On December 10, 2020, then-US Presidentrecognized sovereignty over Western Sahara, circumventing a decades-long UN-sponsored peace process for the territory. In return, agreed to normalize relations with .
The US-brokered agreement goes beyond a simple quid pro quo for Trump’s Arab peace deals. It represents a US investment in aAfrican security partner that is key to Washington’s conception of great power competition. Trump’s decision pulls closer to the US and the European Union. It also brings closer to the United Arab Emirates’ spheres of geopolitical influence in Africa and the wider . At the same time, the decision gives the EU cover to further align with .
Yet Trump’s gift tocould have unintended consequences. Algeria might deepen its relationship with Russia and China, increasing their presence in the region. The Biden administration is scrutinizing past deals signed by the previous president, and the decision pertaining to might come up for reconsideration.
Not All Quiet on the Western Sahara Front
The investing $3 billion in — through the Development Finance Corporation — and designated the country as a regional hub for its Prosper Africa trade and investment program. A month later, the US committed to selling four sky guardian drones to , which expands its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity. By acknowledging sovereignty over Western Sahara, allotting more development funding and providing increased ISR, the US bolsters neighborhood stability as seen by King Mohammed VI.kingdom conceives of its neighborhood’s stability in terms of a strong grip on Western Sahara, the continued development of the southern territory’s resources, and limited terrorist threats in and around its porous Saharan borders. In late November 2020, the US committed to
In turn, increased stability for intrigue. New US development initiatives could amplify previous actions in the region, such as the delivery of COVID-19 aid packages to Mauritania and Burkina Faso in June 2020. New ISR capacity will also see the increased interdiction of traffickers and terrorists, whose roles progressively overlap. These actions will not decisively change the nature of conflict plaguing the region, located just south of the . But even marginal gains for stability would decrease power vacuums for Russia to exploit with the Wagner Group, a private military company Moscow uses to surreptitiously advance its foreign policy.may reverberate across its littoral Sahara — a vacuum for terrorists and a potential target of Russian
Europe and the Gulf
Trump’s decision also provides political cover for the EU to overcome obstacles in its relationship with European Neighborhood Policy. The Brussels- relationship is fraught with disputes over whether goods from Western Sahara should come under the jurisdiction of the EU- free trade agreement. Rulings in 2016 and 2018 by the European Court of Justice decreed that EU- trade and fishing agreements would only remain valid if they excluded goods originating from Western Sahara, contradicting the autonomy plan for the territory., which retains advanced status under the union’s
Washington’s recognition ofsovereignty gives political cover to European states, including France, that lean toward the autonomy plan. European judicial decisions do not derive from US decrees, but if key EU member states were to change their stance on Western Sahara, the legal basis of the earlier court rulings could also differ. If so, like the US, the European Union would find itself pulled closer to , portending new initiatives that align with the European interest of as a stability exporter.
In the Gulf, Washington’s recognition of ambassadors.sovereignty pushes and Abu Dhabi closer into alignment. This would continue their rapprochement after previous tensions, which stemmed from Morocco’s refusal to back the Saudi-Emirati-led blockade of Qatar between 2017 and 2021. To punish for its neutrality, in 2018, the and Saudi Arabia voted against Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The states also recalled each other’s
In October 2020, however, the Laayoune, which at that time was not recognized as territory by the US. This was an important symbolic gesture, given that the was the first Arab state to do so. actions that favor come amidst deteriorating Emirati-Algerian relations, as Abu Dhabi is unhappy with Algeria’s alleged support of Turkey or, according to the , “anti-Emirati lobbies in the region.” That the is strengthening ties with while Saudi Arabia makes no such overtures could foreshadow Emirati attempts at constructing a new, intra-Sunni coalition.opened a consulate in Western Sahara’s
Russia and China
US rivals have adopted less amenable stances. Russia has already condemned Washington’s recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara. The US decision, consequently, gives Russia and China an excuse to increase security and economic cooperation with the Algerians. As the most strident supporter of the — an armed group demanding independence for Western Sahara — Algeria is upset about the diplomatic win secured in the US recognition of sovereignty.
Increased Russian and Chinese activity in Algeria would also diminish advances made in terms ofstability in the . Russia expanding its African power projection and China increasing its investments in natural resources would balance actions that close power vacuums to the Wagner Group. Unforeseen by , Russia can also cite the US recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara as justification for its annexation in 2014 of Crimea, which is officially part of Ukraine. The US may have improved ties with but, in doing so, pushed Algeria, another African behemoth, firmly into a sphere of Russian and Chinese influence and provided Russia justification for its illegal invasions.
The New US Administration
The Biden administration has already stated its support of the Abraham Accords, a term used for the peace deals Israel signed with the said, “We’re also trying to make sure that we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made in securing those agreements.”and Bahrain in 2020. In response to a question concerning US recognition of Western Sahara, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken
On January 27, 2021, US President Joe Biden froze the -era F-35 sale to the , pending review. Many considered the F-35 sale as a carrot Trump offered to the UAE. The freeze does not necessitate the reversal of the sale, but it indicates Biden’s resolve to scrutinize the quid pro quos that accompany the Abraham Accords. Once the US reaches “a full understanding of any commitments,” it will either continue or withdraw recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara.
If the Biden administration continues recognition of Western Sahara, Blinken would most likely work through an international framework at the United Nations to achieve increased support for Washington’s unilateral decision, as theis the only state to recognize full sovereignty over Western Sahara. If EU states lean toward the autonomy plan, the Biden administration will find some find needed political cover.
At the same time, Russia and China would continue their support for Algeria, andwould export its version of stability across . would also continue its recognition of . Malignant non-state actors, however, could use the endurance of the decision to galvanize violent actions from some Polisario fighters, creating another opening for terrorist groups. Maintenance of the decision also comes at the expense of true self-determination for the people in Western Sahara.
Thecan also withdraw recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara. This action would see the White House realign with the UN-sponsored peace process and international law. Potentially, a return to non-recognition would invigorate efforts toward a true autonomy plan. In this case, would withdraw its recognition of and US relations with would cool. Although the US and would remain important partners, the would feel betrayed by this decision and potentially align closer with Russia and China to castigate the Americans. The Polisario, moreover, would also find a renewed chance at some form of self-determination.
Regardless of the Biden administration’s actions,blatantly circumvented a UN-sponsored peace process and gave a carte blanche to implement its autonomy plan. New US- collaboration could see push Sahelian stability that benefits the US position in great power competition by closing power vacuums to Russian interests. Trump’s thirst for diplomatic wins, however, caused his administration to view Western Sahara through a transactional lens, obfuscating a legitimate international solution and potentially inviting new Russian and Chinese activity in .
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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