Moroccan Unity and Saharan Development: A King's Commitment

Yesterday Moroccan King Mohammed VI traveled to Laayoune, the sun-drenched capital of the country's Saharan south, on a historic occasion: Forty years earlier, in what became known as the "Green March," 330,000 of his fellow citizens arrived en masse in the then-Spanish-occupied Moroccan Sahara to reclaim it peacefully from its colonizers. It was the first and to date the only successful case of a nonviolent resistance movement to oust a European empire from Africa. It was also a moment of profound emotional significance for Moroccans, whose territory had been carved up and colonized by numerous Western powers: Ties of kinship between the Moroccan north and south date back centurie. The language, traditions, and lore of ethnic Saharans are woven deep into the social tapestry of the realm. By reclaiming the Sahara, Moroccans reclaimed their own identity, as well as the right to determine their own destiny.

Yesterday, in addition to commemorating the Green March in situ, the monarch used the occasion to launch a new series of development plans for the Saharan provinces, including new road and rail networks and airports, as well as new social, medical, and educational projects. Perhaps in a different part of the world, the list would seem banal. But as the video below of locals streaming in by the thousands to greet the king yesterday shows, both the visit and the speech he delivered to explain the meaning of his projects were met with a kind of unbridled passion -- which in turn requires some explanation.

Ever since the 100,000-square-mile Saharan territory was restored to Morocco, it has been under attack. For the most part, the spearhead is the Polisario, a paramilitary organization of Saharan fighters, initially contrived by Spain but later supported by the Soviet Union and its oil- and gas-rich client state of Algeria. Polisario fighters, who waged a bloody war against Morocco for 15 years, aspire to topple the king and establish a new military junta on the territory of Morocco's western half, adopting the political model of Algeria's military oligarchy. Polisario propaganda seeks to persuade the majority of Saharans, who live in Morocco, that their government does not have their best interests at heart -- while inculcating militarism in those who have the misfortune to live under Polisario rule.

Whereas billions in aid money from the West have been flowing into the Polisario-controlled enclave known as Tindouf, the population remains destitute and without hope, while the political leadership has grown rich. By contrast, the Moroccan government has been pouring billions into developing its Saharan territory. A journey from the squalor and suffering of Tindouf into the growth and development of the Moroccan Sahara feels like a journey from squalid, militaristic North Korea to the developed Korean democracy to its south -- a journey from darkness into light.

In his speech yesterday, King Mohammed VI issued a series of challenges to the leadership in Tindouf, and its Algerian backers: "Where have the millions of dollars of humanitarian aid gone? ... Why has not Algeria done anything to improve the living conditions of the Tindouf camp population? [And] I ask the people in the Tindouf camps: Are you satisfied with the awful conditions you live in? Do women in the camps accept the sense of despair and frustration prevailing among their sons and daughters, who have no horizon or future to look forward to?"

The monarch's economic and social development initiatives in the Sahara are joined by a political strategy, dubbed "regionalization," that grants the inhabitants of all Moroccan provinces -- including the Saharan south -- the freedom to elect their own officials and administer their territories largely autonomously. The benefits of these policies, presenting opportunity to all Saharans, are not lost on the people of Tindouf, scores of whom defect from the Polisario camps each year -- at enormous risk -- in order to live in the Moroccan Sahara. In appealing directly to their brethren to "cross over" themselves and take part in the development of the Sahara, the king boldly challenged the forces of corruption that lie at the kingdom's doorstep -- and sent a message of hope to Saharans near and far in their quest for a better life.