City in the Sands

City in the Sands

By Bill Hartley

Western Sahara, or, depending upon your point of view, the Southern Provinces of Morocco, is a disputed territory consisting of 103,000 square miles of desert. Spain seized control following the Berlin conference of 1884, which decided spheres of interest in Africa among the European nations. During the latter years of the Franco era, Spain resisted calls from the UN to decolonise. Then, following his death, the Spanish government announced its intention to hold a referendum on independence. However, in 1975 King Hassan of Morocco, in pursuit of a dubious claim to sovereignty, initiated the ‘Green March’ whereby thousands of his people crossed the border to occupy the territory; a fait accompli which has been in place ever since.

The only significant settlement in Western Sahara is Laayoune the capital, which lies near the coast. It is strange to discover that in what was once a Spanish colony, the language is seldom heard. The only Spanish speakers are likely to be elderly residents, since Morocco has effectively imposed the French language in second place behind Arabic. Or to put it another way, Morocco, a former French possession, has successfully imposed the language of its onetime colonial master on a former Spanish colony. Even the menus in the local McDonald’s are in French and on the wall they tactfully display a picture of King Mohammed VI.

Morocco has endeavoured to upgrade and gentrify the city centre, with wide boulevards flanked by avenues of palm trees. The homes of the more prosperous citizens lie here, as do outposts of various government ministries. But beneath this modern urban veneer it’s not hard to discern why Laayoune is known as the ‘City in the Sands’.

Since most of Western Sahara is desert, unsurprisingly water is in short supply. Even in the heart of Laayoune this is evident. Silhouetted against the sky on the roof of a six storey apartment block, a man uses a rope to haul up a hose. He is standing on a large water tank which is to be refilled from a bowser parked below. This is mounted on the back of a 1960s Bedford truck: the local workhorse for water distribution and a common sight on the streets of the city. Even the most modern buildings get their water this way.

Out in the desert, far to the east, there is a conflict going on, hence the presence of UN troops. A few of these are Russian, which, given the alternative posting, is a good place to be right now. Western Sahara has a government in exile, which calls itself the Sahwari Democratic Republic and is based in Tindouf, Algeria. Their guerrilla arm is the Polisario Front which comes complete with a logo sporting the inevitable Kalashnikov. They occupy 20% of the territory; not so good as it sounds since this consists of uninhabitable desert, around which the Moroccans have built a sand berm and laid minefields. The Polisario is able to operate because relations between Morocco and Algeria aren’t good. One of the reasons is the former’s occupation of Western Sahara.

Beyond the well manicured centre of town, the place to mix with the locals is the Ski Kina market, a dense collection of shops, stalls and workshops. The latter are open to the street with metal bashing, vehicle repairs and furniture manufacture under way. Elsewhere ironmongery, haberdashery, cosmetics and foodstuffs are to be found. The butcher’s is easily identifiable from a distance, since there is a severed cow’s head in the window. This low level retailing without a supermarket in sight, is a place to both shop and socialise. Since Laayoune is largely tourist free, the visitor can wander at will and be treated little differently to the locals. Given the high daytime temperatures most of the activity in the market takes place during the evenings. Here, men gather to drink coffee and watch European football in the cafes. Street food includes the local speciality, barbequed camel. For those who need a ride to reach the market there are taxis available, though the etiquette is somewhat unusual. It’s quite likely that a passenger will be sharing a cab with the driver’s mother or brother, who has come along for the ride. Should the driver need directions then one solution is to pick up another fare who may know the way; sharing the journey and appropriating the taxi once the destination is reached.

Even in this isolated city the Moroccans leave little to chance. Apart from a military presence there is also a Gendarmerie, the Surete National. It’s not unusual to see their vehicles equipped with water cannon rolling past. Although the city is a long way from the conflict zone, the Moroccans take internal security seriously and like to let the locals know they are equipped to deal with disorder.

The main economic reason why the Moroccans are here is the Bou Craa phosphate mine. This site helps make Morocco the world’s third largest producer of the mineral with 2.4 million tons extracted annually. It comes from an open caste mine so huge that it is visible from the International Space Station. The UN objects to the exploitation of resources in a disputed territory but to no avail. There are also thought to be gas and oil reserves but as yet their viability has not been proven.

In this year’s report to the Security Council on the activities of MINURSO, the UN mission to Western Sahara, the secretary general describes low intensity hostilities. The report refers to what it euphemistically describes as ‘firing incidents’. In response, the Moroccan army has begun using drones and there have been civilian casualties on the Algerian side. Happily, on a diversity related note, the secretary general also reports that one third of their personnel in Western Sahara are now female.

The UN mandate only extends to October 2022 but is expected to be renewed. It seems unlikely that there will be any resolution to the Western Sahara question in the foreseeable future. Even so, Laayoune, the City in the Sands, remains an hospitable outpost in the far reaches of the Arab world.

William Hartley is a Social Historian

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