President Trump appears to be looking the other way from Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara in the pursuit of World Cup politics.
The Associated Press recently reported that, “The 2026 World Cup contest has been engulfed in intrigue about whether Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and foreign policy will cost North America votes. What’s barely talked about is the impact of a territorial conflict that is impeding Morocco’s bid.”
More plainly, this “territorial conflict” is barely being talked about, period.
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President Obama, and now, a depleted US media, have essentially ignored Western Sahara’s brutal occupation by the Moroccan monarchy. Trump, however, could have a more moderate stance in this part of the world. But the administration’s domestic and foreign policies continue to appease a Republican Party and conservative base pushing a nativist and a “fly-by-night” policy orientation.
In this interview, Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, breaks down the Moroccan occupation and the prospects for moderation in this ongoing flashpoint.
Daniel Falcone: Can you provide a brief history of the Western Sahara?
Stephen Zunes: Western Sahara is a sparsely populated territory about the size of Colorado, located on the Atlantic coast in northwestern Africa, just south of Morocco. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes — collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination — the territory was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s.
With Spain holding onto the territory well over a decade after most African countries had achieved their freedom from European colonialism, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973. This — along with pressure from the United Nations — eventually forced Madrid to promise the people of what was then still known as the “Spanish Sahara” a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975.
The International Court of Justice heard irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania, and ruled in October of 1975 that — despite pledges of fealty to the Moroccan sultan back in the 19th century by some tribal leaders bordering the territory, and close ethnic ties between some Sahrawi and Mauritanian tribes — the right of self-determination for the Sahrawis was paramount. A special visiting mission from the United Nations engaged in an investigation of the situation in the territory that same year, and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence under the leadership of the Polisario, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania.
With Morocco threatening war with Spain, distracted by the imminent death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco, [the Spanish government] began receiving increasing pressure from the United States, which wanted to back its Moroccan ally, King Hassan II, and did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power. As a result, Spain reneged on its promise of self-determination, and instead agreed in November 1975 to allow for Moroccan administration of the northern two-thirds of the Western Sahara and for Mauritanian administration of the southern third.
As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, nearly half of the population fled into neighboring Algeria, where they and their descendants remain in refugee camps to this day. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis’ right of self-determination. The United States and France, meanwhile, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the United Nations from enforcing them. At the same time, the Polisario — which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country — declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
Thanks in part to the Algerians providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought successfully against both occupying armies and defeated Mauritania by 1979, making them agree to turn their third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed the remaining southern part of the country.
The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco, and by 1982 had liberated nearly 85 percent of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war turned in Morocco’s favor thanks to the United States and France dramatically increasing their support for the Moroccan war effort, with US forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counter-insurgency tactics. In addition, the Americans and French helped Morocco construct a … “wall,” primarily consisting of two heavily fortified parallel sand berms, which eventually shut off more than three-quarters of Western Sahara — including virtually all of the territory’s major towns and natural resources — from the Polisario.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged thousands of Moroccan settlers — some of whom were from southern Morocco and of ethnic Sahrawi background — to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining Indigenous Sahrawis by a ratio of more than two-to-one.
While rarely able to penetrate into Moroccan-controlled territory, the Polisario continued regular assaults against Moroccan occupation forces stationed along the wall until 1991, when the United Nations ordered a cease-fire to be monitored by a … peacekeeping force known as the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. The agreement included provisions for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a United Nations-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory, which would allow Sahrawis native to Western Sahara to vote either for independence or for integration with Morocco.
Neither the repatriation nor the referendum took place, however, due to the Moroccan insistence on stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan settlers and other Moroccan citizens whom [the Moroccan government] claimed had tribal links to the Western Sahara.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan enlisted former US Secretary of State James Baker as his special representative to help resolve the impasse. Morocco, however, continued to ignore repeated demands from the United Nations that it cooperate with the referendum process, and French and US threats of a veto prevented the Security Council from enforcing its mandate.
How would you describe the media coverage of the occupation by the US press?
Largely non-existent. When there is coverage, the Polisario Front and the movement within the occupied territory is often referred to as “secessionist” or “separatist” — a term normally used for nationalist movements within a country’s internationally recognized borders, which Western Sahara is not. Similarly, Western Sahara is often referred to as being a “disputed” territory, as if it were a boundary issue in which both parties have legitimate claims.
This comes despite the fact [that] the United Nations still formally recognizes Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, making it Africa’s last colony, and the UN General Assembly refers to it as an occupied territory. In addition, the SADR has been recognized as an independent country by more than 80 governments and [the SADR] has been a full member state of the African Union since 1984.
During the Cold War, the Polisario was inaccurately referred to as “Marxist” and, more recently, there have been articles repeating absurd and often contradictory Moroccan claims of Polisario links to al-Qaeda, Iran, ISIS and other extremists. This comes despite the fact that the Sahrawis, while devout Muslims, practice a relatively liberal interpretation of the faith: Women are in prominent positions of leadership, and they have never engaged in “terrorism” — even during the armed struggle.
The mainstream media [have] always had a hard time accepting the idea that a nationalist movement opposed by the United States — particularly a Muslim and Arab struggle — can be largely democratic, secular and nonviolent.
Obama seemed to drastically ignore Morocco’s illegal occupation. Has Trump helped to intensify the humanitarian crisis in the region?
To Obama’s credit, he did back away somewhat from the openly pro-Moroccan policies of the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations to a more neutral stance; fought off bipartisan efforts in Congress to effectively legitimize the Moroccan occupation; and pushed Morocco to improve the human rights situation. His intervention likely saved the life of Aminatou Haidar, the Sahrawi woman who led the nonviolent self-determination struggle in the face of repeated arrests, imprisonment and torture. However, he did little to pressure the Moroccan regime to end the occupation and allow for self-determination.
Trump’s policies have been unclear. His State Department has issued some statements which appear to recognize Moroccan sovereignty, but his new National Security Adviser John Bolton — despite his extreme views on many issues — served for a time on a United Nations team focused on Western Sahara, and has a strong distaste for the Moroccans and their policies, so he may influence Trump to take a more moderate stance.
Can you talk about how the US two-party system reinforces the Moroccan monarchy and neoliberal agenda?
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have supported Morocco, often depicted as a “moderate” Arab country (in terms of supporting US foreign policy goals and welcoming a neoliberal model of development). The Moroccan regime has been rewarded with generous foreign aid, a free trade agreement and major non-NATO ally status. Both George W. Bush as president and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state repeatedly showered praise on the autocratic Moroccan monarch Mohammed VI, not only ignoring the occupation, but largely dismissing the regime’s human rights abuses, corruption, and the gross inequality and lack of many basic services its policies have inflicted on the Moroccan people.
The Clinton Foundation welcomed the offer by Office Cherifien des Phosphates, a regime-owned mining company illegally exploiting phosphate reserves in the occupied Western Sahara, to be the primary donor to the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative conference in Marrakech. A series of resolutions and Dear Colleague letters supported by a broad bipartisan majority of Congress have endorsed Morocco’s proposal for recognition of the annexation of Western Sahara in exchange for a vague and limited “autonomy” plan.
There are a handful of members of Congress who have challenged US support for the occupation and called for genuine self-determination for Western Sahara. Ironically, they not only include prominent liberals like Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), but such conservatives as Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pennsylvania) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).
Do you see any political solutions or institutional measures that can be taken to improve the situation?
As happened during the 1980s in both South Africa and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, the locus of the Western Sahara freedom struggle has shifted from the military and diplomatic initiatives of an exiled armed movement to a largely unarmed popular resistance from within.
Young activists in the occupied territory and even in Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco have confronted Moroccan troops in street demonstrations and other forms of nonviolent action, despite the risk of shootings, mass arrests and torture. Sahrawis from different sectors of society have engaged in protests, strikes, cultural celebrations, and other forms of civil resistance focused on such issues as educational policy, human rights, the release of political prisoners and the right to self-determination. They also raised the cost of occupation for the Moroccan government and increased the visibility of the Sahrawi cause. Indeed, perhaps most significantly, civil resistance helped to build support for the Sahrawi movement among international NGOs, solidarity groups and even sympathetic Moroccans.
Morocco has been able to persist in flouting its international legal obligations toward Western Sahara largely because France and the United States have continued to arm Moroccan occupation forces and block the enforcement of resolutions in the UN Security Council demanding that Morocco allow for self-determination or even simply allow human rights monitoring in the occupied country.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that there has been so little attention given to US support for the Moroccan occupation, even by peace and human rights activists. In Europe, there is a small but growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign focusing on Western Sahara, but not much activity on this side of the Atlantic, despite the critical role the United States has played over the decades. Many of the same issues — such as self-determination, human rights, international law, the illegitimacy of colonizing occupied territory, justice for refugees, etc. — which are at stake in regard to the Israeli occupation also apply to the Moroccan occupation, and the Sahrawis deserve our support as much as the Palestinians. Indeed, including Morocco in BDS calls currently targeting just Israel would actually strengthen solidarity efforts with Palestine, since it would challenge the notion that Israel was being unfairly singled out.
At least as important as the ongoing nonviolent resistance by Sahrawis is the potential of nonviolent action by the citizens of France, the United States and other countries that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation. Such campaigns played a major role in forcing Australia, Great Britain and the United States to end their support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, finally enabling the former Portuguese colony to become free.
The only realistic hope to end the occupation of Western Sahara, resolve the conflict and save the vitally important post-World War II principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter — which forbid any country from expanding its territory through military force — may be a similar campaign by global civil society.