- Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms, and Geopolitics ed. by Anouar Boukhars, Jacques Roussellier
Beware academic volumes that bear this disclaimer: “The views expressed are those of the authors alone.” Perspectives on Western Sahara, edited by Anouar Boukhars and Jacques Roussellier, contains several chapters in which this caveat is made. And for good reason: Perspectives on Western Sahara is primarily a political text, one backed by well-researched, if sometimes problematic, accounts of the conflict’s local, regional, and global dynamics. Most of the contributors have backgrounds in government, consulting, and think tanks; the others have formal academic positions. Several are well known for their defense of Morocco’s position on Western Sahara; others seem to have been recruited or shanghaied into the cause with little to no research or publication background on the issue. One of the chapters, an analysis of United States foreign policy towards the conflict, is even authored by two former US Foreign Service Officers who now work as lobbyists for Morocco, Edward Gabriel and Robert Holley. Boukhars and Roussellier’s collection also serves as a pro-Moroccan response to Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution, which this reviewer coauthored with Stephen Zunes in 2010.
The Western Sahara conflict itself began in 1975, when Morocco invaded the colony of Spanish Sahara just as Madrid was planning to grant it independence. Local nationalist insurgents, supported by Algeria, fought Morocco in a desert war until the United Nations arrived in 1991 promising to end the dispute by holding a referendum. Given the high stakes involved in such a vote, the UN Security Council proved unwilling to force the issue. Soon after Morocco’s current ruler, King Muhammad VI, took power in 1999, he preferred to offer [End Page 653] Western Sahara autonomy instead of a vote on independence. The United Nations has yet to find a compromise solution between Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara and the native population’s right to vote on independence.
Despite a clear bias in Perspectives on Western Sahara, several of the chapters make honest and dispassionate efforts to explicate important aspects of the conflict. Historians Osama Abi-Mershed and Adam Farrar (Chapter 1) provide a succinct and effective account of the conflict’s origins; international relations scholar William Zartman (Chapter 3) offers a refreshingly candid evaluation of the interlocking nature of Morocco’s domestic and foreign policies towards the Sahara; anthropologist Aomar Boum (Chapter 12) critiques romanticized accounts of life in the Western Saharan refugee camps in Algeria; and analyst Khadidja Mohsen-Finan (chapter 13) superbly documents how the new and old regional forces — historical Moroccan-Algerian antagonisms, the oscillations of democracy witnessed in the “Arab Spring,” the destabilizing influence of al-Qa‘ida affiliates in the central Sahara desert — will keep the Western Sahara impasse in a state of suspended animation. Though there are many insights in Perspectives on Western Sahara, the least valuable one — from the perspective of any would-be mediator unlucky enough to find themselves at the Western Sahara negotiating table — is likely its conclusion. Penned by J. Peter Pham, the volume’s final chapter is a simplistic paean to Morocco’s 2007 proposal to end the conflict by granting Western Sahara limited self-governance under Moroccan sovereignty.
Perspectives on Western Sahara is thus the most coherent intellectual defense of the Moroccan position on the Western Sahara conflict currently available. While this virtue is also a major fault of the volume, it is nonetheless indicative of an evolution in Moroccan thinking on the Western Sahara conflict. A decade ago, a volume of this sort would have been unthinkable within the constraints of Moroccan political and academic discourse vis-à-vis the question of the “Saharan Provinces.” For example, one chapter admits the authentic existence of Western Saharan nationalism (Stephen J. King, Chapter 4); another admits Western Sahara’s inviolable right to independence under international law (Joshua Castellino and Elvira Domínguez-Redondo, Chapter 2); and another essentially describes the illegality of both Morocco’s acquisition of the territory in...