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Senators urge Biden to undo US recognition of Morocco's claim to Western Sahara

US lawmakers say new administration should reverse 'misguided decision' which came as part of Morocco's normalisation deal with Israel
Sahrawis hold a Polisario Front's flag at Sahrawi refugee camp of Dakhla, 27 February 2016 (AFP/File photo)
By in
Washington

More than two dozen US senators from both major parties have called on President Joe Biden to reverse Washington's recognition of Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara - a move made by the Trump administration to reward Rabat for normalising relations with Israel.

In a letter led by key Republican Jim Inhofe and senior Democrat Patrick Leahy, 25 legislators on Wednesday called Morocco's claim to Western Sahara "illegitimate", urging Biden to undo what they called a "misguided decision" by former President Donald Trump.

"The abrupt decision by the previous administration on December 11, 2020, to officially recognize the Kingdom of Morocco’s illegitimate claims of sovereignty over Western Sahara was short-sighted, undermined decades of consistent US policy, and alienated a significant number of African nations," the senators wrote.

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Located in the northwest corner of Africa, Western Sahara - a territory stretching over 266,000 square km - was under Spanish occupation until 1975.

After Spanish withdrawal, both Morocco and Mauritania made claims to the territory, while Saharan nationalists led by the Polisario Front demanded independence. 

In 1979, Mauritania ended its pursuit of the territory, which mostly fell under de facto Moroccan control. But the Polisario Front - backed by Algeria - continued to push for their own proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

The conflict, which still flares up sporadically, has led to the displacement of more than 100,000 Sahrawis who mostly live in camps in Algeria.

Territorial dispute

Until late last year, the official stance of most of the international community, including the United States, has been to hold a referendum in Western Sahara to determine the fate of the area - whether to grant it autonomy, independence or integrate it into Morocco.

But as part of his push to formalise diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab states, Trump moved to validate Morocco's claim to the region and open a US consulate in the disputed territory.

Last December, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, confirmed that recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is linked to the kingdom's normalisation with Israel.

He told reporters after the announcement last year that normalisation could help the Sahrawi people "live a better life".

"The president felt like this conflict was holding them back... This recognition will strengthen America's relationship with Morocco," Kushner said.

During its final months, the Trump administration appeared to dole out various rewards for Arab states that formally established ties with Israel.

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Morocco received a boost to its claims to Western Sahara. The United Arab Emirates secured a deal for advanced F-35 fighter jets, which was subsequently frozen by the new administration. Sudan was removed from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

Wednesday's letter by the senators did not mention Israel or normalisation. Its signatories include some of the staunchest supporters of Israel in Congress, including New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker.

"The United States owes it to the Sahrawi people to honor our commitment, to help ensure the Moroccans live up to theirs, and to see this referendum through," the letter said. 

"The Sahrawi people deserve the right to freely choose their own destiny. We hope that we can count on you to be a partner in this effort."

Biden, who backs normalisation efforts between Israel and Arab countries, has not made a commitment to uphold or reverse the US recognition of Western Sahara, but the White House has said that it was reviewing decisions made by the previous administration during its final weeks.