The Sahara issue reminds us of one of the longest and stagnated conflicts in this period and according to some scholars and the United Nations, it is the “last big decolonization conflict in the world”.
Despite having been labelled, many times, as the “forgotten conflict” the truth is that the Sahara conflict has an international importance higher than some authors have afforded it. Despite being an escalated conflict, the numbers of the affected are comparably diminutive in comparison to larger, more publicised conflicts. It has significantly affected between 100.000 and 300.000 people, the RASD (Democratic Saharawi Arab Republic) account with the recognition of non-negligible number of 82 countries in the world, principally in Africa and South America, the recognition of the OUA as a member state, and a remarkable and burgeoning influence in the European and American public opinion, especially the Spanish, which 47 pro Saharawi associations in its territory, and a remarkable coverage in the Spanish media.
Moreover, the United Nations has, since 1991, been systematically developing and offering an inefficient, albeit costly programme; the MINURSO, which stresses the organization of a referendum of self-determination in the Sahara region.
This minimal “show” of international interest contrasts with the “indifference” that this issue expresses in the Arab world. Furthermore; as Randa Farah (2007, p. 2) points out “they situate their political and cultural identities in the context of the Arab world. Sahrawi’s are an Arab and Muslim people” , the Sahara population see “ that most Arab countries know little of their struggle and most Arab governments have sided with Morocco, while African states including South Africa and Kenya have recognized SADR as their legitimate state”.
This comparison is noteworthy if one contemplates the similarities with the conflict per say in the Arab world: Palestine. In both conflicts, one is able to speak about decolonization as both conflicts have had a forced movement of population in or out of the territory due to this decolonization. In both, the occupying powers have enacted a 21st century form of colonisation, with new settlers. In both cases, there are similarities in the organization and ideology of the resistance movements which evolve as a result thereof (Polisario and OLP).
However, in the statistical point of view, despite the notion of actual and perceived victimisation are incomparable (Palestine statistical damages both physically, humanitarianly, economically and so forth are significantly bloated if compared to the magnitude of the conflict in question. ), while Palestine has always been the “permanent dream” of the Arab world, occupying a remarkable importance in general agendas of almost of these countries; the Sahara issue has not had a significant affect on political or ideological thought in the region and is rather held under the custodianship of Africa and by proxy, Europe.
The aim of this paper is to attempt an objective investigation into the causes of this silence in the Arab world, analyzing three variables: The degree of contact with this reality, both direct and indirect. Secondly, the possible degree of identification with the conflict, putting in relation with concepts as decolonization, or Pan Arabism. Finally, the dimension of the conflict in the sphere of International Politics, in particular, the context of the struggle between Morocco and Algeria.
Degree of contact with the reality
¿ How has the Sahara issue impacted the Arab world?
The level of importance that a conflict is awarded is by the measurement of influence that said conflict has on the lives of the people who are not directly involved in that conflict. Regarding the Palestinian Struggle; the conflict has far reaching consequences, affecting territorial neighbours not just the population in question, thus a chain of effect is created and numerous sovereign states are drawn into the conflict in different roles; an example of this far-reaching conflict is witnessed through refugees in neighbouring countries such as Jordan or Lebanon. The latter changes the faces of these countries; as the population curve rises significantly and the “resting” rate is altered by the presence of refugees, who thus alter the face of the country gradually – reflecting a far different dynamic within each country subject to the continuous arrival of refugees
In case of the Sahara regional conflict in question, the capacity of influence is rather low. Due to a peripheral situation in the Arab world, the situation of the Saharawi refugees just affect to one African country: Algeria which has a dual identity as most North African countries: firstly, as an African country positioned within the African continent, and secondly, as an Arab country, positioned by the composition of its people, their Arab history and their religious affiliation. Within its borders there are around 100.000 Saharawi refugees and the latter issue has a remarkable influence on the direction of Algerian politics, for reasons of economic and ideological support. The refugees do not have direct contact with the population as they have been isolated in camps in the middle of the desert.
In addition; a conflict can affect countries in the narration of commerce and trade relations, more often as an impediment rather than progressive entity. The Sahara issue, doubtless conditions the fact Maghreb has one of the lowest interregional trade rates in the world. According to Moroccan sources, trade with other states in Maghreb remains at 2 percent of the overall international trade (Elgueddari, 2008) which is a part and parcel to the current Sahara conflict. However, it would be prudent to note that these low interregional trade rates have been a structural characteristic in the Arab world (Kamrava, M. 2011, p. 290) with rates that generally do not reach the 10 percent. Therefore; a low trade rate with countries in the region, is not as much of a negating factor as in other regions of the world.
Moreover, as Zoubir points out (2006, p. 116) paradoxically, the USA or the European Union probably have a higher interest in the Maghreb economic regional integration, due to “ the non resolution of the conflict (Sahara) could suppose a big problem to their trade strategy and security policy against terrorism”. Regarding the latter; for the most part; United States of America was the most important promoter of the Einzestat initiative in 1999, which looked for a buttressing of the economic ties and bonds among Maghreb countries. So, we can find the low trade rate existent at this moment, among Arab countries made difficult by a higher interest rate due to economic goals, being this economic interest wanes with exception to some countries including USA, who have a vested interest in the area.
The “indirect” contact: Media coverage.
Other ways that a conflict comes into contact with reality is through media, which can be used as a speaker of a “distant” reality. During the 90’s there arose an important debate about media importance and influence in public opinion, and the capacity of media to influence public opinion, and therefore foreign policy of countries involved in a conflict – the post- Cold War Era is an illustration of the latter. Some authors asserted that policymaking in this “new era” would be fundamentally dominated by the “image” that each conflict would be able to cast across through media (Stech, 1994).
Still; this model has been contested (Olsen, Carstensen and Høyen, 2003) the truth is sometimes this model, which has been coined the CNN effect, was used to try to explain why some conflicts receive more attention and coverage by media than others. According to the article “Clarifying the CNN Effect” by Livingston (1997) there are several factors which explain the curve of exposure regarding conflicts and media: such as the presence of foreign troops, the more or less duration of the conflict or the degree of political interest.
In the Sahara issue; the characteristics of the conflict are difficult to divulge as a high degree of awareness by the international media has been in remiss. Livingston asserts the factors previously mentioned act as a catalyst for increased or minimal attention, which results in the existence of a “competence market” to bid and capture the attention of public opinion. As a result thereof, a long and stagnated conflict does not progress the Saharawi cause, which needs to compete with fresh news, new catastrophes which arise with the time. The latter conflict is in constant shadow of the far more “severely publicised” Palestinian conflict which fills a big part of the Arab concern, acting more as a brake than a incentive.
Apart from the fact that it is a “dormant conflict” in the sense there is no outright war or open confrontation which thus creates a higher level of disinterest in the topic, not only in Arab world, but globally as well.
There are several reasons why Sahara conflict becomes dormant or stagnated: To begin with; the policy of the standpoint accomplished by Morocco, with the construction of a defensive wall in the 1980’s, the Polisario’s strategy based in the refusal of terrorism, but also the high repressive policy of Morocco depicted in the high level during the riots in Laayoune two years ago. In fact, the volume of news about Sahara rose remarkably during this riots, depicting how violence, can work as catalyst for more international interest (Ross, 2010)
On the other hand, despite Morocco being considered by some analyst as one of the Arab countries with better levels of freedom of opinion, the truth is the current situation is so far to be really free, specially in relation with Sahara, as several media (Llerena, 2004) or the report of “Reporteros sin Fronteras” (Journalist without borders) which gives Morocco the 135 rank in Freedom of Press, in the overall world, have denounced. This dramatic situation prevents most of the media a right access to the Saharawi real conditions of life, inside Morocco.