Western Sahara: An Unlikely Key to American Strategy in Africa

Africa, once the forgotten continent in American foreign policy, has rather abruptly become important again. US Africa Command has been front and center as a result of operations in Libya, Somalia and elsewhere. Terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are active and spreading and Chinese economic expansion into the continent makes it strategically interesting almost by default. It is time, now rather than later, for Western policymakers to consider the place of Africa in the world.

The first and most important way of engaging with an entire continent is developing regional allies. In the case of Africa, these can often be identified by what they oppose. Al-Shabaab may run rampant in Somalia but neighboring Kenya is ready and willing to listen to Western advice and aid. Boko Haram, a key substate actor in Nigeria, is counterbalanced by American diplomatic and economic engagement with the Nigerian government. And AQIM, arguably the most important of Africa’s major terrorist groups, is countered in some areas by a Moroccan constitutional monarchy that has shown great willingness to cooperate with the West on matters of counterterrorism and regional strategy.

None of these regimes are entirely blameless. But they are convenient allies and a realist approach to international relations requires doing business with imperfect people whose interests nevertheless align with the United States’.

Credibility, though, has a lot of different sides. The image that the United States want to project in Africa is a simple one: speak softly, carry a big stick in one hand and carry a lot of aid money in the other. That image is somewhat complicated, in the case of American-Moroccan relations, by the issue of Western Sahara. Read more “Western Sahara: An Unlikely Key to American Strategy in Africa”

Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Arab Spring Models

While violence rages in Syria and Yemen, two other key players in the broader Middle East are paving the way toward modest political reforms that the West can herald as a proper response to the aspirations of young Arabs emboldened by the Arab Spring.

Morocco and Saudi Arabia have been both able to stay ahead of the popular uprisings that have swept the Middle East since the start of this year with reforms that defuse internal tension even if the opposition remains unsatisfied.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco held a referendum this summer about several constitutional reforms which forced him, among other things, to appoint a prime minister from the largest parliamentary faction and cede the power to dissolute the legislature to the head of the government. His Saudi counterpart increased college, housing and social security benefits in February and announced a raise in government salaries before protests could erupt in his oil kingdom.

Last week, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in local elections in 2015 and serve on his advisory council. The changes should help to at least somewhat lessen discontent among the Saudi youth without jeopardizing the monarchy’s support of conservative Islamists.

Western powers have struggled to respond to the Arab Spring as their interests and values are often at odds in the region. According to the strategic consultancy firm Wikistrat, the solid middle ground that was found in Morocco and Saudi Arabia could be embraced as a model that the West can push other allies, including Bahrain and Jordan, toward implementing.

“Their strategy can also incrementally empower the liberal elements of society instead of Islamists,” according to Wikistrat’s Middle East Monitor for September, “by allowing increased openness without rushing into elections that non-Islamists would be unprepared for.” That is especially true for Egypt where the secular opposition, after decades of oppression, is disorganized and altogether ill prepared for parliamentary and presidential elections whereas the Muslim Brotherhood, a political as well as a religious organization, is expected to perform when the country strill struggles with democracy.

There is, on the other hand, the chance for more brutal dictatorship like Iran’s and Syria’s that concessions could hasten their demise. If the regime is perceived as conciliatory and weak, it will strengthen demonstrators in countries where the government has little legitimacy to begin with. In the region’s monarchies, by contrast, the king usually enjoys great authority and popularity, enabling him to reform without undermining the ruling family’s position.

An Expanded Gulf Cooperation Council

In a surprise announcement by Gulf Arab leaders last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council welcomed proposals by Jordan and Morocco to enter into the alliance. The GCC, consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has been wracked by internal protest against monarchial rule since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last January.

The Al Khalifa Sunni ruling family of Bahrain is still experiencing its most extensive period of civil unrest since earlier in the decade when Shiites rose up against the monarchy for an extension of political rights.

Saudi Arabia, the most powerful state in the GCC, continues to dispatch police to its restive Eastern Province where the bulk of its oil reserves are located, in order to crackdown on Shia protests there. UAE authorities have launched arrest raids against human rights defenders and civil society activists, most of whom come from the emirates’ wealthy clientele. Oman under Sultan Qaboos bin Said has been relatively peaceful  compared to demonstrations that have turned violent elsewhere yet residents in the quiet Gulf sultanate are taking to the streets. Oil rich Kuwait is dragging its feet on providing citizenship to thousands of people who, although not Kuwaiti in origin, have moved to the small Gulf state to improve their lives.

The monarchies of the Persian Gulf are thus nervous about the type of political developments occurring around them, and in some cases, within their own borders. Saudis and emirates, who are preferably on the side of regional stability, have already acted in concert with the GCC to quell Bahrain’s protest movement. The offering of a GCC bid to Jordan and Morocco could be another tact to add new members and defend the alliance.

Why Jordan and Morocco? Like the GCC overall, both are pro-Western regimes boasting strong intelligence and military relationships with the United States. Both are indeed monarchies, which would suit them well in a club that is composed exclusively of kings and sultans. Both also happen to be countries with large Sunni populations, which would undoubtedly help Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners unite the region’s Sunni community against encroaching Iranian influence.

But if Jordan and Morocco are welcomed to join, why not Egypt, Iraq or Yemen? Geographically speaking, Iraq and Yemen would be far more preferable than Jordan, which is not even considered a Persian Gulf nation to begin with. Iraq also happens to sit atop the region’s second largest pool of oil, a product which would fill the pockets of the GCC with billions of dollars more in revenue.

While Yemen’s oil production is scheduled to dry out completely in the next decade, Yemenis still possess more oil than the Jordanians, who rely almost completely on foreign aid to sustain their infrastructure and fund their government.

Post-Mubarak Egypt, still in its infant stage of democracy and trying to reassert itself as an independent power, was notably absent as well, straining ties between Egypt and its traditional Gulf backers. Yemen, with all of its domestic problems and a nationwide protest movement of its own, remains the ugly sister on the outside looking in.

The Jordanian and Moroccan bids should therefore be seen as a political strategy rather than an example of economic unification. Surrounded by an ascending Shia government in Iraq and the loss of a strategic ally in Hosni Mubarak, Gulf royals are nervous.

How the United States and Europe fit into this equation is still to be determined. Indeed, it is important to remember that just because Jordan and Morocco are encouraged to apply doesn’t mean that both will find a new home in the GCC. Yet if their applications are accepted, the regional balance of power will be tilted more toward the Sunni states.