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Spain's Sanchez in 'secret' Morocco holiday trip that infuriates opposition over Sahara conflict

Socialist Workers' Party leader and current Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez applauds during an executive committee meeting in Madrid.
Socialist Workers' Party leader and current Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez applauds during an executive committee meeting in Madrid. Copyright Manu Fernandez/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Manu Fernandez/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Laura Llach
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There has been a last-minute change in Pedro Sánchez's holiday destination that no one knew about. He is now strolling the streets of Marrakech while the opposition recalls recent controversial concessions made to Rabat.

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Everything was ready for Spain’s acting PM, with Pedro Sanchez due to arrive in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands for a post-election family holiday. 

Spanish State Security Forces had deployed an action plan and were waiting for him - but the plane never landed.

Without a warning for the welcoming committee, the aircraft changed course and Sanchez flew to Morocco instead.

Along with his family, he strolled around Jemaa el-Fna Square listening to a local guide, and dined in restaurants in Marrakech.

It's a trip that the PM claims is "strictly private", but which has inflamed both the Spanish left and right.

The conservative Popular Party calls it a "clear provocation" and the Socialist coalition government partners, the far-left Podemos party, questions his decision.

Meanwhile, Sánchez seems to be brushing aside the criticism, while local authorities in Morocco plan to "treat him like a king," reports El Mundo. 

Why is a Morocco holiday controversial?

A holiday to Morocco for the Spanish prime minister is controversial because of Spain's stance on the Western Sahara conflict, which has been running for decades. 

The conflict pits the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic / Polisaro Front against the government of Morocco. 

Polisaro wants Western Sahara to become an independent nation while the Moroccan government obviously wants to claim it as part of its own territory.

In 2022 Sánchez made a historic shift in Spain's foreign policy stance when he announced his support for Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, to become an autonomous region within Morocco.

Rabat’s sovereignty claim infuriates both the Sahrawis and Algeria, and Sánchez's 2022 announcement signified an abrupt change in Spain's neutrality during the decades-old conflict.

Sanchez’s decision was also taken with great secrecy. Neither the foreign minister herself, nor Podemos - the Socialist’s coalition partner - knew of the policy change in advance.

Rue20.com
Pedro Sánchez during a stroll in Marrakech.Rue20.com

Phone hacking scandal

The holiday in Morocco is further complicated by a phone-hacking scandal last year, when Spanish authorities revealed that Sánchez, and Defence Minister Margarita Robles, had their devices targeted with Pegasus spyware.

Pegasus is produced by Israeli security firm NSO, which says it only sells the software to government agencies.

Sánchez's mobile phone was breached five times, but it is still not known what kind of information, data or photographs were stolen.

"We have no doubt that this is an illicit, unauthorised intervention," said a government's spokesperson.

There was much speculation about the case in Spanish media, and experts pointed out that the dates of the hacking coincided with key moments of tension between the Spanish and Moroccan governments. 

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One of the most serious issues was when the leader of the Polisaro Front was secretly brought to Spain for hospital treatment. 

When Rabat found out, authorities were outraged, and the diplomatic fallout between the two countries culminated in the dismissal of Spain's foreign minister Arancha González Laya.

Later, González Laya's private statements were leaked to the Spanish press in which she admitted that her phone had been tapped by a hacker from Morocco -- the inference being that since Pegasus spyware is only sold to governments, then the Moroccan state might have been behind the phone hacks.

John Thys/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez speaks on his cell phone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels.John Thys/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved

How was the conflict settled?

At the beginning of July Spain's National Court announced the investigation into the phone hacking had been put on hold. The reason behind it? Israel's failure to provide information on the case.

Despite the fact that the National Court sent investigators on four occasions to find out who was behind the attack, Israel never replied.

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Meanwhile, ties between Morocco and Israel are growing closer.

Israel has been the latest country to recognise Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara and has announced the opening of a consulate in the Western Saharan city of Dakhla.

With the Pegasus case on hold and still no word on who spied on Sanchez, the acting PM will enjoy Marrakech until next Monday.

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