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Blinken in Morocco amid shifts in the region

RABAT, MOROCCO (AP) – United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Tuesday for the expansion of new, major diplomatic shifts in the Middle East and North Africa that have upended the conventional wisdom about some of the region’s longest-standing disputes.

Visiting Morocco just a day after an unprecedented gathering in Israel’s Negev Desert with the Israeli foreign minister, Blinken met senior Moroccan officials to discuss opportunities for expanding those ties.

Then, in talks with the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at his private residence in the Moroccan capital, Blinken spoke of great opportunities and challenges in the region and beyond.

The UAE recently angered the US by hosting Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad and has expressed unease with the Biden administration’s attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

In Morocco ahead of a visit to Algeria yesterday, Blinken was exploring options for helping end the neighbours’ festering dispute over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara after new developments. US plans to build a consulate in the territory have not advanced since being announced by Trump in 2020.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita at the Foreign Ministry in Rabat, Morocco. PHOTO: AP

That has led to questions about whether Washington is fully on board with Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish colony.

Just last week, Spain shifted its long-standing position on the territory by backing Morocco’s plan to give Western Sahara more autonomy as long it remains under Moroccan control, calling it “the most serious, realistic and credible” initiative for resolving the decades-long dispute.

Blinken echoed the “serious, realistic and credible” phrase in addressing the Moroccan plan, but stopped short of a full endorsement, saying it represented “one potential approach” to resolving the dispute.

Bourita said the autonomy plan had been praised by many countries, including Spain and the US, but that others should get on board.

“We think it’s time for Europe mainly to get out of this comfort zone where people are supporting a process (and) shift into an outcome-oriented effort,” he said.

The Spanish move was immediately welcomed by Rabat, which reinstated its ambassador to Madrid after a 10-month absence. But it was sharply criticised by Algeria, which supports Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence movement, and recalled its ambassador to Spain.

In his meetings with the two protagonists, Blinken hoped to explore potential compromises on Western Sahara. The territory, which Morocco annexed in 1976, is largely barren but rich in phosphates and faces fertile Atlantic Ocean fishing grounds.

The Polisario called Spain’s decision a “grave error” that grew out of Morocco’s leverage over the control of migrants crossing into Europe. It accuses Madrid of taking sides in a dispute that the Spanish government for decades said could only be settled in a referendum held under the United Nations’ auspices.