Western Sahara: Controversy Over McDonald's Maps

The Moroccan McDonald's franchise faced controversy last week after it released a children's “Happy Meal” toy which included a map of Morocco. The borders on the map separated Western Sahara from Morocco; the Western Sahara is a disputed territory between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front. The controversy ended with the Moroccan franchise issuing an apology to the citizens of Morocco.

Although Moroccan bloggers were mute about the issue, the Western Saharan blogosphere and its friends commented on the story. Nick Brooks, whose blog Sand and Dust focuses primarily on the region, wrote of the apology:

I guess this is understandable – small considerations such as respect for international law and UN resolutions, and squeamishness about territorial aggression, occupation of neighbouring territories, and widespread human rights abuses obviously take a back seat when it comes to the important business of selling burgers and making lots of money.

Goufia, a diaspora blogger residing in Canada, calls for a boycott of McDonald's along with several other bloggers:

We learned from the press (01.12.08) that McDonalds Moroccan subsidiary has withdrawn some ‘Happy Meal’ toys including a map with the legally recognized borders between Western Sahara (WS) and Morocco, pretending to replace them with other toys with a map including WS inside Moroccan borders. This would mean a clear violation of International Law.As you are surely aware, WS is a Non-Self-Governing Territory as declared by the UN, militarily invaded and occupied by force by Morocco, whose sovereignty is recognized neither by UN nor by any country in the world. Morocco systematically violates human rights of Saharawi citizens, refusing to accept several UN resolutions and preventing their right to self-determination. This attitude of McDonalds Moroccan subsidiary discredits McDonalds image and reputation.We urge McDonalds to take the necessary actions to ensure that their Moroccan subsidiary respects and does not violate International Law on behalf of McDonalds…

French and Spanish text regarding the boycott can be found in the Sahara Resiste blog. A UN map of Morocco and Western Sahara can be found here.


  • Brahim. Some short responses. I know you will run and run with this.

    “First, Palestine was country before the creation of Israel”

    The situation was similar – Palestine was under a British “Mandate” and the British were still there. They left under not-entirely different circumstances to the Spanish leaving Morocco – in the context of pressure from others (in this case the nascent Israeli state) that wanted them out. Both Spain and Britain pulled out in large part because they wanted to rid themselves of responsibility of territories over which other people were fighting the in context of the withdrawal of a colonial power.

    “Moroccans and the Sahrawis speak the same language and share the same history”

    Really? How is you Hassanniya? The language spoken by Sahrawis (Hassaniya) is not the same as Moroccan Arabic, although both have a strong Berber influence.

    “I am trying to make a statement that the Sahara is for Sahrawis, and I am talking about all the Sahara from Morocco to Egypt.”

    You’re suggesting that they are scattered across the Sahara or that they carve out their own state in the greater Saharan region? The Sahrawi are geographically restricted the western areas – they are not present in the central or Eastern Sahara, which historically have been (and still are) occupied by other peoples such as the Tuareg.

    Of course I’m not saying the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict is exactly analogous to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I was simply drawing attention to the similarities between your apparent suggestion that the Sahrawi should be assimilate in the Sahara at large (i.e. by other nations) and the similar arguments of certain Zionists about the Palestinians.

    “Western Sahara is part of Morocco.”

    Well, not the part I was in two weeks ago. Part of Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco and, for good or ill, governed by it; part of it is not.

    “Poeple like you try to make the Sahrawis different.”

    No, not people like me – people like the Sahrawi I know who see themselves as distinct from Morocco. People who don’t have the voice that I do.

    “Today, more than a million Moroccan can trace their ancestors to Western Sahara.”

    Well then, maybe your King should abdicate and hand power over to the Polisario. The point is that these historical justifications can be twisted to prove anything you want. Better to look at the situation on the eve of decolonisation, when Western Sahara was a separate entity from Morocco, and use more transparent methods such as the referendum to determine its fate.

    “All major countries realized that there is no way for Morocco to give up its legitimate claim.”

    And why should there be a way for the Polisario or the Sahrawi to give up theirs?

    “As long as Algeria has natural gas and oil that western nations still need, no one is going to force it to stop this conflict.”

    I know, I know – it’s all Algeria’s fault and poor Morocco is an innocent victim ;-) No one is forcing Morocco to stop the conflict either – a conflict Morocco precipitated when it entered Western Sahara by force.

    “Those poor refugees in its land are the unfortunate ones that are paying the price the most.”

    Well at last we agree. But we all know that Morocco doesn’t want them back. Morocco consistently misrepresents the number of refugees in the camps, and is hardly likely to welcome back tens of thousands of independence-minded Sahrawi, even if they were willing to live under Moroccan control. You’re being disingenuous here.

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  • Brahim

    You replied to a lot of my statements, but what ever happened to answering… “If you really think that these Sahrawis are different than the Moroccans, why is it that the so called Polisario Sahrawi president for the last 30 years is Moroccan? He was born, grew up and educated in the middle of Morocco. His father is a retired Moroccan soldier. This should confirm something to you.”
    I have to repeat it again to you: This is an Algerian made conflict. Without, it would not have lasted this long. The Sahrawis are in it for a ride.
    The Sahrawis of Polisario are made to believe that by getting independence, they will be as rich as Kuwait!
    You ask me for their right to self determination. How about asking the Moroccans if they want to abandon their rights to territorial integrity.
    You said “Morocco consistently misrepresents the number of refugees in the camps” This is really deceptive. The refugees are in Algeria, how can Morocco stop anyone from going there? The latest estimate by The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has set the population at 90,000. Algeria is the one that is still refusing to conduct a census. Get your fact straight…

  • Brahim. You mention Kuwait. I believe a certain gentleman also used talk about territorial integrity and historical rights to justify the forcible inclusion of Kuwait into Iraq. Talk of territorial integrity presupposes a recognised unity – the only country (behind-the-scenes French, US and slightly more limp UK appeasement notwithstanding) that sees any unity between Morocco and Western Sahara is Morocco. France once insisted that Algeria was geographically a part of France. It didn’t make it so.

    I’ll leave you to worry about the fine historical details, which the international court went over with a fine tooth comb before finding Morocco’s claim wanting. I know you reject the court’s conclusion, but that is your business. I refer anyone interested in the historical background and the nature of the historical claims to Tony Hodges’ excellent “Western Sahara: Roots of a Desert War.” Feel free to dismiss this as propaganda as you will anything that doesn’t support Morocco’s position.

    Ancient historical claims are a notoriously bad basis for the solution of present-day political problems. If countries started claiming territory on the basis that their ruling dynasties or large sections of their population originally came from elsewhere, perhaps the UK could lay claim to parts of Germany, France (especially Normandy, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

    You could save yourself a lot of words by simply writing “God gave it to us” and “resistance is useless!” It would be as convincing.

  • Brahim

    From the UNHCR Country Operations Plan for Algeria, Planning Year 2007:

    “Currently, UNHCR provides assistance to 90,000 vulnerable refugees, out of a total population estimated by the Government of Algeria at 165,000 people. The refugees are settled in four refugee camps –namely Alayun, Awserd, Dakhla and Smara, – in
    the Tindouf governorate (wilaya) in the south-west of Algeria”
    Source: http://www.pogar.org/publications/other/unhcr/algeria/cop-07e.pdf

    From the World Food Programme (PROTRACTED RELIEF AND RECOVERY OPERATION— ALGERIA 6234.00, from 2000):
    “Assistance to Sahrawi Refugees. Number of beneficiaries 155,000”.
    Source: http://www.wfp.org/eb/docs/2000/wfp002811~1.pdf

    The 90,000 figure represents the people deemed to be the “most vulnerable”, not the population of the camps. The WFP downgraded it’s estimate of the most vulnerable to 90,000 after 2006. Some said this was due to pressure from donors – certainly it is unlikely to be because conditions in the camps had improved massively, or because 65,000 people had disappeared.

    We can be sceptical of the Algerian figures, but we should not confuse “most vulnerable” as estimated by UN agencies with absolute numbers. This has been a common tactic of Moroccan lobbyists (when they aren’t arguing that the number is much less than even 90,000). Glad to see you’re at least being consistent.

    I do wish you’d stop all this propaganda – I’m trying to get some work done!

  • Brahim

    I am still waiting for your response about the leader “president” of Polisario and the fact that he was a Moroccan Marxist..
    I would like to believe that you are assisting the Sahrawis. I have left Morocco more than 25 years ago but I do remember so much how the Green March united that nation. Sahrawis pro Polisario may have some rights in their cause, but the fact that their existence happened by Algerian Army and the Libyan dictator proves how wrong they were from the start. I only wanted to comment on the McDonalds controversy and here I am in an endless debate. This is not my field, but I can assure you that you will give up but I will not, because I was born to Arab Berber parents that happened to be Moroccans. On that note I leave you my friend…God Bless!

  • Brahim, I don’t believe in the Pharaonic model of government in which the rights of an entire people are dependent on the personal background and qualities of a particular leader. It’s not as if all the Sahrawi were born in Morocco now, is it, or as if they are/were all Marxists. And what is this about the Marxism anyway? Are you saying that anyone who has followed Marxism in the past should have no political rights and should be denied the right to fight for self-determination? There are a lot of ex-Marxists around – including in US and UK politics (e.g. in the Bush administration, although they became Trotskyists, which is even worse). Marxism is not exactly a motivating ideology for the Polisario these days – it’s terribly unfashionable and even they can see that.

    As for support from Algerian and Libya – when fighting against an invading force you take your support where you can get it. Morocco has France as protector – surely you wouldn’t grudge the same rights to the Polisario? And the French have a history of behaving pretty badly too (as do most countries, mine included). So is this some sort of beauty contest in which support from certain countries is OK but support from others is unacceptable, even when we know all governments behave badly? You guys love to play the “evil communist/Marxist” card, but most people are too sophisticated to fall for such cheap and simple attempts to demonstrate guild by association. Maybe at the height of the Cold War there would have been some mileage in this, but not now.

    As for endless discussion, did you see the exchange between me and Ahmed Salem? That was endless – this is a brief exchange by comparison.

  • Brahim Iberkak

    Dear Nick,
    At last you mentioned that Polisario leader was born in Morocco. It is so unfortunate for Morocco that has 2 major enemies, both named Abdelaziz, and ironically both were born and grew up in Morocco. The Abdelaziz of Polisario and the one in Algeria hated late king Hassan. Today, they have nostalgia to be kings like him and govern for life.
    I have read some of the discussion you had with Ahmed Salem. I can’t do that, but I admit it was interesting..
    I don’t get it when you compare France and US support to Morocco with Libyan and Algerian to Polisario. I must be living in a different world!
    I will spare Libya because it is no longer a supporter of Polisario.
    Polisario and Algerian government were two entities responsible for the horrific atrocities committed against prisoners of war and Moroccan civilians, some of them were held in captivity for 20 years.
    Morocco is guilty as well for human right abuses.
    France and US do help Morocco, however, they would never have accepted to have POW in their land on behalf of a movement or even a state no matter what. Algeria did it.

    The more other countries know about this conflict and the realities on the ground, the more they will take side with Morocco.
    Keep counting how many more you will loose. You will be left with one: ALGERIA.
    With the gas prices falling down, we will see how long it can hold.

    The mistake the Moroccan government made is that it kept this conflict in the charge of few. Today, every Moroccan is concerned, and that is powerful.

  • Brahim – I haven’t examined the natal origins of the Polisario president so only have the words of my Moroccan friends about this. To me it’s irrelevant as stated.

    As for the rest – so it IS a beauty contest! One in which the validity of your cause depends on whether the governments that support you are can be characterised as leftist or rightist. No-one agrees with the long-term holding of POWs (all now released), but neither should they agree with “disappearing” people. Or, for that matter, with things like Guantanamo or extraordinary rendition, which your white knights (US and France) have variously been involved in (as have many other “good” western countries). All governments and states do bad stuff. It should be condemned.

    You may be right that in the end the international community will opt for appeasement, but that is no reason not to stand up for the right to self-determination.

    Not sure about this idea about people knowing the realities on the ground making them more sympathetic to Morocco. They may take a different view when they see the reality of partition and realise that the autonomy plan will either (i) result in the creation of a rump Sahrawi state in the Polisario-controlled areas, (ii) necessitate a Moroccan invasion of these ares resulting in regional destabilisation, or (iii) change nothing at all. I presume this is why Morocco consistently denies that the Polisario has a presence in these areas, misleadingly characterising them as a “buffer zone”. This is a problem for the autonomy plan. I’d be interested to hear your solution.

  • Brahim

    We all have to be realistic. There is no way Morocco will give up its sovereignty over the Sahara. Depriving Morocco from it would be suicidal. It will bring instability to the region. You have a country, to some degrees, is progressing without much of natural resources. You have a civil society that is more vibrant. You have a stable neighbor for Europe. It is not fully democratic but it is on the right direction. Europe has to look for what is better in the long run for it and for the people of the region including the Sahrawis. US, China and Russia can’t agree less. They all need reliable partner.
    France made Algeria so big on the expense of the old existed Morocco. It has a moral obligation to not oppose Morocco’s claims.
    Inside Morocco, the new generation has only known a national map with the Sahara in it.
    I can not see how you can take the Sahara from Morocco. Yes, you may ask how about the Sahrawis that don’t want to be Moroccans. Who said the world is fair? Moroccans have the land. They died for it. For the last 32 years and so, a lot of them are born in it.
    If Sahrawis are different than Moroccans, I may say you have a good case.
    Polisario think it is the king, the “Makhzen”, the government or whatever they like to name it that is behind this “annexation” and the holding of the Sahara. They (pro independent) have to understand that it is not up to the government or King. It is more complicated than that. The enemies of the late Hassan had agreed with him when it mattered to the Sahara. Even the Islamist radicals that oppose the regime can’t say it is not Moroccan. Separatists thought by the ending of Hassan’s era, everything would be in their favor. Well, not so true. They have lost a lot of state recognitions since he’s gone.

    Back to solution, all I can say is someone has to give up more. I just wished the autonomy was initiated by the Polisario. It would make everybody’s job easier. I don’t see the alternative. There are no other choices. They actually may miss this opportunity. It is saddening to see another generation grow up in the camps.
    You may not like to hear this – Algeria started it. It is up to it to correct it. With the actual regime, I don’t see how that could happen…

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