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After Israel-Morocco deal, US launches work on consulate in Western Sahara

US envoy attends event in ‘stunningly beautiful’ disputed region; Moroccan FM says country ‘feels stronger in its legitimate fight for its territorial integrity’

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (C) and David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs - who is wearing a traditional dress for men called 'Darraa' - (center-R) pose with other officials for a picture after their meeting in Dakhla, in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on January 10, 2021. (Fadel SENNA / AFP)
Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita (C) and David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs - who is wearing a traditional dress for men called 'Darraa' - (center-R) pose with other officials for a picture after their meeting in Dakhla, in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on January 10, 2021. (Fadel SENNA / AFP)

RABAT, Morocco — The United States on Sunday started the “process of establishing” a consulate in contested Western Sahara, after Washington recognized Morocco’s sovereignty there in exchange for Rabat normalizing ties with Israel.

US Ambassador David Fischer visited the port of Dakhla, 1,440 kilometers (895 miles) southwest of Rabat in the far south of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, to mark the start of work on a diplomatic office.

“It is such an honor for me to visit this stunningly beautiful and critically important region of Morocco, and to begin the process of establishing a US diplomatic presence here,” Fischer said, according to the US embassy.

Western Sahara is a disputed and divided former Spanish colony, mostly under Morocco’s control, where tensions with the pro-independence Polisario Front have simmered since the 1970s.

Last year, Morocco joined the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan in agreeing to normalize ties with Israel under US-brokered deals.

US Ambassador in Morocco David T. Fischer gestures after a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and Morocco’s foreign minister in Dakhla, in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on January 10, 2021. (Fadel SENNA / AFP)

In return, US President Donald Trump fulfilled a decades-old Moroccan goal by backing its contested sovereignty over the barren but phosphate-rich region, which lies next to key Atlantic fishing zones.

Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said Sunday that “Morocco feels stronger in its legitimate fight for its territorial integrity… with the support of its friends.”

The Algerian-backed Polisario Front fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991, and controls about one-fifth of the desert territory.

Some 20 countries, mostly African and Arab nations, have already opened diplomatic offices in the Moroccan-held area, but the Polisario considers such moves to be violations of international law.

David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, wearing a Sahrawi traditional dress for men called ‘Darraa’ (L) looks on after meeting with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in Dakhla, in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on January 10, 2021. (Fadel SENNA / AFP)

UN peacekeepers in Western Sahara are mandated to organize a referendum on self-determination for the region, and despite Washington’s move, the UN insists its position is “unchanged.”

In November, the Polisario announced it regarded a 1991 ceasefire as null and void, after Morocco sent troops into a UN-patrolled buffer zone to reopen a key road.

Bourita said Sunday that Morocco continues to “support the ceasefire, but will react to any provocation,” adding that Rabat “will support the UN process… to find a solution to this long-standing dispute.”

Fischer, who called the visit Sunday “another historic milestone in more than 200 years of friendship” between Morocco and the US, was accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker.

The pair donned flowing white embroidered robes that are traditionally worn in the territory over their suits.

David Schenker, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, (L) meets with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita during a meeting in Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on January 10, 2021. (Fadel SENNA / AFP)

In December, the US State Department opened a “virtual” diplomatic post in Western Sahara, ahead of finding “an appropriate site” to build a consulate.

The building is expected to be ready in coming months, Fischer added.

Last month, Fischer said that a consulate would allow Washington “to take further advantage of Morocco’s strategic positioning as a hub for trade in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.”

The Morocco-Israel deal to normalize ties is expected to involve significant investment from the US International Development Finance Corporation, and Morocco hopes Dakhla can become a major regional port.

Last month, the DFC inked a memorandum of understanding to invest $3 billion over the next four years into Morocco or with Moroccan partners working in sub-Saharan Africa.

It also promised an initiative to “catalyze $1 billion of investments in projects that advance women’s economic empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa.”

US President-elect Joe Biden, who will replace Trump on January 20, has not publicly commented on Western Sahara.

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