A top United States envoy has visited contested Western Sahara after Washington recognised Morocco’s sovereignty there in exchange for Rabat normalising ties with Israel.
The US embassy in Rabat called the trip on Saturday 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”.
Schenker’s visit comes before the expected opening of a provisional US consulate in the desert region on Sunday, according to diplomatic sources in Rabat.
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 normalise 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.
‘Virtual’ US presence
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a Christmas Eve statement that Washington plans initially to establish a “virtual” presence in Western Sahara to be managed from the US Embassy in Morocco, focused on promoting economic and social development.
A “fully functioning consulate” is to follow, the statement said. It did not indicate whether the diplomatic post would be in Laayoune or Dakhla.
Joe Biden, who will replace Trump as president on January 20, has not publicly commented on Western Sahara.
“Every administration has the prerogative to set foreign policy,” said Schenker, speaking in a previous stop in Algeria, but ruling out US military presence in Western Sahara.
But, he said, “Let me be clear: the US is not establishing a military base in the Western Sahara.”