It might be a dusty frontier truck stop in the far south of the disputed Western Sahara, but locals call Guerguerat Morocco’s “gateway to Africa”.
On the border with Mauritania, the remote outpost consists of three motels, three cafes, three grocery stores, two gas stations and a hairdresser.
“There is nothing else here,” says Aziz Boulidane, a Moroccan who runs one of the grocery stores.
Boulidane has set up tables outside his shop to serve coffee to truck drivers and passing travellers, as Moroccan customs officials check heavy goods vehicles nearby.
The border crossing in the rocky arid area has become a source of friction.
Rabat on November 13 launched a military operation in a UN-patrolled buffer zone along the border after it said the pro-independence Polisario Front had been blocking road passage for around three weeks.
The Polisario, which says the border road was built in violation of a 1991 UN-sponsored ceasefire deal, declared the truce null and void after the Moroccan intervention.
Western Sahara, a vast swathe of desert on Africa’s Atlantic coast, is a disputed former Spanish colony.
Morocco controls around three-quarters of the territory, including its phosphate deposits and its fishing waters.
– ‘Gateway to Africa’ –
Rabat has extended a 2,700 kilometre (1,700-mile) defensive sand wall in the territory to secure the road to the border and has consolidated the last section of the route — little more than a sandy track.
Moroccan Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani visited Guerguerat on Friday for the first time.
The military operation was carried out “in the interest of Africa, Morocco” and Europe, he said.
El Fekir Khattat, a local council official, proudly described the area as “Morocco’s gateway to Africa”.
“The border post carries important economic weight and generates sizeable revenues,” he said.
The army’s intervention “will bolster its economic attractiveness”, he said.
Khattat said he was counting on the construction of two industrial zones “to develop commercial activity” along the highway and create jobs in the sparsely-populated area.
Rabat has already undertaken several large infrastructure projects in the Western Sahara.
In 2017, the year Morocco officially rejoined the African Union, King Mohammed VI released some $8 billion for investments to transform the region into an “economic hub”.
– ‘Strategic point’ –
But the Polisario Front says its people’s natural resources in the Western Sahara are being “pillaged”.
One of the projects, worth around $1 billion, was to develop the “National 1” north-south highway that runs through the territory.
Another is to turn the port of Dakhla into a “regional maritime hub” to serve Morocco and West Africa, along with Spain’s Canary Islands.
Daouda Sene, manager of Hotel Barbas in Bir Gandouz, 80 kilometres north of the border, prides himself on working in “a strategic point on the international map”.
“All the Europeans and Africans who want to go to West Africa pass through here,” said the 46-year-old from Senegal.
Some 200 trucks ply the “National 1” route daily — along with the occasional wild camel.
He said his hotel — the oldest in the Guerguerat region — hosts people of all nationalities.
Malians, Senegalese, Ivorians, Mauritanians, Gambians and Moroccans come for business, he said, while tourism and fishing bring French, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese visitors.
But business has taken a hit due to closures in response to the novel coronavirus, and then the border tensions.
The Algerian-backed Polisario, which fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991, demands a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara.
Morocco has offered autonomy but insists it will retain sovereignty over the territory.