The news was already relayed late March by Moroccan media following a preparatory meeting between Moroccan and US senior army officials.
The media had then reported that Tan Tan, Mahbes and Dakhla in the Moroccan Sahara territory will be the venue of the military exercises bringing together Moroccan and US armies as well as soldiers from friendly states.
Apparently, the news then went unnoticed by the Spanish news agency, which relayed this Sunday a tweet by the head of government, Saad Edin El Otmani, in which he says that part of the African Lion 21 military drills between Morocco and the United States will take place “For the first time” in the Sahara.
For EFE, this announcement is important because it is the first tangible gesture of the new American administration which confirms the US Presidential proclamation of December 2020, recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara.
The 2021 edition of the African Lion will be marked by massive deployment of human and technological means and resources, as some 7,800 soldiers, more than 100 armored vehicles, 46 support aircraft and 21 combat aircraft, and naval battleships are expected to participate in the drills, which will be coordinated by the US Africa Command, Africom.
The military exercises on Moroccan soil is meant to improve the capabilities and Interoperability of the Royal Armed Forces and other participating forces.The African Lion 2021 program includes multi-domain operations, including a maritime exercise with naval gunfire, surprise air maneuvers using F-16s and KC-135 aircraft, a chemical-biological response exercise, paratrooper field exercises, medical exercises, as well as humanitarian activities.
In addition to Morocco and the United States, which are bound by a strategic military cooperation agreement that runs until 2030, the joint maneuvers will involve seven other countries (Italy, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Canada, Brazil, Tunisia, and Senegal).
About 20 other countries will participate as observers, including Portugal, Egypt, Libya, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Denmark, Malta, Norway, Poland.
Spain which has been participating in the drills since their inception has reportedly turned down AFRICOM’s invitation this year, invoking, through the Spanish Defense Ministry, budgetary constraints. However, Spanish media claimed that the decision not to participate was made because a large part of the drills will be held, for the first time, in the Moroccan Sahara.
Meanwhile, other reliable sources indicated that Spain has not originally been invited to the Africa Lion exercises, in view of the unprecedented escalation between Madrid and Rabat, over the admission secretly of the Polisario mercenaries’ leader Brahim Ghali, who is sued before Spanish justice for several war crimes and human rights violations.
According to these sources, it was indeed Morocco which opposed Spain’s participation, as for Rabat, there is no question of giving the impression that business is as usual and that relations with Madrid are resuming their normal course.
Besides, Moroccan officials and commentators have alluded to a possible freeze of security cooperation with Madrid, a freeze that could have negative repercussions for Spain and for all of Europe as well.