Middle East International: Oil and Fish

On 17 May, Mohamed Khaddad, a senior Polisario diplomat, declared an oil exploration licensing round for the waters offshore the Western Sahara at an oil industry and press gathering in London. Middle East International, 26 May 2006.

Published 26 May 2005

Oil and fish
Middle East International, Issue 751
May 26, 2005 

On 17 May, Mohamed Khaddad, a senior Polisario diplomat, declared an oil exploration licensing round for the waters offshore the Western Sahara at an oil industry and press gathering in London.

By the end of the year the independence movement, which controls none of the coastline of the territory, hopes to have granted licences for some of the 12 blocks it has delineated. The licences would become operational on the creation of a Sahrawi state.

For now, the presentation, which has attracted the interest of several oil companies, has political rather than commercial application.It is a practical expression of the claim to sovereignty over the Western Sahara by Polisario's state-in-waiting, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a claim that is also being underpinned by the construction of governmental facilities at Tifariti inside the eastern stretch of the territory that Polisario does control.

It also directly conflicts with the Moroccan pre-exploration licence in Saharan waters under which US company Kerr McGee is operating. Total of France allowed its licence for another swathe of Saharan acreage to expire last year.

The oil issue first came to the forein late 2001 when Morocco granted the licences to Kerr McGee and Total. The ensuing row brought forth an opinion from senior UN lawyer Hans Correll, which was interpreted as allowing preexploration work to go ahead but saying that drilling for, let alone exploiting, oil reserves would be impermissible without an answer to the underlying political issue of sovereignty.

The interest in Saharan waters stemmed from the discovery of commercial reserves to the south, offshore Mauritania, and the view of geologists that similar rock formations stretched northwards. Polisario responded to the Moroccan move by signing a cooperation deal with Australia-based Fusion, which supplied the movement with an assessment of the potential of the region, but Fusion has since been bought out by another company and the deal nullified.

Khaddad said the SADR licensinground was announced now simply because the preparations for it had been completed recently. But for Polisario the timing has two benefits. First, it opens another front at a time of diplomatic stalemate. Second, it pre-empts the start of EU-Morocco negotiations on fishing rights. Morocco is steadfastly refusing to accept the peace plan drafted by James Baker, formerly Kofi Annan's special envoy for the Western Sahara. Baker, who resigned a year ago, has not been replaced and the post of head of the UN mission in the territory is also empty after Alvaro de Soto was given the Palestine portfolio. On top of that, the delay in appointing a US ambassador to the UN, plus unwavering French support for Morocco, mean there is next to no pressure for progress towards an agreed settlement process.

Polisario is now using the natural resource issue to keep the conflicti n the spotlight. In recent months ith as also drawn attention to illegal migrants being dumped in the desert by Moroccan forces and the reinforcing of Moroccan defences in the territory. (Morocco has made counter-accusations on both these counts.)

The fishing issue is about to become more contentious. Rabat and Brussels are due to start talks, the first since the failure in 2001 to renew an agreement. That failure saw thousands of Iberian fishermen lose their livelihoods and massive compensation payments at the taxpayers' expense. The arrangement inherited from the 1975 Spanish handover of Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania (the latter withdrawing in 1979) saw European trawlers operating in Saharan waters, an arrangement of dubious legality.

The chances of getting Spanish (and other European) vessels back there without a major row are slim.Indeed, lobby groups are already quizzing the Commission. Yet overfishing and shoal migration mean fisheries off Morocco are enormously depleted. Only Saharan waters are worth working and even there the resources are insteep decline.

Moroccan stock management schemes in Saharan waters are failing for a number of reasons. Vessels under the patronage of the powerful ignore the schemes; others overfish and then dump the less valuable parts of their catch;and many cannot even reach their quota levels so drastic has stock depletion been.

Social tensions

All this is creating a skein of social tensions inside Western Sahara. Nationalists are demanding tougher controls in the name of saving Saharan resources for the Sahrawis, while artisanal Moroccan fishermen allege a plan to reduce the number of small fishing vessels favours Sahrawis in order to keep sweet a clique of local businessmen who work with Morocco and small, inshore operators suspect their boats will be laid up to allow the big players to keep working. Last month an attempt to prevent catches being exported from the territory was broken up by armed police.

The Sahrawi civil society movement is trying to focus more on the natural resources issue. It has long championed the rights of Sahrawi phosphate miners. It has been able to do little regarding Moroccan oil licences except condemn them but more concerted organization in the southern port of Dakhla has increased its ability to highlight the fisheries issue. Meanwhile, coordinated action by solidarity groups in some 20 countries has forced several oilsector companies to promise not to work in Saharan waters again and pressure is being applied on Kerr McGee to withdraw. Activity aimed at the fishing industry andi ndustrial consumers of phosphates can be expected to follow.

Ostensibly, Polisario's granting of its own oil exploration licences or any other kind of permit to exploit the resources of the Western Sahara gives the recipient, at best, a right that might be exercisable at some indeterminate point in the future while, presumably, excluding the company from any involvement while Morocco controls most of the territory and its waters - reflecting the apparent zero-sum nature of the conflict.

But a senior Polisario official paints a more nuanced picture, saying that "even in the worstcase scenario of [a period of] autonomy, Polisario would still be present in the Western Sahara", controlling the local economy and remembering who had taken which side before the conflict was resolved.

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