indeed, Morocco has used its considerable diplomatic weight to sabotage the peace process since it began in 1991. There is little to be gained by telling the Sahrawi and their political leaders in the Polisario that they should accept an illegal occupation of their land and return to live under the control of an oppressive occupying power which would not welcome them, and which routinely tortures and sometimes murders their kin who live in the occupied territories.

Political pressure from Western governments can make a real difference here, helping to deliver security to a region beset by conflict for decades, and justice to a people who have lived in exile for over thirty years, perhaps even saving them from a possible genocide.