Weeks before Joe Biden was inaugurated as President in January 2021, I, David Schenker, the Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, traveled to the Western Sahara. This trip aimed to reinforce and solidify the U.S. commitment to the region before the transition of power. It was particularly crucial following President Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory and establish a consulate there to encourage Morocco’s normalization of relations with Israel. This decision had raised questions about U.S. credibility and diplomatic assurances to the indigenous Sahrawi population represented by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.
During my visit, I embarked on a tour of a potential site for a U.S. consulate in the southern town of Dakhla, identified by the Moroccan Foreign Ministry. While this excursion was largely symbolic due to the time constraints and State Department bureaucracy, it served as a public reaffirmation of Washington’s promise of a consulate in Western Sahara. Many were concerned that the Biden administration would walk back the recognition, so this gesture was important.
Despite the downsides of Trump’s decision and concerns about U.S. credibility, the Morocco-Israel deal has brought significant benefits to the involved parties, the wider region, and U.S. interests. To date, around 55 states, nearly 30 percent of all countries, have expressed support for Moroccan rule.
However, the Biden administration has shown ambivalence, if not hostility, toward the Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty. Shortly after the inauguration, the administration announced a review of U.S. policy on Western Sahara, raising the possibility of rescinding the decision. Since then, there has been no official reaffirmation of the recognition, and efforts to open a consulate have stalled. The U.S. Embassy in Rabat still features outdated information about a virtual mission in Dakhla on its website.
The administration’s reluctance to communicate clearly on Western Sahara reflects attempts to appease Algeria, which strongly opposed the U.S. recognition. Algeria’s gas is critical to U.S. allies in Europe, and counterterrorism cooperation with Algeria is increasingly important given the instability in the Sahel region. Algiers approves of the Biden team’s approach, as stated by the Algerian foreign minister, who expressed satisfaction with current U.S. policy.
While Algeria is an important partner, it cannot be compared to Morocco in terms of reliability or strategic alliance. Morocco heavily relies on the U.S. for weapons and has a close relationship with Washington. Algeria, on the other hand, purchases most of its weapons from Russia and has refrained from condemning Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. China is Algeria’s most important friend and partner, and it strongly opposes Israel’s regional integration.
Reversing the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara would have devastating consequences. It would undermine bilateral relations with Morocco and further erode U.S. credibility with its Middle Eastern allies. It could also weaken Saudi Arabia’s confidence in the U.S. at a time when the kingdom seeks U.S. security guarantees for peace with Israel. The skepticism surrounding U.S. commitment in the Middle East has led to strategic hedging with China, Russia, and Iran.
As the Biden administration considers new security obligations in the region, it is crucial to honor the promises the U.S. has already made. Failure to do so would have far-reaching implications for U.S. alliances and credibility.