icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Europe’s Balancing Act in Western Sahara
Europe’s Balancing Act in Western Sahara

Western Sahara: The Cost of the Conflict

The Western Sahara conflict is both one of the world’s oldest and one of its most neglected.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

The Western Sahara conflict is both one of the world’s oldest and one of its most neglected. More than 30 years after the war began, the displacement of large numbers of people and a ceasefire in 1991 that froze military positions, its end remains remote. This is substantially due to the fact that for most of the actors – Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario Front, as well as Western countries – the status quo offers advantages a settlement might put at risk. But the conflict has human, political and economic costs and real victims: for the countries directly concerned, the region and the wider international community. This is important to acknowledge if a new conflict-resolution dynamic is to be created.

Based on their own calculations, the parties have deemed the stalemate bearable. As a result, the conflict has become one of those “frozen” ones that draw scant attention or engagement. The estimated costs appear far lower than the costs of a solution that would be detrimental to one party or another. For Morocco, an unfavourable settlement could have very serious domestic consequences since the monarchy has turned the issue into a powerful force for national unity and a means to control the threat to its power from political parties and the army.

An unfavourable settlement could mortally wound the Polisario as a political organisation and force it to compromise with the Sahrawi notables who have made their peace long ago with Morocco. It would also mean that the Sahrawi refugees in the Algerian city of Tindouf would have lived 30 years in camps for nothing. For Algeria, it would involve the loss of leverage in relations with Morocco and the defeat of principles it has defended for over three decades.

And yet, these calculations ignore the very heavy price that all – states, but also and above all, peoples – are paying. The Sahrawis who live in the Tindouf camps have to put up with exile, isolation and poverty; day after day they feel increasingly deserted by the international community. They live under the authority of an exiled state structure (the Polisario and its Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) that is barely democratic and whose leaders are suspected of enriching themselves by embezzling aid. The Polisario also has to face the increased discontent of a base whose morale and unity are weakening after years of stagnation.

Those Sahrawis who live on 85 per cent of the territory controlled by Morocco enjoy better material conditions, in particular thanks to important investments made by the kingdom. However, it is almost impossible for them to express opinions that are not pro-Moroccan. Rabat violently stifles any claim of independence, frequently resorting to torture and arbitrary arrests, including against human rights activists. It has repeatedly prevented visits by international delegations wishing to observe the situation and has frequently expelled foreign journalists. Through the numerous benefits it grants, Rabat attracts populations from the north of Morocco to Western Sahara with the effect that the Sahrawis will very soon be a minority in that area, giving them a strong sense of dispossession.

Moroccans as a whole have also had to bear heavy costs. Hundreds of Moroccan troops have been captured and tortured by the Polisario. Most have remained in prison for a long time. Moroccans also have to shoulder an exorbitant financial cost (military budget, investment in the “Southern provinces”, tax breaks and higher salaries for civil servants) that has hampered national development – a situation all the more serious since poverty in the country’s slums is generating momentum for a Salafi Islamist movement.

For Algeria, costs have been primarily financial (from aid to refugees and donation of military equipment to the Polisario) and diplomatic (with this commitment sometimes at the expense of other interests), but also have to be measured in terms of the continuing existence on its western border of a major source of tension. Mauritania paid a price for the Sahrawi conflict with the 1978 coup, which ushered in a long period of institutional volatility, and the issue remains a potential source of instability for Nouakchott.

The overall cost of this conflict is also very high for the region as a whole, since it hinders the development of the Arab Maghreb Union, generating delays in economic integration, low foreign investment and slower rates of growth. Perhaps more serious is the fact that the badly governed area covering Western Sahara, Northern Mauritania and South West Algeria is becoming a zone of trafficking (drugs, people and multiple forms of contraband) that suffers from lack of security cooperation. Finally, the UN has been thoroughly discredited by its attitude in this conflict, while the international community has to pay large sums for an observation force and economic aid.

This report describes the human, social, economic, political and security price the parties need to acknowledge if they are to end the protracted conflict. A companion Crisis Group report issued simultaneously, Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse, analyses how a new dynamic might be developed that could produce the necessary diplomatic breakthrough.

Cairo/Brussels, 11 June 2007

Europe’s Balancing Act in Western Sahara

Hugh Pope is joined by North Africa experts Intissar Fakir and Riccardo Fabiani to ask whether Morocco holds a winning hand in its conflict with the pro-independence Polisario Front in Western Sahara as Europe looks on timidly, wary of direct challenges to the regional power. 

Exactly a year ago, in November 2020, an old conflict on the south-western edge of Europe burst back into flames. After almost 30 years of ceasefire, the pro-independence Polisario Front and Morocco went back to battle stations in Western Sahara. European states have so far taken a timid stance in response, preferring not to involve themselves in another intractable conflict. Nonetheless, the new focus on Western Sahara is unsettling many relationships, particularly with Morocco. For its part, the Kingdom has taken a hardline response to even the most limited of criticisms: Rabat’s ambassador to Germany was even recalled after a public spat in May. A recent verdict from the European Court of Justice excluding Sahrawi goods and fish from a trade deal risks further ratcheting up tensions. So, how will conflict in Western Sahara affect Europe’s relations with Morocco? 

This week, Hugh Pope is joined by Intissar Fakir, Director of the Middle East Institute’s North Africa and Sahel Program, and Riccardo Fabiani, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for North Africa. They discuss Morocco’s successful hardball strategy, the Polisario’s desperate gambit, Rabat’s troubled alliance with Spain and France, and the ramifications of the Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty. They ask whether Europe’s arms-length stance is another example of regional powers flexing ever-growing influence at the expense of the “big players” in the Old Continent’s capitals.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information explore Crisis Group’s work on Europe, Morocco, and Western Sahara, by checking out the regional pages on the left hand side of our website. Make sure to take a look at our recent report ‘Relaunching Negotiations’. 


Former Director of Communications & Outreach
Project Director, North Africa
Intissar Fakir
Senior Fellow and Director of Program on North Africa and Sahel, Middle East Institute