Kamal Fadel

The pictures beamed across the world last week told one story. Hundreds of smiling, happy people in the Western Sahara welcome the King of Morocco into their homeland. But the reality is very different.

The Saharawis were not happy about the arrival of the despotic King Mohamed VI &endash; as was made clear by demonstrations that forced the cancellation of the third leg of his visit and through interviews conducted by the Spanish media with Saharawis in the occupied areas.

Nor are they smiling at increasing economic and military incursions of Morocco into their territory.

The King's visit, to mark the 26th anniversary of Morocco's brutal occupation, is a provocation to the Saharawi people and a slap in the face of the United Nations.

The visit comes on top of Morocco signing the first deals with international companies to exploit the natural resources of the occupied territories.

In the last month, American Company Kerr-McGee and French company Totalfina-Elf have signed off on oil prospecting deals covering over 200,000-sq km offshore Western Sahara. The two companies are being tricked by the Moroccan regime into handling stolen goods.

These are the latest blows in a long and bloody occupation Western Sahara. But they are at the same time clear signs of panic and desperation of a regime in big trouble.

For the past twelve years the United Nations has been involved in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict through the organisation of a referendum on self-determination. Despite its efforts and the huge costs involved &endash; over US$500 million &endash; the UN has so far failed to accomplish its task because of Moroccan obstructions.

With the eyes of the world focussed on the war in Afghanistan and other major international issues, there is a concern that the issue of Western Sahara will be put once again on the backburner.

Some Western powers have been extending their military, financial and political backing to the Moroccan regime in its illegal occupation and terrorist war against the Saharawi people.

It is ironic that an authoritarian regime such as Morocco should be supported against a people who want to establish a modern state based on democracy and respect of human rights.

The record of the Moroccan regime is dismal: 60% of its people are illiterate, 23% are unemployed and 20% live below poverty line. The euphoria that was unleashed by the new King's promises is withering away and the dream of a new era in Morocco is turning into a nightmare.

Morocco is in dire straits. One wonders why some European countries continue their support to a regime that can hardly contribute anything apart from its encouragement to illegal immigration and the growing of drugs. The economic, political and social problems in the Kingdom are increasing and it is also becoming a fertile ground for extremism.

The recent raw with Spain is an indication of how Morocco is trying to divert attention from its mess at home. Every time the regime finds itself in difficulty it seeks an external conflict: The claim over Mauritania, the war with Algeria and the invasion of Western Sahara are few examples.

The UN is tiring in its efforts to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict in Western Sahara. There have been some attempts to abandon the referendum and opt for another solution that would legitimise the occupation of Western Sahara. Such a solution failed as it was rejected by the Saharawi people and the UN's Fourth Committee.

This so-called solution is undemocratic and illegitimate, contrary to the decolonisation process and United Nations resolutions supporting the Saharawis' right to self-determination.

The mandate of the UN Mission in Western Sahara expires on November 30, and the Security Council will have to decide the future of the UN involvement in this conflict.

This is an opportunity to achieve a just and lasting solution to a conflict that has been a source of instability and misery for a long time.

Morocco must be told to cooperate with the UN, and adhere to the peace plan it has signed, otherwise it should be considered a rogue state and suffer the consequences. Morocco must stop its blatant human rights abuses in the occupied areas of Western Sahara. And Morocco must not be allowed to sign illegitimate oil deals in a territory that is still considered by the UN as Africa's last colony.

The international community must act together to ensure a just solution to the crisis quickly, before it is too late.

November 2001