On Business Class to an Occupied City in the Desert
»Is Western Sahara a country?« asks the man behind the counter at Kastrup Airport as I hand him my stack of tickets which, via four flights, should take me to Dakhla on the west coast of Africa. I did not know it, I must admit, before Information a week before was invited to the conference, all expenses paid on business class, along with the king of Morocco and eight »current and former presidents.« And now, with my suitcases slowly rolling away behind the counter, I am still not sure what to answer the confused airport employee. One can easily find the Western Sahara on a map. It is located just south of the Canary Islands.
But whether it is a country, depends perhaps more on your political leanings. Morocco considers the territory as part of the Moroccan kingdom. The UN sees the territory as illegally occupied by Morocco. And it has been like this for 40 years.
Morten Nielsen, from the grassroots movement Afrika Kontakt, finds it deplorable thatInformation has agreed to attend the conference. Officially, the programme is to cover South-South cooperation in Africa, the development of green energy and the social responsibilities of African women. But Morten Nielsen calls it straight out of a »propaganda event« that the Moroccan government has thrown thousands of dirham after to demonstrate its power over the occupied territory.
Need for Attention
Morocco has built a 2,200 km long wall to prevent the indigenous population in the occupied territories, the Saharawis, from coming into contact with their many country men living in refugee camps in Algeria. Here, the liberation movement Polisario, acts as government in exile. They have since the occupation began in 1975, called for the implementation of a referendum on independence. The UN negotiated a ceasefire in 1991, in which the parties agreed on a referendum that would to define the territory's future status. The King of Morocco would like to hold a referendum, but only on whether Western Sahara should have autonomy or be an integral part of Morocco – and not on independence.
At first you might not think that the Moroccan king has any particular need for greater international attention on the deadlock.
But when he has invited the press from around the word, including Information, to the Western Sahara on business class, it may be because of the king's need for international goodwill in order to keep the area under his control - and to continue to sell off Western Sahara's resources. And it apparently works.
The African Union has recommended its members to boycott the conference in Western Sahara because it takes place on illegally occupied territory. Even so, my neighbour on the last stop in Dakhla is the Sudanese interior minister, Ahmed Saad Omer Khidir.
»It's surprising to meet you here,« I say. But he hasn't heard anything about the boycott, he says, as he takes off his shoes and rolls out a red blanket to cover his feet. He then reclines the seat and begins to snore.
The pitch-black desert darkness is disrupted by fast flashlight when I step off the plane in Dakhla. Teenagers in suits jump energetically around taking pictures of us. Inside the airport there are even more of them. Now, in the light, you can see how many of them are developing a thin sporadic mustache. They jump to the side, a red carpet unfolds, and with open arms they mutter »welcome.«
No one knows, however, where we will be staying. Those responsible are not here, they say, but we are welcome to wait outside in a Bedouin tent where Moroccan music roars out of a pair of speakers, while the wind smacks against the white canvas.
After an hour of confusion, the message is that our luxury hotel has been destroyed by a sandstorm the evening before.
Instead, we are escorted into a jeep that carries us to the dunes where there are cabins connected to a backpacker hostel for kite surfers.
Already accustomed to life on business class I am a bit disappointed. But then again, the next day during breakfast, I get to observe how the president of Sao Tome and Principe, dressed in a suit, struggles to sit down on the hostel’s low hippie crash pads in order to take his morning coffee.
Other presidents and ministers have slept in tents they have shared with people they do not know. Reportedly, this is why some have already gone home again.
The King’s Conference
During the conference’s opening ceremony, King Muhammed of Morocco radiates from a golden frame above the stage, below the shiny wooden ceiling in the brand new conference building that the Moroccan government has built for the occasion. On the big screen, there are also two images of the king, as if he looks over the assembly from two monitors on the room's side walls. And if we still have any doubts, the two images on the big screen are accompanied by the text: »Under the high patronage of His Majesty Muhammed VI.«
The King himself is not even present, but his opening message is read aloud. In it, he calls Dakhla »the pearl of the southern region of Morocco,« after which he declares that »Dakhla will be the at heart of Africa's future economic center and will be devoted for work on peace and stability.«
The message is the same in the press folder I have received, which states that »Dakhla is a town in the Moroccan kingdom.« A definition that the UN apparently does not concede to. I doze a little off in the soft red cinema-like seats, while the headphones’ translators lull words in my ears such as »women’s rights,« »cooperation,« »development« and »respect.« I wake a little to the words »human rights.« I have read that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticizes the Moroccan authorities in the strongest terms for harassing demonstrations against the occupation with violence and prison sentences for participating. The king’s speech now continues in a little different directions:
»Morocco's Africa policy is based on an understanding, integrated and inclusive approach, designed to bring peace and stability, appreciation of sustainable development for the people and ensure our people's cultural and spiritual identity in respect of universal human rights.«
»So why have we come to Dakhla?« is the pertinent questions asked by the next speaker. It is Jean-Claude Carteron, head of the Crans Montana Forum, a Swiss organization that together with Morocco has organised the conference. I have asked myself the same since landing. They had to build a brand new conference building in the middle of the desert. There are not enough hotels and hardly any roads. Hundreds of security personnel have been flown in to watch over every sanddune. But Dakhla represents the point of intersection between different kinds of landscapes, says Jean-Claude Carteron. And something about the sun and the wind.
Back in the press room, sweat is dripping from the British PR-officers that have enlisted us journalists. There are not enough chairs and the internet does not work. I decide instead to check out one of the panel discussions titled »Towards a Better Management of Natural Resources.« Speakers include the President of Estonia, who talks about natural resources – in Estonia – in Estonian. I do not know why I am surprised. It was not because I expected to hear something about how Morocco allegedly has sold 2.1 million tonnes of phosphate from Western Sahara in 2014. Or about the controversial fisheries agreement, which the EU signed with Morocco in 2013 to gain access to the lucrative waters off Western Sahara. An agreement for which the exile Polisario government has sued the EU at the European Court of Justice because they believe the agreement is against the Geneva Convention’s paragraph on the illegality of exploiting natural resources from an occupied territory.
The Cork in the Bottle
Denmark voted against the controversial fisheries agreement. But the southern European countries in particular, have been pushing to get it through. It’s not just about catching fish, but also about catching migrants before they reach Europe, says Morten Nielsen from Afrika Kontakt.
»They see Morocco as the cork in the bottle, which ensures that the beaches of the sunny coast are not flooding with corpses.«
In the same way, France, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has used its veto to oppose that the UN force in Western Sahara, MINURSO, gets a mandate to monitor human rights. It is currently the only UN peacekeeper without one. MINURSO’s mandate is about to get renewed this month, and according to Kurt Mosgaard, former head of MINURSO, it is in this context that one should understand Morocco’s need to make a public relations push right now.
»They will do whatever they can to make it continue to be without a human rights mandate,« he says.
According to the magazine Foreign Policy, Morocco has since 2007 spent up to 20 million dollars to influence US Congress members and journalists. It is also known that various French presidents have been granted holiday homes in Morocco. According to Kurt Mosgaard, the many interests in the conflict, show that it really more about realpolitik than about international law.
»They play a political game, which includes a large number of countries. But if you consider international law, there is no doubt. All independent legal experts believe there should be a referendum,« he says, noting that the international tribunal in The Hague in 1975 declared that Morocco's claim to the territory was not legally valid.
On the last day of the conference, I flee along with three other journalists, into Dakhla city. It is very small. We meet mostly people who are in town because they work at the conference. At a café, we finally meet a few locals and ask them what they think about the Western Sahara conflict.
»I do not know what you're talking about. What Western Sahara?« is the answer.
While looking for locals in Dakhla, the Danish researcher Kristoffer Nilaus Tarp from the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) steps up on stage at the conference. He’s has just a few days before the journey realised that the conference does not take place in Morocco, but in occupied Western Sahara.
»I thought there would be professional substance. But with a few exceptions, it was a waste of time, because there was no real thematic content. It was just a completely random group of people and then they forgot to mention that there would be previous and not current ministers and presidents,« says Kristoffer Nilaus Tarp when I speak to him after the conference. He calls the conference »one of the most bizarre experiences« he has ever had. For example, when a Saudi prince was to award prizes immediately after a lecture on women’s rights. He himself was to speak about his research on South-South cooperation, the main theme of the conference.
»But after talking for three minutes, I was rushed off stage, before they began handing out awards to all sorts of dubious personalities. It just made it even more clear that it was simply a political statement and nothing else. It dawned on me that the absurd spectacle that I had become a part of, was just about that Morocco is trying to buy itself goodwill.«
On the way back, I fight for four hours with other conference participants, all with ’I love Dakhla’ bags in hand, to get on a plane to Casablanca. Onwards, from Morocco to Copenhagen, I can finally lean back in Royal Air Maroc’s large cream-colored leather seats. I am alone in business class, gobbling caviar and smoked salmon with champagne. I finish off the bubbles, put down the cutlery on the white tablecloth and let my dirty nails slip through my sand-ridden hair, which is about to turn into dreadlocks. I feel like I have been on a hybrid between the Roskilde Festival, a survival trip and Dancing with the Stars. I wonder if that was the impression the Moroccan king wanted to give its southern pearl.