RABAT, Morocco — A top US envoy visits the contested Western Sahara, after Washington recognized Morocco’s sovereignty there in exchange for Rabat normalizing ties with Israel.
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.
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 rich Atlantic fishing zones.
The US Embassy in Rabat calls the trip by David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and the highest-ranking US diplomat for North Africa and the Middle East, “a historic visit.”
Morocco’s official news agency MAP reports that Schenker visited Laayoune, the capital of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.
Schenker, who is on a regional tour including Algeria and Jordan, also visited a United Nations base in the region, MAP says.
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.”
Schenker’s visit comes ahead of the expected opening of a provisional US consulate in the desert region tomorrow, according to diplomatic sources in Rabat.
Last month the US State Department announced it would open a “virtual” diplomatic post in Western Sahara before building a consulate, slated for the southern fishing port of Dakhla.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker — the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat for North Africa and the Middle East — made a historic visit today to #Laâyoune, where he was warmly greeted by, Abdesslam Bikrat, Wali of the Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra region. pic.twitter.com/anmpNq7QWL
— U.S. Embassy Morocco (@USEmbMorocco) January 9, 2021