By Bryant Harris September 12, 2018
Algeria appears unfazed by recent lobbying setbacks as the Donald Trump administration inches closer toward Morocco’s position on the disputed Western Sahara.
The North African neighbors have long waged a fierce lobbying and public relations campaign in Washington over the decadeslong frozen conflict over the resource-rich territory that Morocco claims as its own. Algiers backs the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the native Sahrawis.
To that end, as they have in years past, the Algerians spent some $400,000 in 2017 on the lobbying shop Foley Hoag, according to a review of lobbying records by Al-Monitor. That sum, however, is dwarfed by the millions spent every year by Morocco, which replaced its longtime lobbying team with a bevy of influence peddlers close to President Trump earlier this year and has racked up recent wins.
Most strikingly, the United States in April backed an unusual UN resolution critical of the Polisario even as it renewed the 27-year-old UN mission aimed at achieving a referendum. The resolution accuses the Polisario of undertaking “destabilizing actions,” such as carrying out military and administrative functions in areas that Morocco considers part of the buffer zone in the disputed territory.
However, Algeria’s ambassador to Washington, Madjid Bouguerra, downplayed the resolution’s pro-Morocco language in a recent interview with Al-Monitor. Instead, he emphasized that it only renews the mandate for the UN peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, for six months instead of the customary year, potentially empowering new UN envoy Horst Kohler’s calls for restarting stalled talks between Rabat and the Polisario.
“I take it as proof of the determination of the Security Council to bring back the two parties, Morocco and the Polisario Front, to the negotiating table,” Bouguerra told Al-Monitor in a May interview. “By October, the resolution is very clear. The two parties have to go to the negotiating table without any preconditions.”
Despite the diplomatic push, the State Department’s 2019 budget request has proposed slashing the US contribution to MINURSO to about $8 million, down from an estimated $16 million this year. While the cut is part of the Trump administration’s efforts to renegotiate US contributions to UN peacekeeping missions around the world, the proposal specifically notes “MINURSO may achieve slight efficiencies in civilian staffing as well as a slight reduction in the force.”
“MINURSO is very small,” said Bouguerra. “The UN mission in the Western Sahara is probably the smallest one around the world. It doesn’t cost that much.”
And while Bouguerra expressed appreciation for MINURSO, he noted that the peacekeeping mission continues to fail to implement the 27-year overdue referendum and that it does not ensure human rights protections for Sahrawis.
Meanwhile, the State Department’s own human rights report this year for the first time referred to Polisario flags as “separatist.” Bouguerra told Al-Monitor that he has “had a few words” with the State Department concerning the language.
“I won’t call it a mistake, but it does not reflect the reality of the official position of the United States on the issue of the Western Sahara,” said Bouguerra.
Lobbying disclosure forms indicate that Foley Hoag regularly converses with the State Department on behalf of Algeria. A State Department spokesman confirmed to Al-Monitor that the official US position has not changed despite the report’s language.
“We continue to support the UN-led process designed to bring about a peaceful, sustainable and mutually agreed solution to the conflict in the Western Sahara,” said the spokesman.
Foley Hoag also directs much of its efforts at pro-Sahrawi senators, who regularly butt heads on the issue with their pro-Morocco House counterparts. The disclosure forms indicate that the lobbying firm often communicates with the office of Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a longtime Sahrawi advocate.
Last year Inhofe worked with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the respective chairman and ranking member of the Senate foreign aid spending panel, to insert pro-Algeria language into a Senate appropriations bill. The bill would have required the administration to consult with MINURSO before spending aid dollars in the Moroccan-controlled territory. Inhofe himself visited Sahrawi refugee camps based in Algeria last year.
Foley Hoag also contacted the offices of Graham and Leahy after they released their spending bill. The Senate language, however, did not survive reconciliation with the House in the final spending package for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
The two chambers have also clashed over House language calling on the secretary of state to press the UN’s World Food Program to establish “registration systems” for the delivery of food aid to Sahrawi camps inside Algeria (the United States has contributed $19 million to the program since 2013). Sahrawi advocates say the language represents an effort by Morocco to lowball the number of refugees in the Tindouf camps. The language was removed from the final spending bill for fiscal year 2018, but House lawmakers reintroduced it in their foreign aid bill released in June.
In other matters, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., led a congressional delegation to the North African state earlier this year in which discussions about US-Algerian cooperation on hydrocarbons and renewable energy featured prominently. Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, the recently appointed head of national oil and gas company Sonatrach, recently hired several US law firms and consultancies to revise Algerian law to draw in US and other foreign investment into the energy sector.
Nunes also discussed the importance of US-Algerian security and counterterrorism cooperation with the Algerian Cabinet. The United States and Algeria held their eighth annual joint military dialogue in Algiers in February.
Nonetheless, the State Department budget request for this year would slightly cut Algeria’s military training assistance budget by $300,000, allocating just $1 million for the security cooperation program.
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