The UN has finally managed to bring Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the region's separatist group Polisario to the negotiating table, hoping to make some progress on the four-decade-long dispute.
The two sides in the Western Sahara conflict, Morocco and the Polisario Front, will join a roundtable on Wednesday, set up by the United Nations envoy to put an end to Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute.
Besides Algeria, which has long backed the independence Polisario Front movement, Mauritania will also be attending the talks six years after a previous negotiation broke down.
"It is time to open a new chapter in the political process," UN envoy Horst Koehler wrote in an invitation letter.
From colonisation to annexation
The north African territory stands on the western edge of the vast Sahara desert, stretching along about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) of the Atlantic coastline.
Bordering Morocco to the north, Algeria to the east and Mauritania to the south and southeast, the former Spanish colony contains large reserves of phosphate and rich offshore fisheries.
When Spain withdrew from the territory in 1975, Morocco moved in and claimed it was an integral part of the Moroccan kingdom.
Following Morocco’s annexation, the Polisario Front took up arms in 1976 to fight for independence, calling the entire Western Sahara the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The front was supported by both Algeria and Libya.
The UN’s involvement in the Western Sahara crisis
As the dispute morphed into a regional conflict, the UN intervened and brokered a ceasefire in 1991. It also deployed a peacekeeping mission and set up a de-facto border.
The last round of direct talks, which was set up in 2007 by the UN, failed in 2012, and the questions over territorial integrity and the proposed referendum remain unresolved. Since then, Morocco and the Polisario have not held direct talks.
A UN briefing note says the Geneva meeting represents "a first step... with the aim of reaching a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable solution which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara".
Leading the UN’s diplomatic efforts since 2017, Koehler, a former president of Germany, has managed to bring all sides, including the Polisario, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania to the negotiating table.
The meeting’s format remains vague, even though the UN's brief says the participants will “take stock of recent developments, address regional issues, and discuss the next steps in the political process on Western Sahara".
Instead, it should be considered more of a "warming up" exercise aimed at "breaking the ice," especially given the still-poor relations between Rabat and Algiers.
The conflict has heavily damaged the relations between the two Maghrebi giants. Their common border, which is one of the world’s longest, has been closed since 1994, significantly affecting the regional economy. However, Western Sahara talks coincide with Morocco’s call for reviving relations with Algeria.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI recently expressed his readiness “for a direct and frank dialogue” by describing Algeria as a “sister nation”.
Algeria wants to participate in the talks only as an "observer country", but Rabat considers it a "stakeholder" in the discussions since Algiers is the Polisario's main backer.
But ahead of the Geneva meeting, all sides are sticking to their positions despite signalling their goodwill.
Rabat rejects independence for Western Sahara, but agrees to negotiate the option of autonomy. Polisario, however, is unwilling to compromise on its right to self-determination.
King Mohammed VI said in a recent speech that Morocco will not yield on its "territorial integrity", including control over Western Sahara.
On the other hand, key Polisario official Mhamed Khadad said: "Everything can be negotiated except the inalienable and imprescriptible right of our people to self-determination."