Elisabeth Myers: Will Labour scrap UK recognition of Moroccan Sahara?

Elisabeth Myers: Will Labour scrap UK recognition of Moroccan Sahara?

After a resounding victory over the incumbent Conservative Party, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer entered 10 Downing Street on July 4th amid cheers and smiles. Despite handily trouncing the Tories after 14 years in power, the new PM gave a measured victory speech about returning politics to public service, renewing hope, and appealing to national unity. “Our country has voted decisively for change,” he said. “Our work is urgent, and we begin it today.”

While the change Labour brings will certainly affect the UK’s domestic policies, it also has significant implications for the UK’s foreign policy.  And this is particularly evident with respect to Morocco’s territorial sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Morocco dreams of having the UK’s full support for Morocco’s bid at the UN to legitimize its claim to Western Sahara through its autonomy plan. Not only is this politically desirable, but economically so because unless the UK recognizes the Sahara as part of Morocco, UK companies will not be able to invest in the region, despite all the hype about increased investment opportunities in fisheries, tourism, high-value industry, and agriculture in and around Dakhla and elsewhere in the southern region.

Yet while those dreams were realistic under the conservatives, it appears that they will remain merely dreams with Labour whose MPs look at Morocco and the Sahara quite differently.

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In January this year, Labour Party member Navendu Mishra wrote to the UK Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, asking what information his Department “holds on the number of Moroccan and Saharawi soldiers that have died since the Moroccan military incursion into Guerguerat.”

Mishra had previously submitted an early day motion with 36 signatures in 2021 urging the UK government to  “to press the Moroccan authorities to guarantee in all circumstances that those who work peacefully toward justice for the Saharawi are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals.”


“…unless the UK recognizes the Sahara as part of Morocco, UK companies will not be able to invest in the region, despite all the hype about increased investment opportunities”


Labour member Kim Johnson, left, also asked a number of similar questions this year. In particular, she asked the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, if he would “ask the UN Secretary General to investigate (a) how many allegations of human rights abuses have been made to the Moroccan National Human Rights Council in Western Sahara and (b) whether those allegations have been investigated.”

Notably, Independent member Jeremy Corbyn, who has been vocal in condemning “Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara,” kept the seat in Parliament he has held since 1983.

Morocco had previously enjoyed support from some Conservative party officials, albeit with a few recent hiccups. In February, Simon Mayall, Middle East senior adviser at the UK’s Ministry of Defense, had urged the UK government to acknowledge Morocco’s sovereignty over the region and support Morocco’s comprehensive autonomy plan. Other Conservative politicians had pressured former Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron to change UK policy and recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed Sahara region.

The seeming surge of pro-Polisario voices in the UK now threatens to take precedence over earlier requests by Conservatives.

Morocco and the UK signed an Association Agreement in 2019, which among other things for purposes of trade provided for access to the British market for all products originating in the Sahara region. It was upheld by the British courts.

READ: Ignacio Cembrero: The dark side of Morocco diplomacy with EU

However just recently, before Labour took power, there were signals that some of its MPs went further and even resisted the official position which supported Rabat’s claim to sovereignty to the region, leaving the former PM on the back foot.

Responding to a question from Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle in April, former PM Rishi Sunak’s government took the position that it did “not consider commercial activity to be illegal in Western Sahara, providing it respects the interests of the Sahrawi people.”

However, Sunak is gone, and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office treats the political status of Western Sahara as “undetermined.” “undetermined.” The official position is, “We support the UN-led efforts to achieve a lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.” Although the new PM has vowed “country first, party second,” he is an unknown quantity with respect to the Sahara.

With Labour now in the majority, and potential opposition becoming more vocal in the Labour and other ranks, Morocco appears to be starting from less than ground zero with this new government. So it may well have its diplomatic work cut out for it.

If Morocco wants the UK to follow the US’s suit and recognize its sovereignty over the Sahara, it will have to seriously engage on all cylinders with the new party in charge in Downing Street to ensure that result.


Elisabeth Myers is an American lawyer, law professor, and a contributor and editor for numerous media outlets. Based in Marrakech, Morocco, she is the CEO of STRATEGIX Legal and the former founding Editor-in-Chief of online magazine Inside Arabia.
On X @ElisabethRMyers



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