Morocco has the sad distinction of being involved in one of Africa’s oldest conflicts, the thirty-year dispute with the Polisario Front over Western Sahara. Toby Shelley’s Endgame in the Western Sahara, a history of the conflict, has just come out, and Jeremy Harding reviews it for the LRB. The book even covers the latest development, which, frankly, bring me to the edge of despair:
The novel dimension to the geography of this dispute is offshore oil. Shelley, once the energy desk editor for Dow Jones Newswires, has the story at his fingertips. In 2000 Morocco was the second largest oil importer in Africa (‘the Ottomans stopped at Algiers,’ Moroccans like to say, ‘and so did the oil’). Over the years, various surveys on and offshore have come to nothing, but the discovery of viable deposits off the coast of Mauritania in 2001 suggested a promising future in Western Saharan territorial waters – more promising than anything further north in Morocco proper. Towards the end of the year, Rabat ‘parcelled out the entirety of the Western Sahara’s waters’ to the French multinational TotalFinalElf and the Texan Kerr-McGee.
With the scent of smoke still lingering in the air from the Ogoni affair, Polisario and Sahrawi support committees in the US and Europe responded aggressively. Since Shelley published his book, Total has pulled out, claiming to have ‘found no oil or other hydrocarbons that can be exploited’, but the company may also have been concerned about the legal status of the venture. Kerr-McGee, a Republican Party donor and a favourite of UK fund managers (notably Legal and General), has not been dissuaded from ‘reconnaissance’ – a new, Moroccan approach to awarding licences which allows companies to explore on a semi-speculative basis with a much reduced outlay, though new agreements must be drawn up for drilling to begin. (…) In the meantime, a smaller oil company, Fusion, has decided to throw in its lot with Polisario and accept a promissory licence issued by the Front, with exploration starting once the SADR has come into existence. Last December Polisario awarded a further batch of licences to six British oil companies that would sooner gamble on the likelihood of independence than paddle around in semi-legality, on or off Saharan shores.
A long review, but a very worthwhile read. In related news, the BBC reports that homes of Saharan refugees in Tindouf, in Algeria, have been destroyed or damaged by three days of heavy rains; they will need several million dollars over the next six months for support.