DAKHLA, Western Sahara — Trawlers pack the bustling Western Saharan port of Dakhla, where fish scales glisten from workers’ arms as they roll up their nets and buyers shout bids in a sprawling auction warehouse. Nearby, turquoise waters lap wide, nearly empty Atlantic beaches and diners sip tea in sidewalk cafes.
The United States plans to put its footprint in this picturesque setting.
US Ambassador to Morocco David T. Fischer took part in a ceremony Sunday in Dakhla, the first formal step to open a consulate, marking a turning point for the disputed and closely policed territory in North Africa.
The US move recognizes Morocco’s authority over the land — in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel.
Fischer was joined by the top State Department official for the region, David Schenker. Both diplomats wore white Moroccan robes.
“Our trip today to Dakhla is another historic milestone in more than 200 years of friendship between the Kingdom of Morocco and the United States of America,” the US Embassy in Morocco’s Twitter account quoted him as saying.
While this shift in US foreign policy frustrates indigenous Sahrawis who have sought Western Sahara’s independence for decades, others see new opportunities for trade and tourism that will provide a welcome boost for the region and sun-kissed coastal cities like Dakhla.
Addressing the gathering, the US ambassador said the opening of a consulate is a plus for the United States, allowing it to “take further advantage of Morocco’s strategic positioning as a hub for trade in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.” Investment and development projects will profit the region, he added.
A portrait of Moroccan King Mohammed VI, waving from behind his sunglasses, hangs from the crenellated archway that greets people arriving in Dakhla. The king’s face is juxtaposed on a map that includes Western Sahara as an integral part of Morocco.
Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975, which unleashed a 16-year war and then 30 years of diplomatic and military stalemate between Morocco and the Polisario Front, an organization seeking Western Sahara’s independence that is based in and backed by Algeria. The long-running territorial dispute has limited Western Sahara’s links with the outside world.
Khatat Yanja, head of Dakhla’s regional council, looks forward to the US arrival opening up his city to new markets and persuading more tourists to enjoy its beaches, local wares and breathtaking sunsets. He expressed hope for US investment in tourism, renewable energy, farming and especially fishing.
“We appreciate such a gesture,” Yanja said of the future consulate. “It will open a new chapter altogether when it comes to investment in this region, via employing people and creating more resources. It will also open more doors for international trade.”