Last month, the issue of the Western Sahara briefly appeared on the Western media radar when the Clinton Foundation held an event in Morocco that was partially financed by OCP, the Moroccan state-owned phosphate company. Sympathizers of the Western Sahara independence movement routinely criticize OCP for conducting phosphate mining in the Western Sahara; a long article in Politico provided a platform for some of their grievances.
The Moroccan position is that the Western Sahara is an integral part of Moroccan sovereign territory. The position of the Polisario Front, the Western Sahara's self-proclaimed government-in-exile, is that the territory is under illegal foreign occupation by Morocco. African countries are somewhat divided on the question, with some broadly supportive of Morocco, while others broadly support Polisario's position.
As for the United States, according to the State Department website:
The United States believes that the United Nations holds the legitimacy and the impartiality necessary to facilitate a lasting political solution to this conflict. The United States is hopeful that today's adoption of this resolution will encourage the parties to demonstrate their serious and genuine commitment to the UN-led political process to "achieve a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara," and to engage in negotiations as soon as possible. We look forward to both sides bringing forward new ideas to this dialogue.
This sounded rather cryptic to me, so I asked the State Department to clarify the official U.S. position on the Western Sahara. Below a Q&A conducted via email in May 2015 with an official State Department spokesperson, with answers provided for quotation on background.
Q: What is the official position of the US regarding the status of the Western Sahara?
A: Please consult this April 2015 joint statement from the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue, which states our official position.
Q: Does the US consider the Western Sahara to be a part of the sovereign territory of the Kingdom of Morocco?
Q: Does the above mean that the US considers that self-determination of the people of Western Sahara has not yet been achieved?
Q: It has not been achieved. Morocco's autonomy plan is serious, realistic, and credible, and that it represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity.
Q: What parties exactly does "mutually acceptable" refer to? Acceptable to who and who?
A: The UNSC-defined parties to the conflict: Morocco and the Polisario.
Q: Does USAID support activities in the Western Sahara? Why (not)? If yes, since when?
A: USAID is not currently providing assistance inside the Western Sahara. The FY 15 appropriations act includes new language regarding Title III assistance for the Western Sahara. The State Department, in consultation with USAID, is currently determining how we will implement fiscal year 2015 economic assistance to the Western Sahara. As required by the FY15 Appropriations Act, we will consult with Congress regarding assistance for the Western Sahara.
Q: Are US companies barred from investing in the Western Sahara?
A: No. The U.S. government takes no position on whether or not companies should invest in the Western Sahara.
To conclude, two quick clarifications for the record.
First, my personal position on the Western Sahara is that I don't know enough about the issue to have made up my mind; my gut instinct is that there are no saints on either side of this particular negotiating table. The State Department took a few days to get back to me with its answers - were my questions too complex, or were they hoping my story deadline would pass? - so I'm posting this Q&A as background information for fellow journalists and researchers working on tight deadlines, not to promote any particular policy stance.
Second, anyone reporting on the Western Sahara question should be extremely wary of disinformation from both sides. The Moroccan government has spent tens of millions on foreign lobbyists in D.C. and beyond, who doubtlessly have tried to skew online information, think tank reports and academic opinion. In addition, any foreign researcher who publicly takes a pro-independence stance may be deported or refused re-entry into Morocco, which presumably discourages people whose careers depend on continued access from publicly voicing support for pro-independence positions. On the other hand, I discovered in Laayoune last month that while some people in the territory are fiercely pro-independence, other Sahrawis - I have absolutely no idea what share of the overall population - genuinely support Moroccan rule, so there is some degree of diversity in local aspirations.