- Norwegian officials are in the process of promoting Norwegian investments in the booming fisheries industry in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, despite protests by Sahrawi officials. The fisheries industry is the dominant economic sector in the territory, promoting new Moroccan settlements here. Norwegian capital and knowledge is to help this development.
According to information made available to afrol News, the Norwegian Ambassador in Morocco, Arne Aasheim last week was on a three-day visit to El Aaiun, the capital of the Western Sahara territory. Here, he had meetings with the Moroccan authorities governing the occupied territory and representatives of the fisheries sector.
Sources wanting to remain anonymous told afrol News that the primary focus in these meetings was on how Norwegian companies could strengthen their foothold in the booming Moroccan fisheries industry, which mainly is based in the occupied territory. Morocco has been singled out as a golden opportunity for Norway's many companies operating in the fisheries sector.
Norway is one of Europe's leading fisheries nations, also regarding the larger definition of the industry, including the construction of fisheries vessels, fishing technology and fish processing and distribution technology.
Morocco, on the other hand, during the last years has singled out the fisheries industry as one of its most promising sectors for economic development. After refusing to renew a fisheries agreement with the European Union in 1999, Moroccan authorities are now promoting the establishment of a large national fleet of fishing vessels, fish processing plants and an export infrastructure. Since 2001, approximately euro 150 million have been invested into the sector annually.
The controversial bit of Morocco's booming fisheries industry is that it is mostly based on the rich fisheries resources off the cost of occupied Western Sahara. According to international law, an occupying state is obliged to manage the renewable resources of the territory it occupies. However, revenues from these resources are to be channelled into the development of the people of the territory.
In the case of Western Sahara, the revenues of the exploitation of the territory's resources however do not go to the internationally recognised representatives of the Sahrawis - the exiled Polisario government - but instead to the strengthening of Morocco's occupation of the territory. Almost the entire work force of the fisheries sector in Western Sahara is of Moroccan origin and the sector's growth is promoting more Moroccan settlements in the occupied territory.
While the Norwegian government generally has defended the case of the Sahrawis in their conflict with Morocco, this has not been the case in the important fisheries sector. Mr Aasheim's predecessor at Norway's Rabat Embassy, Ole Kristian Holthe, since 2000 has been an active and passionate promoter of Norwegian investments in Morocco's booming fisheries sector, non-regarding the location of these investments.
In February 2002, Ambassador Holthe met with the society for Norwegian Maritime Exporters (NME) in Haugesund, informing about that access to "the Moroccan market is something that is happening now." He especially emphasised on the large number of fishing vessels that Moroccan authorities were ordering in an international tender.
Explaining that Morocco is "the most stable Arab country oriented towards the West," Mr Holthe added that the problems surrounding Western Sahara should not endanger Norwegian investments. "Norwegian authorities may consider that [official] Norwegian trade promotion devices should not be involved in investments [in Western Sahara], but my opinion is that, as long as one enters as a partner in the fisheries industry - and looks at this geographically - then it should be safe."
According to research done by the Norway-based international fisheries media 'IntraFish', Norwegian authorities already in 2002 were financially aiding exporters to get a foothold in Morocco; including the occupied territories. This included aid by the Norwegian government's agency guaranteeing export financing and the Scandinavian Investment Bank. At least kroner 30 million (euro 4 million) were available to finance Norwegian exports to Morocco's fisheries sector.
These government efforts have already produced several Norwegian investments in Western Sahara. In October 2002, the Norwegian company Finsam announced it was constructing an ice producing plant in "Laayoune, Morocco" - which translates into El Aaiun in Western Sahara. This ice plant is mainly producing ice for fish landed in El Aaiun.
Other Norwegian investments in the occupied territory's fishery sector include the company Selfa Arctic, which is "constructing modern coastal fisheries in Morocco;" Simrad, which delivers marine electronics to Morocco, including to its "Moroccan retailer in Laayoune;" Astia Holdings, which exports fishing vessels and equipment to Morocco; and Furuno, which sells electronic navigation equipment in Morocco.
Ambassador Holthe's indiscrete promotion of Norwegian export opportunities in Western Sahara however became too much for Norwegian authorities. Already in November 2002, Foreign Minister Jan Petersen instructed his Rabat Ambassador to write an official letter to companies investing in Western Sahara and inform them about the political risk and ethical problems.
According to information given to afrol News, however, Ambassador Holthe smoothened the wording in the letter he sent out to Norwegian companies, saying that the Embassy could see no limits in international law regarding investments in Western Sahara. In 2003, Mr Holthe was replaced and sent to the Norwegian Embassy in Iran for reasons unknown to afrol News.
Since that, Ambassador Aasheim has inherited the complex question of Norwegian investments in Western Sahara. As far as afrol News has been able to establish, the Norwegian Embassy in Rabat has not lowered its profile regarding this promotion since Mr Aasheim's appointment. Last week's official promotion trip by the Ambassador to El Aaiun is probably the first ever investment promotion trip to the occupied territories by any Norwegian government official.
It therefore came as a shock to the Polisario exile government. Mouloud Said, the Polisario Representative in Washington told afrol News today that his government considers "any transaction between the occupying power with any other entity or government as completely illegal at the eyes of international law, and we do condemn any attempt to strengthen the Moroccan occupation."
- We are disappointed because traditionally, the Norwegians government has been in support of the peoples' right to self-determination all over Africa and in particular in Western Sahara, added Mr Said. "This is uncharacteristic coming from the representative from a government known for its defence of human rights and the right of self-determination."
Mr Said further said that the Polisario considered a UN legal opinion issued in 2001, regarding oil exploration in Western Sahara to be of relevance in this case. The legal opinion concluded that Morocco had no right to act on behalf of Western Sahara and market its resources, according to Mr Said.
Unfortunately, afrol News was not able to gather reactions from Norwegian authorities. The Norwegian Embassy in Rabat did not answer phone calls from afrol News neither on Friday nor today, while spokesperson Cathrine Andersen at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to supply afrol News with a direct phone number to Ambassador Aasheim, claiming the Ministry had "no other information" on how to get in contact with its Rabat Embassy.
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