NOVEMBER 1980 - VOLUME 1 - NUMBER 10
Westinghouse Backs King Hassan's Desert WarInterested in Morocco's mineral wealth, Westinghouse has rallied behind King Hassan and his expansionist war in the Western Sahara.
When Queen Elizabeth and her Royal entourage paid a goodwill visit recently to Morocco, her British composure was strained by King Hassan II's eccentricities. After enduring a desert performance of "falcons savaging live pigeons," she was kept waiting for three hours in 90 degree heat, while Hassan "saw to arrangements" in his air-conditioned trailer. "Going to Morocco is a bit like being kidnapped," commented one of the Queen's associates.
He does not always deal with the West with the greatest skill or grace, but King Hassan has tried, with increasing success, to kidnap the loyalties and military support of the United States, France and other Western powers in his scheme to annex by force Morocco's neighboring desert territory known as the Western Sahara. Now, with the assistance of U.S. multinationals, especially Westinghouse, he appears to be succeeding.
The problem is that Hassan's army has no chance of subduing the population of the Western Sahara and its Polisario Front guerrillas, who are intent on establishing an independent nation, the Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic, which is already recognized by nearly 40 countries. Instead, some 60,000 Moroccan troops are bogged down in a no-win war against some 15,000 Polisario guerrillas-a war that is draining the Moroccan treasury at the rate of more than U.S.$1 million a day. The king's domestic critics are already calling the imperial adventure "Hassan's Vietnam."
In desperation, he has turned more and more to France and the United States for the quick fix of arms sales. The Carter administration obliged in October of last year by approving the sale of $232.5 million worth of U.S. Bronco OV-10 counterinsurgency planes, F5-E fighters and helicopter gunships armed with TOW antitank missiles.
So much for U.S. claims of neutrality in the war. Washington is increasingly allied with Hassan's crusade to conquer the Western Sahara - a cause denounced by the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the Organization of African Unity. And if Westinghouse has its way, the U.S. commitment to Hassan's folly will deepen.
The lure for Westinghouse is phosphate. Morocco is the largest phosphate exporter in the world, and ever since the world's fourth largest phosphate deposit was discovered at Bu Craa in the Western Sahara in 1963, Morocco has cast a covetous eye on its neighbor. When the colonizing power, Spain, withdrew from the territory in 1975, Morocco pounced-annexing the northern two-thirds of the Western Sahara, including the phosphate mines. As solace for relinquishing its colony, Spain retained a 35 percent interest in the Bu Craa phosphate mine; Morocco took 65 percent. Morocco essentially gave the less valuable southern third of the country to Mauritania, which has since renounced its claim after being battered by Polisario raids for four years. The Western Saharans were never consulted on any of these dealings.
But for Morocco, the Western Sahara was a real prize. To control the phosphate deposits there would give Morocco a near monopoly over the non-Communist world's phosphate reserves-not a bad resource to dominate given the world demand for phosphate to make fertilizer.
The interests of Westinghouse don't rest with mere fertilizer, however. Uranium is more lucrative. Over the last four years, Westinghouse and a few other companies-including International Mineral and Chemical, Freeport Mineral Corporation and Gardinier, Inc.-have developed technology for extracting uranium from the phosphoric acid in phosphates. This new industry is centered in Florida, the site of 80 percent of U.S. phosphate deposits (the other 20 percent are found largely in Idaho and North Carolina).
According to Lan Brock, a senior consultant for Westinghouse, the uranium-from-phosphate extraction technology was first developed by the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s. U-308 is extracted from the phosphate and converted into U F6, then enriched, and eventually manufactured by firms like Westinghouse and General Electric into the pellets for the fuel rods in nuclear power reactors. Westinghouse's uranium subsidiary, Wyoming Mineral, has joined IMC, Freeport and Gardinier in exploiting this technology in Florida's "Bone Valley," the region south of Orlando and Tampa.
Now Westinghouse wants to expand to Morocco.
Michel Judet, Westinghouse's director of business development in the Middle East and Africa, told Multinational Monitor that his firm has made an offer to sell an unspecified amount of its uranium extraction technology to Morocco. Judet and Brock visited Morocco in October and say they were told by the government that it will decide early in 198 1 which Western multinational will get the Moroccan contract. Brock is "cautiously optimistic" that Westinghouse, will win out over a French competitor.
When Brock says "cautiously optimistic," it is hard for him to mask the understatement. After all, Westinghouse has been good to King Hassan and he has reciprocated. In 1977 Westinghouse secured a U.S.$200 million contract with Morocco to construct a Tactical Air Defense System (]'ADS). The deal was particularly controversial since part of the ground radar system is being installed in the disputed Western Sahara. Morocco's shaky legal claim to the territory does not seem to bother Westinghouse.
A grateful King Hassan began to discuss massive development plans with the company. "Various projects were considered," says Westinghouse executive Judet, "including large-scale classical development projects such as steel mills. But then Morocco suffered a budget crunch due to the war [with Polisario] and other factors, and these projects have had to be postponed."
But Westinghouse has not given up hope and has pressed ahead with its proposed uranium extraction plant modelled on its operations in Florida. "The phosphate deposits in Morocco are tremendous," comments Westinghouse consultant Brock. "But the actual mining of phosphates there , is still less than in the United States. We think we can help them expand and enter the new field of uranium extraction."
Brock insists that a Westinghouse uranium extraction operation in Morocco would at first be "a marginal proposition from an American businessman's viewpoint" since the spot price for uranium at the moment is a "relatively low $30 a pound." But he acknowledged that "uranium is really a longterm contract market" and a deal with Morocco could be quite profitable over time. In addition, Brock said that Morocco had a great deal to gain from a uranium industry: hard currency from export sales, jobs in a high-unemployment economy, and its own uranium to use as it sees fit.
U.S. policy planners, such as National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, have viewed the Moroccan-Western Sahara conflict as an East-West confrontation with loyal, pro-Western Hassan (after all, didn't he dispatch his troops to join the French Foreign Legion in bailing out Zaire's Mobutu during the Shaba revolts?) under assault by Algerian and Libyan (and by extension, Soviet)-backed Polisario guerrillas. Never mind that Polisario is a pro-Islamic, nonaligned, fervently nationalist movement with cool, rather distant relations with the Soviet Union.
The Carter- Brzezinski (and Reagan) geo-political outlook is particularly ironic, given that Morocco, for all its anti-communism, is a major trading partner with the USSR. In fact, the Soviet Union and Morocco have signed a$2 billion phosphate agreement under which the Soviets are lending Morocco the capital to open new phosphate mines.
Westinghouse is not the only U.S. multinational which is profiting from its involvement in Morocco and U.S. support for King Hassan's war of annexation. In May of last year, the State Department approved Northrop Page's plan to construct a vast electronic surveillance system to enable Morocco to detect guerrilla movements in the deserts of the Western Sahara. Northrop refuses to comment on the deal, saying the contract has not yet been signed with the Moroccans. But the original proposal was described by the Washington Star as potentially "the world's largest military underground surveillance network." Northrop has already sold FS-E jet fighters armed with Maverick air-to-ground missiles to Morocco.
The immediate impact of the Westinghouse, Northrop and other U.S. multinationals' contracts with Morocco is to buoy the expansionist Hassan regime and to encourage the king to pursue his attempt to take over the Western Sahara. The catch is that Hassan cannot win the guerrilla war: Polisario is too well-entrenched, well-armed, disciplined and highly motivated and organized. Polisario's outside support, especially from Algeria, seems to be substantial and solid. That means the U.S. multinationals in Morocco are -reinforcing Washington's short-sighted policy and tying the U.S. to another losing war, on the wrong side, in the Third World.
King Hassan is not nearly as unpopular as his friend the Shah of Iran; the war to conquer the Western Sahara was launched in an outburst of jingoistic fervor supported by even the small Moroccan Communist party. But as the war drags on, as casualties mount and the costs soar, discontent within the army and among the civilian population is certain to intensify. Hassan--who survived two attempted military coups in the early 1970s-is already looking over his shoulder at his frustrated colonels, who are eager to invade Algeria.
In criticizing the latest Carter arms sale to Morocco, Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, said the weapons "will encourage intransigence rather than flexibility" on the part of King Hassan and "will prolong the war rather than shorten it." The greater danger is that the war in the Western Sahara will ignite a larger conflict in North Africa between Morocco and Algeria that could, in turn, lead to a U.S.-Soviet confrontation. It's a powderkeg which U.S. recognition of the Western Sahara's right to self-determination could help defuse.
But with a Reagan administration on its way in and with multinationals like Westinghouse forging ahead, U.S. non-interventionism and respect for sell-determination do not seem to be the wave of the future.
Stephen Talbot is a columnist for The Nation, an independent filmmaker, and a former editor of Internews and the International Bulletin.