At first glance, measures to develop Lagouira demonstrate Morocco’s keenness to develop its southern provinces, a deeper look shows other geopolitical dimensions.
Since securing the flow of people and goods at the Guerguerat crossing on November 13, 2020, Morocco has taken bolder steps in the Saharan provinces, aimed at developing the 446 Km area between Dakhla and Lagouira, and making it attractive to investment, especially after the extension of the berm in the south and the reinforcement by the Moroccan army in 40 square kilometers in the buffer zone of Guerguerat.
This followed the intervention of the Royal Armed Forces to end the obstruction caused by about sixty civilians backed by the Polisario Front, and the start of the construction of the Atlantic port of Dakhla with a cost of nearly 1 billion dollars after selecting the winner of the bid[i] on April 30, 2021, and the launch of setting up a logistic area for commercial exchange in Guerguerat on July 31, 2021, in addition to the reconstruction plan of Lagouira, the forgotten city of a particular status.
Although it appears at first glance that the new measures are sovereign and fall within Morocco’s keenness to protect its southern provinces and ensure respect for its territorial sovereignty, an outlook of what is actually happening shows the geopolitical dimensions of establishing safeguards to increase the confidence of the international community in Morocco’s autonomy plan.
Features of the new trend
On November 13, 2020, Morocco announced its move to end the obstruction caused by the Polisario in the Guerguerat buffer zone, so as to ensure freedom of civil and commercial movement[ii], after a group of about 50 people, including women and at least one child, have been staying in the buffer zone since October 21, 2020[iii], who was later joined by approximately 12 armed individuals in military uniforms[iv], and set up a barrier on the paved part of the road inside the buffer zone, which caused a complete blockage of traffic between Morocco and Mauritania.
Morocco warned Polisario twice to withdraw from the site. The first was on November 7, 2020, in the Royal Speech on the 45th commemoration of the Green March, when the King declared that Morocco “will confront with all force and firmness the abuses that attempt to harm the safety and stability of its southern provinces.[v]” The second was on November 12, 2020, when the King urged the UN Secretary-General to “intensify his efforts to immediately settle the unacceptable and destabilizing provocative acts”[vi]. On November 13, the Royal Armed Forces intervened in the buffer zone, which resulted in the withdrawal of Polisario, the securing of Guerguerat crossing completely[vii], and the construction of a 20-kilometer-long berm in Guerguerat, reinforcing the Royal Moroccan Army across 40 square kilometers in the buffer zone[viii].
Five months later, on April 30, 2021, the Ministry of Equipment, Transport and Logistics announced the winner of the bidding for the construction of the new Atlantic Port in Dakhla[ix], which is currently under construction and will be the largest port in Africa, in parallel with the construction of a 1,050 km-Tiznit-Dakhla highway[x], which was the subject matter of a partnership agreement signed in February 2015, and launched by King Mohammed VI on the 40thcommemoration of the Green March in November 2015.
On July 31, 2021, Morocco officially announced the launch of constructing logistic areas at the Guerguerat crossing and the center of Bir Gandouz to promote trade exchange between Morocco and Africa[xi] along 30 hectares each, using the latest methods, by launching requests for proposals for the construction works, in a talk being promoted for the first time since the recovery of the Sahara, about the reconstruction of Lagouira[xii] and making it attractive to tourists.
The main motives of Morocco’s involvement in these three megaprojects appear to be mainly political. On the one hand, there were indications that Morocco would make a decisive military move against any attempt to change the situation in the buffer zone, as happened in Guerguerat. On the other hand, Morocco needed to provide an economic response as an alternative to the separatist view which would result in a radical shift in the conflict.
Morocco had acted militarily by restoring the entire Sahara in August 1979, confronting the division that seeks to establish a separatist state in the region of Dakhla-Oued Dahab. It had also moved politically by integrating the people of the Sahara and involving them in managing their affairs, by operationalizing a development model in the southern provinces[xiii] since November 2015. This model aimed to double the GDP in the three Saharan regions within ten years, create 120,000 new job opportunities, and reduce the unemployment rate to less than half.[xiv]
After November 2020, Morocco moved to the second stage of making a development and economic action after a first stage that started gradually since the recapture of the Sahara. Among its elements is the provision of conditions for the reconstruction of the area between Dakhla and Lagouira to become a tourist destination[xv], particularly after the signing of the Morocco-EU Sustainable Fisheries Agreement[xvi] in 2019, which officially included the maritime areas off the coasts of the Sahara regions, including Lagouira. A law on the demarcation of maritime borders was issued[xvii] in the Official Bulletin on March 30, 2020.
The reconstruction of Lagouira: The most challenging part
Unlike the aforementioned announced projects that are under construction in the Dakhla-Oued Noun region with a coastline of 667 km on the Atlantic, there is no documented official information about Lagouira reconstruction project. However, the Al-Oula channel published a three-dimensional image of the port of Lagouira on the news on April 28, 2021[xviii], in a report on the current and future port locations along the Moroccan coasts, indicating that Lagouira is at the core of the reconstruction plan in the region. The region became attractive to investors[xix], and the United States chose it to open a consulate following its recognition of the Moroccan Sahara in December 2020, albeit still hypothetical so far.
Lagouira was behind the berm before extending it to the south after the Guerguerat operation in 2020, but Morocco, which extends its administrative sovereignty over all the regions of the Sahara, classifies it as an urban collectivity affiliated with the province of Aousserd, and is based in Dakhla – like several other collectivities located east of the wall. It elects its mayor in all elections, the most recent of which was the September 8 elections, which brought a new collective council headed by Abdelfattah Elmakki[xx] of the Istiqlal Party, with a majority from the Istiqlal, Popular Movement, Progress and Socialism, and Equity parties.
However, the reconstruction of Lagouira, which is about 446 km from Dakhla and 80 km from Guergarat, faces two main challenges:
First: The city is special, as units of the Mauritanian army have been stationed there since 1975, with the aim of securing the city of Nouadhibou, which is less than 15 km away from it, after it was the target of the Polisario attacks. Although reconstruction is a purely sovereign affair of Morocco, it may seek to open a political dialogue with Mauritania[xxi], out of keenness to reassure the latter that the project will contribute to the development of the region as a whole.
Second: It is uninhabited, according to the general census of population and housing for the year 2014[xxii], although it still has some residential buildings built during the Spanish colonialism, along with some basic equipment such as a school, dispensary, post office, church and bank.
There is a reason that is not officially mentioned, but it is important to explain Morocco’s desire to reconstruct Lagouira, as it has all features of a charming city, with a 40 km long beach, and a mild and humid climate throughout the year ranging between 17 and 19 degrees in winter and 23 degrees in the rest of the seasons. It also used to be active in fishing during the Spanish colonial, as the quantity of fish exported from it amounted to 8000 tons in 1974 through the port of Nouadhibou[xxiii], thus it could be attractive to tourists par excellence.
It seems that Morocco has determined to reconstruct Lagouira through the announced steps. This would achieve strategic gains that can be summed up in:
First: Putting an end to Algeria’s ambitions to gain access to the Atlantic through the Sahara, which was reflected in the infiltration of Polisario into Guerguerat, as happened in August 2016 and October 2020 and throughout the area extending to Lagouira[xxiv].
Second: Ending the illusion of the liberated areas for the Polisario, which has always considered the area behind the wall – including Lagouira – “liberated”, at a time when it is under the responsibility of the UN to establish the Ceasefire Agreement of 1991. Note that the demands of the Polisario for military deployment in the area extending from the east of the wall to the international border of Morocco with Algeria[xxv] were never met, despite the insistence.
Third: Establishing the conditions for advanced economic integration with Mauritania, as turning Lagouira into a tourist area could benefit the nearby Nouadhibou.
Fourth: Providing guarantees on the ground to boost the confidence of the international community of Morocco’s autonomy plan, as the reconstruction of the area extending from Guerguerat to Lagouira would help achieve economic development that would benefit the inhabitants of the Sahara.
[i] Somagic Group cut a deal to build the Dakhla’s Atlantic port, Blue Morocco, May 1, 2021 (accessed on: February 18, 2022): https://shortest.link/385U
[ii] Guerguerat.. Morocco “decides to act in respect of the authorities entrusted to it” in the face of the dangerous provocations of the “Polisario” militia (Communiqué), MAP, November 13, 2020, (accessed on: February 17, 2022): https://shortest .link/385T
[iii] Report of the UN Secretary-General, “The situation of the Western Sahara”, Security Council, October 1, 2021, P:2.
[v] The Royal speech on the occasion of the 45th commemoration of the Green March, the speech of His Majesty, the National Portal, November 7, 2020, (accessed on: February 17, 2022). https://shortest.link/2HLk
[vi] Report of the UN Secretary-General, “The situation of the Western Sahara”, Op cit, P3
[vii] The General Command of the Royal Armed Forces: The Guerguerat crossing is now fully secured (communiqué), The National Portal, November 13, 2020, (access date: February 17, 2022): https://shortest.link/2HLi
[viii] Report of the UN Secretary-General, “The situation of the Western Sahara”, Op cit, P8
[x] Tiznit-Dakhla highway, the official website of the Ministry of Equipment, Transport, Logistics and Water, (access date: February 18, 2022). http://www.equipement.gov.ma/AR/projets-phares/Pages/Tous-les-Projets.aspx?IdNews=6
[xi] Guerguerat / Bir Gandouz .. Establishing logistic zones to enhance trade exchange with Africa, the National Portal, July 31, 2021 (accesed on: February 17, 2022). https://shortest.link/2PgJ
[xii] From Kandahar to “Dubai” of the Sahara, Al-Ayyam, Issue 971, December 16, 2021, p. 12.
[xiii] Issued by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council in October 2013, in response to the call of King Mohammed VI in his speech on the occasion of the 37th commemoration of the Green March on November 6, 2012, which stated: “To this end, we call for the crystallization of an integrated regional development model that is applied on the widest scale, and aims to achieve interaction and integration between sectoral programs, limiting the various challenges facing the region, and establishing a regional economic system that stimulates growth and wealth creation, and generates job opportunities, especially for the youth.”. “Considering the competencies that the Economic, Social and Environmental Council has (..), it is considered qualified to undertake its preparation”. The King presided over the launching ceremony of the strategy for implementing the New Development Model for the southern provinces of Laayoun on November 7, 2015.
[xiv] The New Development Model for the Southern Provinces, Economic, Social and Environmental Council, October 2013, p.: 16
[xv] Mustapha El-Khalfi: “What we are witnessing now is the foundation of a third phase in the history of the contrived conflict,” Al-Ayyam, Issue 971, December 16, 2021, p. 14.
[xvi] The EU Council ratifies the decision on the signing of the EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement, The National Portal, March 4, 2019, (accessed on February 19, 2022: https://shortest.link/2Ph2)
[xvii] Dahir No. 1.20.02 issued on Rajab 11, 1441 (March 6, 2020) implementing Law No. 37.17 to change and supplement the Dahir No. 1.73.211 issued on Muharram 26, 1393 (March 2, 1973) defining the boundaries of territorial waters. Official Bulletin No. 6869, 5 Shaban 1441 (March 30, 2020), p. 1801-1802. Dahir No. 1.20.03 issued on Rajab 11, 1441 (March 6, 2020) implementing Law No. 38.17 to change and supplement Law No. 1.81 establishing an exclusive economic zone at a distance of 200 nautical miles off the Moroccan coast. Official Bulletin, No. 6869, 5 Shaban 1441 (March 30, 2020), p. 1802-1803.
[xviii] Morocco “officially” announces the port of Lagouira, Assahifa, April 30, 2021. https://shortest.link/3hv4
[xix] Speech of Yanja El Khattat at the Morocco-United Arab Emirates Business Forum, Dakhla-Oued Noun website, November 16, 2021
[xx] The results of the local elections (on September 08, 2021), the website of the Ministry of Interior (accessed on: February 19, 2022): http://www.elections.ma/elections/communales/resultats_bureaux.aspx
[xxi] Interview with Nabil Zegaoui, the reconctruction of Lagouira would also benefit Mauritania, and Morocco will be keen to reassure it. Issue 971, December 16, 2021. P. 15.
[xxii] The General Population and Housing Census 2014, the website of the High Commission for Planning. (accessed on: February 19, 2022): https://shortest.link/2HPr
[xxiii] La ville-fantôme de Lagouira , Christophe Quiguin, Ledesk, November 15, 2016. (accessed on: February 18, 2022). https://shortest.link/385S
[xxiv] From Kandahar to “Dubai” of the Sahara, Al-Ayyam, op. cit, p. 13.
[xxv] Mustapha El Khalfi, Moroccan Sahara: Facts and Illusions about the Conflict, 2nd Edition, September 2019, p: 69