Insidious war

Last weekend saw us training for our Strait of Gibraltar attempt with a swim over the Magreb to Europe gas pipeline. It sits hidden deep below the sand before coming up to a gas plant hidden (happily) behind a low ridge from where it gets distributed all over Spain and in to Europe. Except that right now the quiet hiss of tons of natural methane is silent. The pipeline has been cut off from its source in Algeria since October 2021. The eternal diplomatic wrangling between Algeria and Morocco has resulted this time in the supply of gas to Morocco being cut off. Meanwhile Algeria has guaranteed Spain a gas supply by sending it directly to the Medgaz plant in Almeria. 

Somehow Ukraine, Russia, Algeria, Morocco and our swim are all linked in the insidious politics of nations incapable of agreeing with each other. Our swim is of course absolutely the least important part of this but the fact is that one way or another Europeans, Russians and Magrebiés are all affected by somebody else’s incapacity for understanding and compassion. The political story is complex but here is a bold attempt to encapsulate the issues that link the affected nations. Meanwhile the marine crossing between Spain and Morocco is closed other than for freight. Swimmers and day trippers are thoroughly excluded from Morocco and our Moroccan staff at the Califa (who can see their country from their balconies at home) are forced to fly from Malaga or Seville to Tangiers rather than take the 50 minute ferry across the water to visit their families.

The view from Tarifa (Spain) to Morocco – photo by Isiwal (Wiki Commons)

A brief resumé of the political situation…

‘The simmering 46-year-old conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a Northwest African area of around 252,120 km2, has recently taken an ominous turn after decades of stalemate. In mid-November 2020, the Polisario Front, a movement seeking independence for the territory, declared an end to a 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire agreement and a return to armed struggle against Moroccan forces that had entered the Guerguerat coastal border point with Mauritania—a UN-patrolled buffer zone—in contravention of the 1991 deal. Rabat sought to disperse unarmed Sahrawi protesters blocking the crossing point linking Morocco to Sub-Saharan Africa. In reaction, the Polisario Front declared that the clash was no longer about protests but about a complete Moroccan withdrawal from Western Sahara.

Formerly a Spanish colony, the territory of Western Sahara was invaded and occupied by Moroccan and Mauritanian troops in 1975 following what has come to be known as the Madrid Accords, when Spain unilaterally withdrew from its colony. Through this act, both countries violated the 1975 International Court of Justice (ICJ) declaration that neither Morocco nor Mauritania have territorial sovereignty over the Western Sahara. The United Nations did not recognize the Madrid Accords, and a 2002 opinion of the UN Office of Legal Affairs made clear that colonizing powers cannot simply hand over the keys of one country to another. In 1976, the Polisario Front, recognized by the United Nations as the only legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, announced (from exile in Algeria) the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent state.

To prevent further attacks, Morocco’s armed forces eventually built a heavily mined and patrolled 2,700-kilometer berm, one of the largest military infrastructure projects in the world. By the time of the cease-fire in 1991, Morocco had asserted its control over more than two-thirds of Western Sahara in its western part along the Atlantic Ocean. 

Occupied Western Sahara holds under its sand some of the largest phosphate reserves. It provides access to rich fishing waters that run along its 690-mile shore and contains vast offshore oil and gas resources. In addition, Western Sahara is a target of western renewable energy companies such as Siemens and Enel.’

22 June 2021 by Houda Chograni for the Arab Center, Washington DC
People mainly from Morocco stand on the shore as Spanish Army cordon off the area at the border of Morocco and Spain, at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Ceuta, a Spanish city of 85,000 in northern Africa, faces a humanitarian crisis after thousands of Moroccans took advantage of relaxed border control in their country to swim or paddle in inflatable boats into European soil. Around 6,000 people had crossed by Tuesday morning since the first arrivals began in the early hours of Monday, including 1,500 who are presumed to be teenagers. (AP Photo/Javier Fergo)

‘The leader of the Polisario Front and president of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (Rasd), Brahim Gali, 73 years old, is hospitalised in Spain “for strictly humanitarian reasons”, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed. Gali has been admitted to a hospital in Logroño for treatment of covid under an assumed name, other sources said.’

El Pais newspaper – 23 April 2021

Donald Trump gets involved!

On 10 December (2020), Madrid and Rabat announced the postponement of a key summit in the fight against irregular immigration due to the incidence of the pandemic. It happened on the same day that a double move took place: Donald Trump, now on his way out as US president, recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, while Rabat established diplomatic relations with Israel. 

El Periodico – 19 May 2021
The Ministry of Justice allows Gali to leave despite the anger of Morocco – El Pais 02 June 2021

‘It has now been two months and 10 days since Morocco caused more than 10,000 migrants to enter Ceuta and Rabat recalled its ambassador in Madrid, Karima Benyaich, for consultations in protest at the hospitalisation in Spain of the Sahrawi leader Brahim Gali. And it has been two weeks since the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, dispensed with the foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, who had provoked the wrath of the southern neighbour by authorising the admission of the Polisario Front leader (Brahim Gali) to a hospital in Logroño.’

El Pais newspaper 27 July 2021

During the COVID pandemic Morocco closed most of its maritime routes with Europe.

The Moroccan Ministry of Transport and Logistics has announced the reopening of the Kingdom’s maritime borders, although routes with Spain will continue to be suspended. Moroccan ships will only call at French and Italian ports, as reported by the Ministry. Spanish ports were already excluded from Operation Marhaba last summer amid the diplomatic crisis between Rabat and Madrid. This dispute began with the entry of Brahim Ghali into Spain in April and escalated in May with the entry of thousands of migrants into the autonomous city of Ceuta. 07 Feb 2022

Russia abstains from condemning Russia

‘Why did Morocco abstain from voting against Russia at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, and why did the staunch Maghreb ally of the US and France avoid condemning Moscow for Ukrainian aggression? The explanation for Morocco’s neutrality points to strategic calculations – Russia is here to stay in Africa and remains Algeria’s main military partner – and Rabat’s accumulated unease with some of its European partners over their stance on the Western Sahara issue, the cornerstone of all Moroccan mahzem policies.’

Nius Diario 07 March 2022

It seems ages since I wrote a post on this blog, it seems a shame that a distant war and neighbouring conflict have inspired me to get writing again. From Vejer we can see the north African coastline almost every day (unless the ferocious ‘levante’ wind picks up) and it’s a sobering reminder that as far away as Morocco or Ukraine might be we are all affected.

Meanhile back to more mundane things we’re going to carry on training, it looks like our cross the Strait swim may be postponed for a while so maybe it’s time to look for new adventures. In any case here’s a quick resumé of last Sunday at the Camarinal lighthouse, the fish we saw seemed quite unconcerned by geopolitics and strife. Sadly I left my GoPro in the car so here’s the swim without the fish or the swimming.

Ignacio Soto, Iñaki Guezuraga and me enjoying the break from the doom and gloom of the news

One comment

  1. This comment comes from fellow Strait swimmer Dicki Arana (Bilbao) –

    Congrats Jaimie for the post.
    You’re not only a good swimmer but also a passionate writer.
    I can’t stop imagining ourselves swimming the Strait and ruminating on every breath about the Saharawi cause and all its consequences / side effects down the road.

    Just after your article, the Spanish president, Pedro Sanchez, held a meeting with his Moroccan counterpart, Mohammed VI, and apparently it has been disclosed, not without controversy, that he would support the status of Sahara as an autonomous Moroccan region.

    This conflict dates from 1975 and in spite of being considered a breach of the international laws by UN, little progress has been made since then.
    What if…?

    Which are the pros and cons of keeping the situation as it is? How many opportunities are we missing along the way? Which are the underlying costs?
    The topic is indeed complex but sometimes a bad agreement is better than a no-agreement.
    What if…?

    It goes without saying, Morocco is undoubtedly a strategic location and our main entrance to Africa continent. How much would it be for us if we had capitalized, at compounded rate, all the potential synergies our proximity bring us over the last 50 years? (Business, natural resources, geopolitical interests, tourism…)
    What if…?

    In the meantime, our challenge to cross the Strait remains on hold. And we are getting older…
    What if…?

    Dicky Arana


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