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MOROCCO
Western Sahara Drains Development




Daan Bauwens

RABAT, Jul 31 (IPS) - Informal talks are being held in Vienna between the different parties involved in the long lasting conflict over the Western Sahara. A new plan proposed by the Obama administration will be discussed between the Polisario and the Kingdom of Morocco.

After his tour of countries in the Arab Maghreb earlier this month, personal envoy of UN Secretary-General for the Sahara Christopher Ross publicly announced that the way is now open to the first informal meeting ahead of formal negotiations.

But it is uncertain that the talks will yield any results. Since 1975, both the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawi independence movement Polisario, the area's indigenous movement backed by Algeria, have claimed sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Polisario is proposing a referendum that offers full independence as an option. But Morocco wants to grant no more than large autonomy under its sovereignty.

In the meantime, Morocco's enormous expenses in the region, high enough to cripple the country's development, are not being discussed.

Economists Fouad Abdelmoumni and Hugh Roberts raised the question first in February 2008. "I do not believe Morocco will ever change its stance, although it is absolutely necessary to do so: the costs are too high," Fouad Abdelmoumni tells IPS.

Abdelmoumi calls the expenses "stratospherical". "No less than 100 million dirham (ten million euros) a day are being spent on the Western Sahara," he tells IPS. "Maybe other states have that luxury, but that is not the case for Morocco. The expenses perforate our economy, which leads us to be uncompetitive at a global level. There are other causes for our economical frailty, but the Western Sahara is a critical element in the equation."

According to a report published by Abdelmoumni, military expenses amount to five percent of the gross national product. According to the U.S.-based monitoring group Forecast International, the Moroccan army has 250,000 troops, of which 150,000 are stationed in the Western Sahara.

There are costs to Western Sahara other then military ones. In order to attract Moroccans to live in the area, employees receive a bonus of 25 percent to 75 percent over their salary, besides subsidised food. The Western Sahara is the only area in Morocco that offers unemployment relief.

All businesses in the Western Sahara are exempt from taxes. Abdelmoumni describes additionally the "cartiya", a token worth 1,200 to 1,500 dirhams (120 to 150 euros) a month, and free public transport. This is granted arbitrarily or on tribal criteria, but beneficiaries are mostly ex-Polisario members.

The Moroccan state also spends a large amount of money on lobbying to support its claim on the territory. In 2007, The Guardian revealed that the Moroccan American Policy Centre had paid 300 million dirhams (30 million euros) to win support of U.S. lobby groups for Morocco's claim to the Sahara.

"Today the state's full budget is lower than 20 billion euros a year," Abdelmoumni tells IPS. "If we sum everything up, including subventions, tax relief, the black market and the fact that we are completely cut off from our neighbour Algeria, we estimate the total cost of the Western Sahara equals three to five percent of Morocco's gross national product, or 20 percent of the state's full budget."

These expenses deprive Morocco of the resources it could have put into development, says Abdelmoumni. Besides, "it creates a culture of nepotism, the absence of the rule of law, the prevalence of army and security systems, and the logic of taboo, as it is forbidden to raise the issue in Morocco. There is an economical, institutional and cultural rebound."

***** + MOROCCO: Local Government Holds Up Development (http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=42793) + MOROCCO: African Refugees Targeted (http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=47331)

(END/IPS/MM/AF/IP/DV/DB/SS/09)

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