The Underlying Causes of Morocco-Spain Maritime Dispute off the Atlantic Coast

The question of the delimitation of maritime boundaries between Morocco and Spain has always been a hot topic in the relations between the two countries. Because of the complexity of the issue and its legal and political ramifications, there are no formal maritime boundaries between Morocco and Spain, whether in the Mediterranean or off the Atlantic coast. The existence of a territorial dispute between Morocco and Spain over the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla is just one of the factors at play that have made it impossible for the two countries to reach an agreement on the delimitation of their maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean.

In waters off the Atlantic coast, however, the main bone of contention is the delimitation of the two countries’ respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and their continental shelves. The existence of an overlap between Rabat and Madrid’s continental shelves, as well as their diverging views on which method should govern the delimitation process has doomed all attempts by the two countries to delimit their respective maritime boundaries to failure. While Spain calls for the application of the method of equidistance and median line, Morocco calls for the application of the method of equity, and stresses that any delimitation should result in an equitable outcome, in line with international law. What has made negotiations between the two countries more arduous is the fact that the overlap between their continental shelves lies in the water off the Sahara, which have been under Morocco’s de facto sovereignty since 1975. The area where there is overlap between the two countries’ continental shelves is called the Tropic, a seamount located 250 miles (453 km) in the southwest of the Canary Islands. Yet this area is rich minerals, especially tellurium, a rare material used in making solar panels, as well as electric cars.

The dispute between Morocco and Spain over maritime boundaries came into the spotlight after a committee of the Moroccan parliament adopted two draft bills aimed at updating Morocco’s maritime laws and asserting Morocco’s sovereignty over its maritime zone off the Atlantic coast. The two bills were adopted into law by the Moroccan parliament in a plenary session held on January 22.

This paper will examine the rationale behind Morocco’s decision to update its maritime laws, as well as the underlying causes that have prevented Rabat and Madrid from reaching a definitive agreement on the delimitation of their maritime borders off the Atlantic coast. Drawing on the scholarly literature on the topic, as well as on the provisions of international law, the paper will cross-examine the consistency of each country’s arguments with international law, especially regarding the method that should be applied in the delimitation process. It will also examine the prevailing argument among Spanish scholars regarding the legitimacy of each country’s claims and its consistency with international law, in light of the existence of a pending territorial dispute over the Sahara.

 

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Samir Bennis
Analyste politique et chercheur spécialiste de la politique étrangère du Maroc


Samir Bennis est un analyste politique et chercheur spécialiste de la politique étrangère du Maroc. Ses publications se focalisent notamment sur la question du Sahara, les relations entre le Maroc et l’Espagne, la politique africaine du Maroc, ainsi que les relations entre le Maroc et les Etats-Unis. Ancien conseiller politique aux Nations Unies entre 2008 et 2017, Samir Bennis est actuellement conseiller politique principale d’une mission diplomatique basée à Washington. Il est l’auteur du livre : les relations politique, économique et culturelles entre le Maroc et l’Espagne : 1956-2005, publié en 2008. Il est en cours de préparation d’un livre sur le Sahara en anglais à paraitre courant 2020. Samir Bennis est docteur de l’Université de Provence où il a soutenu une thèse sur les relations entre le Maroc et l’Espagne en novembre 2005.Il publie en anglais, en français, en arabe, en français et en espagnole.