The U.S. will open a consulate in Western Sahara, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Thursday, further solidifying the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s claim over the disputed territory.
“Pleased to announce the beginning of the process to establish a U.S. consulate in Western Sahara, and the inauguration of a virtual presence post effective immediately!” Pompeo tweeted Thursday afternoon. “We look forward to promoting economic and social development, and to engage the people of this region.”
The virtual diplomatic presence would be managed by the U.S. Embassy in Rabat and would focus on economic and social development, the State Department announced in a Thursday statement. The department plans on eventually establishing a full consulate in the region, but with President-elect Joe Biden taking over the White House in a matter of weeks, it’s unclear how his administration would approach the issue.
Ned Price, a spokesman for the Biden transition team, declined to weigh in on the issue.
The announcement comes after President Donald Trump announced earlier this month the U.S. would recognize Morocco’s long-held claims over the former Spanish territory as part of a normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel. Israel has established ties with a number of Arab states in the final months of the Trump administration — agreements that the president’s allies have heralded as a cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy.
Prior to the Israel-Morocco deal, the U.S. policy toward the territory was in line with the European Union, United Nations and African Union in calling for a path for self-determination for the territory. Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until the mid-1970s, when Morocco invaded and established de facto control over most of the area lasting until the present day. Morocco has been in a diplomatic stalemate with the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, whose Polisario Front retains control over a sliver of land hugging the Algerian border.
“The United States looks forward to this increased engagement and we will continue to support political negotiations to resolve the issues between Morocco and the POLISARIO within the framework of Morocco’s autonomy plan,” the State Department’s Thursday statement said.
The Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco’s claim earlier this month quickly prompted raised eyebrows, from the international community to within his own party. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) called the agreement “shocking and deeply disappointing.”
Former Secretary of State James Baker condemned the move last week as both an unnecessary break from the status quo and a potential source of conflict with strategic U.S. allies in the Mediterranean, particularly Algeria.