Morocco pushes development in disputed Western Sahara

A fisherman rests on his boat in the harbour of the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara's main city of Laayoune on November 3, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 08 November 2018
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Morocco pushes development in disputed Western Sahara

  • Morocco and the Polisario Front fought for decades over control of Western Sahara, until a 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire froze the conflict and left Rabat in control of most of the desert area

LAAYOUNE: Building roads and expanding cities, ports and industrial parks — Morocco is pressing ahead with economic development in Western Sahara without waiting for a political settlement on the disputed territory.
The latest sign of the kingdom’s assertive approach to the former Spanish colony was on show last weekend at a business forum organized by Moroccan authorities in Laayoune, the region’s largest city.
“This is a very rich region,” said Rokia Derham, Morocco’s secretary of state for foreign trade.
“There is great potential in industry, fishing, agriculture or the relocation of services. We want to see foreign investors coming,” she told AFP.
Morocco and the Polisario Front fought for decades over control of Western Sahara, until a 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire froze the conflict and left Rabat in control of most of the desert area.
The forum urged French companies to “give their business new momentum” by investing in a territory touted as a “model of regional development.”

“We want to push development and the economy,” the region’s president Hamdi Ould Errachid told some 200 entrepreneurs, including 50 from France, at an opening ceremony.
The forum highlighted the “appeal” of the area, situated at the door to sub-Saharan Africa, and the “opportunities” in sectors such as renewable energy, finishing, tourism and construction.
Staged a month before UN-led negotiations on the fate of the territory are set to resume, the forum sparked Polisario Front condemnation.
In an open letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the independence movement said it was an example of Morocco’s “hostile expansionist policy.”
The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by the Polisario in 1976, controls nearly 20 percent of resources-rich Western Sahara.
Some 170,000 Sahrawis live in desert refugee camps in neighboring Algeria, the Polisario’s staunchest backer.
Morocco, which controls the rest of the territory and its 1,100-kilometer (680-mile) coastline, aims to preserve the kingdom’s “territorial integrity” by granting the area autonomy — but not independence.
On the ground, a berm erected by Moroccan authorities alongside a UN-monitored buffer zone has separated the two sides since the 1991 cease-fire.
“The political issue must be resolved by the United Nations,” said Derham, adding that the region’s development “cannot be linked” to politics.

Philippe-Edern Klein, president of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Morocco (CFCIM) and co-organizer of the Laayoune forum, said he did not want to talk politics.
“We’re here to do business,” he said, adding that he was “supporting development in Western Sahara.”
Khadija Gamraoui, a local right-wing French lawmaker, thought otherwise.
“No one is fooled. Everyone knows that those who are present are giving a signal — there are politics at stake,” said Gamraoui, who attended the forum with a Moroccan-French political association.
She said she was impressed by the major projects already completed.
With its huge library, Olympic-sized swimming pool and state-of-the-art sports grounds, the city of Laayoune and its palm tree-lined avenues are a showcase of the cash Rabat has poured into the area.
Moroccan authorities plan to spend more than 4.5 billion euros ($5.2 billion) on the region’s development by 2021.
Khalid Hatim, a local official, said “zero taxation” offered an incentive for investors.
French banking groups like BNP-Paribas, Societe Generale and Credit Agricole sent local subsidiaries to Laayoune to the forum.
The Polisario, for its part, is challenging fishing and agricultural accords for Western Sahara signed with the European Union and has filed complaints against French firms operating in the area.


Tension builds in row over women’s entry into Hindu temple in Kerala

In this file photo taken on October 18, 2018 Indian Hindu devotees are pictured at the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala. (AFP)
Updated 15 min 37 sec ago
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Tension builds in row over women’s entry into Hindu temple in Kerala

  • Hindu women demand their right of religious freedom as 41-day festival approaches
  • Kerala polarized over female entry into the hilltop temple

NEW DELHI: Tension in the air as Sabarimala Hilltop temple in the South Indian state of Kerala is being prepared to open on Nov. 17 for a 41-day Hindu festival.
The tension pertains to the entry of females between the ages of 10 to 50 into the ancient temple of Ayyappa, a deity who devotees believe is celibate and abhors the entry into the temple of women of marriageable age.
The Indian Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment in the last week of September, laid down a rule that bars the entry of young women into the temple. This led to a severe protest across the state, with women being stopped forcefully from entering the temple.
Last month, when the temple opened for six days, at least 12 women tried to enter the hillside temple but a violent crowd blocked their passage, with police looking helpless. At least 560 women in the barred age group have enrolled for the annual pilgrimage that starts in less than a week.
“We are taking all kinds of steps to see that devotees can pay their obeisance to the deity in a peaceful manner,” S. Sreejith, the Kerala inspector general of police, told Arab News.

Political mileage
Before coming to the temple, devotees observe celibacy for 41 days and avoid all kinds of meat and alcohol. They also don black robes for the period.
“The soul of any temple is the deity inside. The deity Aayyappa is a bachelor and that’s why the entry of young women is regulated in the temple,” says Rahul Easwar, a Hindu right-wing activist with close links to the Sabarimala temple.
Talking to Arab News, Easwar said: “We will never say anything against the Supreme Court. We are fighting for our rights to believe and our rights to have our own faith.”
However, women rights activist Kavita Krishnan claimed that “the entire controversy is clearly politically manufactured by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”
The BJP is looking for political mileage in Kerala — the state where it is a small marginal player,” added Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association.
She pointed out that “the entire debate is concocted. It is well known that women’s entry was allowed until the 1990s, and it was stopped upon a court order. The Supreme Court order has only undone that order.”
The local government of Kerala, a coalition of communist parties, supports women’s entry into the temple.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in a news conference on Saturday, said: “Opposition to changes in customs is quite natural. But there is no going back. Toilets, bathing facilities and accommodation facilities at Nilakkal will be set up for women devotees. The current crisis is temporary.”
K. Surendran of the BJP, however, said: “This is a matter of belief and the court should not interfere. Why does the court not interfere in the affairs of other minority religions?”
The BJP spokesperson in Kerala told Arab News: “The women who want to enter the temple are not devotees but activists. They are not believers.
“The local government is trying to polarize the issue by supporting women’s entry because it wants to gain the support of other religious minorities,” added Surendran.
Sandhya Acharya, a woman devotee who has registered to go to the Sabarimala temple, told Arab News that there is an “attempt to deny entry to women by calling them activists.
“Why should there be discrimination in the house of God in the name of gender?” she asked.
Rajesh Krishnan, a Kerala-based activist and intellectual, said: “The whole issue has polarized the society in Kerala. The issue has become all the more vicious after the BJP entered the debate and saw it as an opportunity to win over the people and make an entry into the southern Indian state.”
Around 42 review petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court and Tuesday the Apex court will decide whether it should revisit its judgment or not.