US begins process to set up Western Sahara consulate

Move comes weeks after US President Donald Trump’s administration recognised Morocco’s claim to the disputed territory.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the US looks forward to 'increase engagement' in Western Sahara [File: Saul Loeb/Pool via Reuters]

The United States has started the process of establishing a consulate in Western Sahara, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday, just weeks after Donald Trump’s administration formally recognised Morocco’s claim to the disputed territory.

In a brief statement on Thursday, Pompeo said it was “inaugurating a virtual presence post for Western Sahara, with a focus on promoting economic and social development, to be followed soon by a fully functioning consulate”.

A virtual presence post allows US consular officials and staff to conduct remote, diplomatic engagement without maintaining a physical location in a designated city or region.

The State Department said the Western Sahara virtual presence post would be managed by the US embassy in Rabat, the Moroccan capital.

The Trump administration on December 10 announced it recognised Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara as part of a US-brokered deal that saw Morocco and Israel agree to establish formal diplomatic relations.

Morocco is the fourth country to sign a normalisation deal with Israel in the past months at the behest of the US, after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

The first direct commercial flight between Israel and Morocco took place this week, as an Israeli delegation left from Tel Aviv and landed in Rabat on Tuesday. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, accompanied the Israeli delegation.

In a statement, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI said the US’s recognition of the country’s claim to Western Sahara is a “historic turning point” and described the normalisation deal with Israel, which was rejected by Palestinians, as a “promising development for peace in the Middle East”.

Decades-long fight

Moroccan forces and the Algeria-backed breakaway movement Polisario Front have been fighting over the Western Sahara – a vast area bordering Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria that was previously under Spanish control – for decades.

Washington’s recognition of Morocco’s claim to the area drew condemnation from the Polisario Front, which slammed it as “a blatant violation of the United Nations charter and the resolutions of international legitimacy”.

“This will not change an inch of the reality of the conflict and the right of the people of Western Sahara to self determination,” the Polisario’s Europe representative Oubi Bchraya said on December 10. “The Polisario will continue its struggle.”

The US was the first country in the world to recognise Morocco’s claim, William Lawrence, a professor of political science and international affairs at the American University, told Al Jazeera at the time.

“It’s a huge success for Moroccan diplomatic and lobbying efforts,” he said.

The US said it continues to support a Moroccan proposal to grant limited autonomy to Sahrawis under overarching Moroccan control.

“The United States looks forward to this increased engagement and we will continue to support political negotiations to resolve the issues between Morocco and the POLISARIO within the framework of Morocco’s autonomy plan,” Pompeo said in Thursday’s statement.

Source: Al Jazeera