Even though the Saharawi people have an internationally recognized right to self-determination – the right to decide about the land and its resources – oil companies have become quite creative in completely ignoring that right, while making it appear as if they’re doing the opposite.
More often than not, oil companies will not even mention the word “Saharawi”. They will use more obfuscating notions such as “local populations”, “local communities”, etc. However, the local population in Western Sahara today are largely Moroccans that have moved into the territory since the 1975 invasion. Morocco is offering economic incentives to attract Moroccans into the territory, either as settlers or as seasonal workers. These people do not have the right to decide the political status of Western Sahara and its resources – that is a prerogative that international law has reserved for the people of the territory; the Saharawis, the sole inhabitants of Western Sahara prior to Morocco’s invasion. That would include the Saharawis who have fled their land as a direct result of Morocco’s ongoing occupation, and who have found exile in the Algerian refugee camps or elsewhere in the world.“We will engage with all relevant stakeholders in due course, including representatives of the Saharawi people, to ensure that all legitimate interests are fairly and appropriately protected.” Glencore's CEO Ivan Glasenberg in a letter to WSRW, dated 1 April 2015
Some companies do talk about the Saharawis, although they still fail to actually talk with them. But even then, the way the Saharawis are depicted is inconsistent with international law. They are referred to as one of many “stakeholders” that will allegedly be consulted at some point in time. In reality, the Saharawis are the owners of the resources that these oil firms seek to explore, appraise, and potentially develop and exploit. As such, they have the right to be correctly informed and consulted prior to any resource exploration or exploitation in their land, and furthermore, the right to grant or withhold their consent to any such activity. To consider them as a stakeholder that may be consulted at some point down the line is downright offensive and in complete disregard of international law.
Even if consultation is on the agenda, it will never take place before striking a deal for oil reconnaissance in Western Sahara. And if consultation is actually carried out - after signing a licence with the Moroccan government - it will target all the wrong people. Kosmos Energy's consultation round in the territory is telling; while failing to talk to the Saharawis, the company met with several sham organisations, picked from a list from the Moroccan authorities
. And while boasting the partnerships it has entered into to make sure that what they do on the ground is right, Kosmos' partners turn out to be organisations that represent the Moroccan position to the conflict
Oil companies increasingly rely on the Moroccan government institution CESE (French acronym for Economic, Social and Environmental Council) to undertake consultations in Western Sahara. The agenda of the Moroccan government in the issue of Western Sahara is obvious. CESE cannot be considered nuanced and independent. Its main objective in Western Sahara has nothing to do with respecting or defending the rights of the Saharawi people, and it has just as little competence as any other Moroccan institution to negotiate on behalf of the people of the territory. Because they’re not…from our point of view, and certainly from the point of view of the organisation and the government that issues our licence, they are not a representative people." Daniel Martin, lawyer of San Leon Energy, Irish national TV, 4 August 2011.
One company has gone the extra mile in misrepresenting the Saharawi people's legal status in relation to the Western Sahara. Irish oil company San Leon Energy has stated publically that the Saharawi people are “not representative”. According to the firm, this was the reason why they did not want to take into account the wishes of the people of the territory, as the Saharawis “would not speak to us” since they “very much take side”. That is interesting, taken into account that San Leon has never replied to the numerous letters it received from the Saharawis.
Later, San Leon added that
"we believe the stridency of our critics comes from their knowledge that their position is not shared by the local community". That is not a surprising opinion, given San Leon's flawed definition of who they should consult; refusing to listen to the people of the territory, and instead referring to "the locals" that the firm itself has identified.