Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Western Sahara: Drilling in Disputed Waters

Western Sahar drilling
Saharawi women protest against US oil company Kosmos Energy exploration drilling in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, on 25 February 2015

In late 2014, Nordic oil rig companies and the US-based Kosmos Energy began drilling in the Cap Boujdour block offshore Western Sahara. The formerly Spanish territory is the subject of a decades-long dispute between Morocco and the Polisario, the Algeria-backed indigenous movement seeking its independence. Around three-quarters of the territory has been under Moroccan control since it was annexed in 1976, with the Polisario controlling the southern tranche. The drilling has both negative and positive aspects for Morocco and beyond – little wonder, given the territory’s direct link to deep-rooted geopolitical dynamics.

Negative aspects

The negative aspects can be traced to the political stalemate in Western Sahara, which in Morocco is known as the Southern Provinces. Almost 40 years after Spanish withdrawal, tensions continue to simmer. Although an UN-brokered ceasefire has been in place since 1991, the conflicting claims of Morocco’s sovereignty and the indigenous Sahrawis’ right to self-determination have never been resolved.

Some analysts believe that the recent hydrocarbons discovery in the disputed territory could strengthen Morocco’s position by boosting business, enhancing development, and accelerating prosperity in the region. This in turn would weaken the Polisario, they predict, and the position of its Algerian benefactor. Indeed, Algeria has already urged the indigenous Sahrawis not to support the drilling, saying it would violate international law and give more power to Morocco. Algeria is politicizing the conflict, argue some, in order to direct attention away from its own internal woes.

Positive aspects

Others believe that the discovery of oil offshore could bring an end to the 40-year dispute. Two factors support this view.

The first is the Arab Spring and the new power dynamics it has created in the region. Morocco’s post-Arab Spring reforms include the recognition of Sahrawi identity as well as the loosening of restrictions on travel between the occupied territory and the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.

The second is the formation of the secessionist Tuareg republic in northern Mali after the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, which was hijacked by Al-Qaeda-linked groups and led to the intervention of France and the ending of the Mali crisis. On the security front, the 2011 Arab Spring and the 2012 Mali crisis gave credence to Morocco’s claim of being a bulwark of stability in a region plagued by civil strife in general and the threat of terrorist groups in particular.

It was under these circumstances that the oil companies began drilling in disputed waters. But the permission to do so has a history of its own: Kosmos Energy has held rights to explore Western Saharan waters since 2006, when it signed an agreement with Morocco’s state oil company, the Office National des Hydrocarbures et des Mines (ONHYM). This was renewed in 2011, pursuant to which Kosmos Energy sent the drillship Atwood Achiever to Cap Boujdour in November 2014 to commence exploration activities. While detractors insist that the agreement is illegal, it has not deterred others from following suit. In December 2014, the European Union approved a four-year accord with Morocco that allows European boats – the majority of the Spanish – to fish in Western Sahara’s abundant waters.

The debate on legality hinges on the complex status of Western Sahara, an UN-designated non-self-governing territory. While no state recognizes Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara and Morocco thus has no right to the territory’s natural resources under international law, an UN Security Council ruling from 2002 states that drilling in the territory would be legal if it were done for the “benefit of the peoples” living there.

In the face of criticism that Kosmos Energy did nothing to obtain the consent of the inhabitants of Western Sahara, the company issued a statement saying that it believed its activities to be in line with UN opinion. It also said that it had met with a number of elected officials, business leaders, tribal leaders, and representatives from civil society organizations, the tourism industry, and the fishing community as well as with the indigenous population, with the aim of presenting its exploration project.

However, the arrival of Kosmos Energy seems to be evidence of the Polisario’s low standing on the international agenda.

Besides potential oil reserves, the sparsely inhabited region boasts significant phosphate deposits. In September 2011, Moroccan state-owned phosphate company, Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), concluded a long-term deal with the Canadian agricultural firm Agrium Inc. for Western Saharan phosphate. The first shipment of phosphate rock mined by OCP in Western Sahara, valued at around $10 million, arrived in Vancouver in October 2013.

Could oil be the means to break the impasse? That will depend on how the local population and the UN Security Council respond. The Polisario has called on the Security Council to stop oil drilling off Western Sahara.

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