Why Morocco is pressuring Spain over secret hospitalisation of Polisario leader

Morocco is pressuring Spain

Disbelief. This is the feeling that Morocco expressed with the release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Cherifian Kingdom of a statement that “deplores the attitude of Spain which welcomes on its territory the leader of the Polisario separatist militia”, relayed by the official agency MAP. The words used by Morocco sound like a warning to the first trading partner of the country, after Spain officially acknowledged having allowed the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, to enter its territory under a false identity, and to be hospitalized as a result of Covid-19.

The argument put forward by Madrid, namely “humanitarian” reasons, does not seem to convince Morocco, since Brahim Ghali is being sued by numerous victims in Spain, and should therefore, logically, have been presented before judges upon his arrival on Spanish soil. The charges brought against him are particularly serious, notably those of the Canary Islands Association of Victims of Terrorism. But not only that, the Polisario leader is also under a charge of rape, which he has never answered in court.

Diplomatic confusion

It is difficult for Morocco not to see behind this diplomatic imbroglio a desire from Madrid to preserve its interests with Algeria, the main supporter of the Polisario. The Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sabri Boukadoum, held a bilateral dialogue with his Spanish counterpart at the end of March, which resulted in a statement from Madrid affirming that Algeria is “a neighbouring and friendly country, as well as a strategic partner”. For Morocco, the message is clear: partly dependent on Algerian gas, Spain agreed to turn a blind eye to the arrival of the Polisario leader to be hospitalised on its soil, in exchange for a continued supply of gas. 

Considering this “unfriendly” gesture, Morocco summoned the Spanish ambassador in Rabat to inform him of the Moroccan position and to ask him to provide explanations. Moreover, this diplomatic incident comes after a rise in tensions between Rabat and Madrid around the borders of Ceuta and Melilla, as Morocco has decided to put a firm end to the smuggling trade, which was contributing to the livelihood of the two Spanish enclaves located in the north of the Cherifian Kingdom. Ceuta and Melilla’s leadership accused Rabat of trying to ” suffocate economically” the two cities, with Morocco replying that it was merely applying the law. Spain then systematically introduced exorbitant fines for trucks coming from Morocco if they were loaded with fuel, forcing them to refuel on Spanish soil, in order to reduce their competitiveness.

Retaliatory measures by Morocco?

Will Morocco retaliate against what it sees as a diplomatic slap in the face? Economically, this seems possible, as Madrid has a strong presence in Morocco and in the mid-2000s overtook France as its largest trading partner. Political actions are also conceivable, as media close to the Moroccan government have mentioned the possibility for Morocco to give asylum to the Catalan independence leader Carles Puidgemont. For the time being, Madrid is trying to ease tensions, but it is not certain that Morocco will follow. Since the recognition by the United States on the 9th of December 2020 of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, Rabat wants its major European partners to end their ambiguity on this issue and clearly show their support, especially since the Polisario Front has fewer and fewer allies.

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