In 1975, Morocco annexed the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara during a rapid and ill-planned decolonisation process.

 

A lengthy guerrilla war followed between Moroccan troops and the Polisario Front, which says it fights for the rights of the Sahrawi peoples.

 

Sahrawi refugees fled the fighting and settled in camps in southern Algeria from where the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a republic-in-exile, was declared on February 27, 1976.

 

The war ended with a UN-sponsored ceasefire in 1991.

 

Morocco remains firm in its position that the "southern provinces" - Rabat's official name for the territory - are an "inalienable and indivisible" part of the Kingdom.

 

In early March, King Mohammad VI toured the region for the first time in four years. During his 2002 visit, he announced "Morocco will not abandon a single inch of its southern provinces".

 

But more recently he has indicated a willingness to explore possible autonomy.

 

Licensing war?

 

But the war could flare again over lucrative oil exploration deals claimed by both sides.

 

Last week, the Polisario Front released details of oil exploration licences negotiated with eight UK-based oil companies for operations in the disputed Western Sahara.

 

In a direct challenge to similar licences previously issued by Moroccan state oil company Office National de Hydrocarbures et des Mines (ONHYM), the move threatens to further complicate Morocco-Polisario relations at a time when tensions are already high following the Polisario Front's commemoration of 30 years in exile.

 

The licences issued by the Polisario Front correspond to an area under their control  - around one-third of the total Western Sahara - which they refer to as the "liberated zone", the no-man's-land between the Mauritanian border and the 1,500km long defensive wall of sand built by the Moroccan military during the period of open hostilities.

 

But the licences also include the 110,400sq km Bujdor zone, in Moroccan-controlled Atlantic waters on Africa's western coast.

 

ONHYM previously sold a Boujdour zone reconnaissance licence to Oklahoma-based independent oil giant Kerr-McGee in 2002.

 

"The area was only very lightly explored many years ago"

Peter Dolan,
Non-executive director of Ophir Energy

Since 2001, a number of US and European oil companies have negotiated licences with ONHYM.

 

Now, only Kerr-McGee and its partners Kosmos and Pioneer Natural Resources remain – the others have either pulled out under pressure from campaigns urging shareholder divestment, or have simply allowed their initial licences to expire.

 

The licenses are up for renewal on an annual basis.

 

Atlantic waters

 

How much oil lies along Atlantic waters or onshore is still a matter of speculation.

 

Peter Dolan, non-executive director of Ophir Energy, one of the eight UK-based oil companies granted licences by the Polisario Front, says there has been no recent off-shore drilling with modern technology.

 

He said: "The area was only very lightly explored many years ago. So it is very much a case of an exploration hunch at the moment that the area has, theoretically, the potential to have similar geology to that which is further to the south, off-shore Mauritania.

"It's more a qualitative judgment at the moment rather than anything quantitative."

 

The Polisario say Western Sahara's
Atlantic waters are being exploited

For its part, the Polisario Front says that the Western Sahara's Atlantic waters are being illegally exploited by Moroccan-issued exploration permits.

 

Kerr-McGee maintains that their presence in the Western Sahara does not affect in any way political negotiations.

 

John Christiensen, spokesman for Kerr-McGee, told Al Jazeera.net: "We support the ongoing efforts of the United Nations to find a permanent and an amicable solution to the Western Sahara issue." However, he added that he could not speculate on the company’s future plans in the area.

 

Abdelmalek Achargui, economic counsellor in Morocco's UK embassy, says his government's position has always been that the Western Sahara is part of Morocco.

 

He said: "Even if it's still a disputed territory, exploration is permitted."

 

He was referring to the UN's 2002 ruling on Moroccan licences in which Hans Corell, the UN undersecretary-general for legal affairs, concluded: "The specific contracts are not, in themselves, illegal."

 

Wider strategy

 

The Polisario Front's licenses will only be valid if the SADR ever achieves full independence and is admitted into the UN General Assembly, an outcome that Morocco has so far resolutely refused. But in the meantime, the Polisario Front licences are more than just symbolic.

 

"Even if it's still a disputed territory, exploration is permitted"

Abdelmalek Achargui,
Economic counsellor in Morocco's UK embassy

Jacob Mundy, an independent consultant on the Western Sahara, believes issuing licences may be part of the Polisario Front's wider strategy of keeping attention focused on the dispute and international law.

 

He said: "I think what their strategy might be, is to have these companies actually go head to head. I think the companies might be proxies for this conflict, and the Polisario would want to force this into a legal arena where they have a much better position."

 

No international body recognises Morocco's sovereignty over the territory, and the UN has called the area disputed territory and does not recognise Moroccan sovereignty.

 

However, the facts on the ground are still very much in Morocco's favour.

 

ONHYM does not recognise the Polisario Front, and director Amina Benkhadra explained via email that Morocco would continue to maintain the legality of their contracts because "the SADR representatives have no legal authority as far as the political solution is still pending".

 

Political motivations 

 

The issuing of licenses may boil over if oil companies are seen as inadvertent parties to the conflict.

 

"We are not terrorists, but we prefer to advise them (foreign oil companies) that we cannot guarantee their safety"

Mohammad Liman,
Polisario Front representative to the UK

Mohammad Khaddad, chief oil and gas negotiator for the Polisario, says of Kerr-McGee: "They are just accepting the Moroccan position. That means that they are a part of the conflict, and it will become very dangerous if they declare themselves as part of the conflict."

 

The question remains as to what will happen if Morocco proceeds to allow oil drilling off-shore of the Western Sahara.

 

Mohammad Liman, a Polisario Front representative to the UK, warned: "We are not terrorists, but we prefer to advise them (foreign oil companies) that we cannot guarantee their safety."

 

Despite the ceasefire, there is once again talk of violence as the refugees grow increasingly frustrated with the pace of UN negotiations.

 

Rabat recently reiterated its plans for greater autonomy for the territory, but Mohammad Abdelaziz, the president of SADR, has rejected any offer short of full independence by referendum. 

 

In his address marking the 30th anniversary of the declaration of the SADR, he said that "the situation is becoming more difficult and dangerous". 

 

One soldier serving in the Polisario armed forces struck a darker note: "From children to adults," he told Al Jazeera.net, "everyone will tell you they want war."