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.


Three UK Conservatives quit party in protest at “disastrous Brexit“

Updated 20 February 2019
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Three UK Conservatives quit party in protest at “disastrous Brexit“

  • Three resign to join independent group in parliament
  • Blow to PM May in efforts to clinch deal on exit from EU

LONDON: Three lawmakers from Britain’s governing Conservatives quit over the government’s “disastrous handling of Brexit” on Wednesday, in a blow to Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to unite her party around plans to leave the European Union.
The lawmakers, who support a second EU referendum and have long said May’s Brexit strategy is being led by Conservative euroskeptics, said they would join a new independent group in parliament set up by seven former opposition Labour politicians.
The resignations put May in an even weaker position in parliament, where her Brexit deal was crushed by lawmakers last month when both euroskeptics and EU supporters voted against an agreement they say offers the worst of all worlds.
While the three were almost certain to vote against any deal, the hardening of their positions undermines May’s negotiating position in Brussels, where she heads later to try to secure an opening for further work on revising the agreement.
With only 37 days until Britain leaves the EU, its biggest foreign and trade policy shift in more than 40 years, divisions over Brexit are redrawing the political landscape. The resignations threaten a decades-old two-party system.
“The final straw for us has been this government’s disastrous handling of Brexit,” the three lawmakers, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston, said in a letter to May.
Soubry later told a news conference that the Conservative Party had been taken over by right-wing, pro-Brexit lawmakers.
“The truth is, the battle is over and the other side has won. The right-wing, the hard-line anti-EU awkward squad that have destroyed every (Conservative) leader for the last 40 years are now running the ... party from top to toe,” she said.
May said she was saddened by the decision and that Britain’s membership of the EU “has been a source of disagreement both in our party and in our country for a long time.”
“But by ... implementing the decision of the British people we are doing the right thing for our country,” she said, referring to the 2016 referendum in which Britons voted by a margin of 52-48 percent in favor of leaving the EU.
Asked what May would say to others considering resigning, her spokesman said: “She would, as she always has, ask for the support of her colleagues in delivering (Brexit).”

INDEPENDENT GROUP
The three sat in parliament on Wednesday with a new grouping which broke away from the Labour Party earlier this week over increasing frustration with their leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit strategy and a row over anti-Semitism.
Another former Labour lawmaker joined their ranks late on Tuesday, and several politicians from both the main opposition party and Conservatives said they expected more to follow from both sides of parliament.
What unites most of the group of 11 is a desire to see a second referendum on any deal May comes back with, now that the terms of Brexit are known in detail — something the prime minister has ruled out.
For May’s Brexit plan, the resignations are yet another knock to more than two years of talks to leave the EU, which have been punctuated by defeats in parliament, rows over policy and a confidence vote, which she ultimately won.
Britain’s 2016 EU referendum has split not only British towns and villages but also parliament, with both Conservative and Labour leaders struggling to keep their parties united.
May has faced a difficult balancing act. Euroskeptic members of her party want a clean break with the bloc, pro-EU lawmakers argue for the closest possible ties, while many in the middle are increasing frustrated over the lack of movement.
Those who have resigned have long accused May of leaning too far toward Brexit supporters, sticking to red lines which they, and many in Labour, say have made a comprehensive deal all but impossible to negotiate.
But May will head to Brussels hoping that her team will get the green light to start more technical negotiations on how to satisfy the concerns of mostly Brexit supporters over the so-called Northern Irish backstop arrangement.
The “backstop,” an insurance policy to avoid a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland if London and Brussels fail to agree a deal on future ties, is the main point of contention in talks with Brussels.
British officials are hoping they can secure the kind of legal assurances that the backstop cannot trap Britain in the EU’s sphere to persuade lawmakers to back a revised deal.
But May’s argument she can command a majority in parliament if the EU hands her such assurances is getting weaker. A government defeat last week showed the euroskeptics’ muscle.
One pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker, Andrew Bridgen, said: “I would find it very difficult to accept a legal document from the same (party) lawyer whose definitive advice four weeks ago was that we could be trapped in the backstop in perpetuity.”