By: Jonathan Ocadiz**
In 2016, a joint-Anglo-Spanish scientific expedition discovered a massive deposit of the minerals cobalt and tellurium in the waters between the Spanish-governed Canary Islands and Moroccan territory, which coincidentally have never officially established maritime borders.  This scientific discovery sparked Morocco’s interest in the region and inevitably diplomatic tension several years later between the two states. In February of 2020, the Moroccan parliament approved two laws that aim to expand the territorial waters of the state by incorporating and formalizing 200 nautical miles off the disputed territory of Western Sahara.  Consequently, Spain viewed the legislation as an affront to their own territorial boundaries within the region. The Spanish parliament approved a resolution that disapproved the Moroccan acquisition, because it encroached on the territorial waters of the nearby Canary Islands where the 2016 underwater mineral discovery took place.  However, this episode of territorial encroachment is not an isolated incident, as other incidents have occurred that led to the near risk of conflict between the two states.
The most serious incident occurred in 2002 when Moroccan forces invaded the Spanish-held Perejil island, in an attempt by King Mohammad VI to strengthen Moroccan legitimacy over adjacent Spanish land enclaves that border Morocco, despite it prompting the Spanish to forcefully retake the island.  The Perejil incident and the recent acquisition of the Western Saharan waters reflects Morocco’s desire to become a regional power and is only one of many policies that economically and politically undermine the former colonial power of Spain within the area of the Western Sahara. However, the pursuit of these policies can potentially damage its contemporary relations with Spain, a neighbor on whom Morocco has become increasingly reliant both economically and militarily.
In order to put the current territorial dispute into context, it is important to first examine the relevant history of Spanish colonization within the region. The Canarian archipelago was colonized in the late 15th century, where it played a dual role in not only serving as an important Atlantic trading station but also as a launch pad to conduct future colonization.  The archipelago’s proximity to Northwest Africa warranted a preemptive opportunity for subtle expansion by Spain in the mid-1800s. The Spanish government deployed both army and naval forces to establish costal outposts along the Saharan coast under the guise of combating piracy. At the same time, the Spanish also established a government-backed trading corporation that served to compete with existing competitors throughout the region.  Overtime, the Spanish would economically transition to resource extraction. In the early 1960s, massive reservoirs of phosphate and other lucrative metals were founded by the Spanish, which undermined a monopoly over similar nearby resources once enjoyed by a newly independent Morocco.  The discovery of those resources became the catalyst for Morocco increasing its demands for the complete decolonization of the Spanish Sahara, who had already proceeded into conflict with Spain.
After regaining its independence from France in 1956, Morocco conducted a six-month guerrilla campaign on the colony. Despite losing to the Spanish forces, the Moroccans gained a small segment of the territory.  Consequentially, the Moroccans began to assert claims over the territory on the contentions of colonial illegitimacy, which also served a domestic political function. King Hassan II utilized the Moroccan assertions of retroactive sovereignty over the indigenous peoples to legitimize his reign and served to unify the Moroccan public through nationalism.  However, it is important to note that Hassan II’s actions lacked historical precedent. Historically, the Moroccan monarch did not even established treaties that asserted legal dominance over the tribes and their lands during the 18th century, such as those of the Reguibat.  Nonetheless, Morocco was successful in upending Spanish predominance within the area.
In 1975, Spain announced that the territory would be relinquished due to both domestic and international pressure.  Regardless, the Moroccans viewed Spain’s weakened political state as an opportunity to further solidify its presence in the Saharan territory. The death of the dictator Francisco Franco prompted several figures within the debilitated Spanish government to lean towards a Moroccan backed proposal on the territory, culminating in the Madrid Accords that granted Morocco greater control.  It is worth noting that the international community did not supported the agreement. The United Nations (U.N) passed a resolution that called on Spain to promote a U.N sponsored referendum for the indigenous people to decide their status, which was ironically planned by Franco before his death in 1975.  For the indigenous people, the lack of a referendum would foreshadow inevitable conflict in the region.
In 1975, the growing desire for independence by the native Sahawari would lead to the rise of the Polisario Front, an organization that would establish the fledgling Sahawari Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Moroccan efforts to solidify its control over the land would lead to conflict with the Polisario Front, ending in an armistice in 1991.  Morocco’s rivalry with the SADR was one of the rationales for the passage of the 2020 Moroccan maritime extension laws. The legislation that extended Moroccan territorial waters to incorporate those of the Western Sahara was motivated in part to consolidate control over the contested territory by weakening the SADR’s claims to both it and any natural resources as well.  These territorial assertions serve as the backdrop of re-escalation between the Moroccans and the Polisario Front. In December of 2020, the Polisario Front nullified the ceasefire in response to Moroccan military efforts in removing pro-independence activists on a Western Saharan-Mauritanian border road.  Yet, the Moroccan legislation also accomplished another subtle economic goal for Morocco, by cementing access to the rich fisheries in the waters close to the Canary Islands, which has the potential to reinvigorate a long-standing maritime feud.
Beginning in 1973, both Spanish fishermen and Moroccan maritime authorities have clashed in the waters off both Morocco and Western Sahara regarding fishing rights, as Morocco proclaimed a 70-mile-wide maritime territorial boundary off its shores that served solely Moroccan fishermen. Even though the Spanish negotiated with the Moroccans in establishing joint access of the maritime zone through a 1977 accord, the Moroccans did not permit it to enter into force.  For Spain, the Moroccan proclamations of an exclusive fishing zone posed a potential economic risk to the Canary Islanders. The archipelago’s geographical proximity to an important oceanic current off the North Atlantic coast that brings migrating fish into Canarian waters has played a historic role in fueling a booming local fishing industry, which generated nearly fifty million Euros in 2011 for example.  Alongside the 2016 discovery of the undersea minerals, the economic value of the fishing grounds near the Moroccan controlled Western Sahara also posed another incentive for the maritime territorial enlargement through the 2020 legislation.
Although the recent legislation aims to improve Morocco’s regional standing by achieving its political and economic interests in the area, such policies can result in negative backlash by Spain. This reciprocation is evident with respect to Morocco’s contemporary reliance on Spanish trade and defense cooperation. For instance, Spain is Morocco’s largest trading partner, Morocco sends more than a quarter of its exports to Spain, while receiving almost twenty percent of its imports from its northern neighbor.  The maritime territorial extension of the Moroccan waters might dispose Spain to curtail its trade with Morocco in response. Although the Spanish government has not yet imposed any restrictions, it has warned Morocco that the pursuit of such legislation goes against the territorial wellbeing of the Canary Islands and warrants possible defensive action.  In addition, the Moroccan maritime expansion legislation also puts defense cooperation between the two states in jeopardy, as both have a vested interest in maritime security. In fact, both parties took part in joint counterterrorism exercises in 2015 that were aimed to address the possibility of terrorist activities in Spanish and Moroccan coastal cities.  The legislation has put the Moroccan government into a contradictory position, by taking part in policies that undercut its codependent relationship with Spain. Even the Moroccan Prime Minster attempted to express that Spain was an important partner for Morocco’s wellbeing and stated that the action was not meant to be perceived as undermining their northern neighbor, while the Spanish government is commencing discussions on the subject. 
In conclusion, the legislation that seeks to expand the territorial waters of Morocco by incorporating the Western Saharan territorial waters, represents Morocco’s historical ambitions into becoming a regional power at Spain’s expense. Both the territory and its waters have not only the vital natural resources that Morocco has pursued, but also yields sociopolitical value to the Moroccan monarchy in serving as a source of nationalism and curtailing non-Moroccan autonomy. However, the pursuit of the maritime expansion legislation by Morocco can result in negative repercussions by Spain against Morocco, on both economic and regional security matters. Only time will tell as to whether both actors can compromise on setting the limits of their territorial boundaries.
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*This article was updated on December 30th, 2020.