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Ikea, Uber, and the Western Sahara: The Politics of Corporate Recognition

Morocco’s first Ikea was scheduled for a grand opening in Mohammedia, north of Casablanca, on September 29. When the doors of the furniture store never opened that day, officials from the Moroccan interior ministry said the store simply lacked proper documentation, that Ikea had not obtained the “conformity certificate” required for its opening. But many were unconvinced. While rumors circulated, local francophone paper Le 360 reported that the real reason for the last-minute impediment lay in Sweden’s plans to recognize Western Sahara’s right to national self-determination. Sure enough, two days later, the Kingdom of Morocco announced that not only was it blocking the opening of the first Ikea in the country — one of five stores scheduled to open in the country as part of Ikea’s push into the African continent — but it was considering a boycott of all Swedish companies operating in its borders because of Sweden’s position on the dispute over Western Sahara. This dispute between the furniture superstore and Morocco may have the unexpected consequence of returning the oft-ignored conflict over self-determination in the Western Sahara back into the international dialogue.

The decades-old conflict over Western Sahara remains one of the touchiest subjects for the Moroccan government. After leaving Spanish control in 1975, the land was left under the joint control of Morocco and Mauritania. The Sahrawi people, led by the Polisario Front, engaged in a war with Morocco and Mauritania, seeking independence under the leadership of the Saharan Arabic Democratic Republic (SADR) government, which was exiled to Algeria. By 1979, Mauritania withdrew most of its claims in the Western Sahara, leaving the country almost exclusively under the control of Morocco. In 1991, a United Nations cease-fire between Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front was signed, which included a promise for a free and fair referendum in which Sahrawis could vote on their independence. But Morocco’s internal dissent and the ensuing political deadlock meant the referendum never took place, and attempts at further negotiation have stalled despite UN condemnation. And while a UN mandate ensures the presence of peacekeeping forces in the region, Morocco has strongly opposed broadening the mandate to include human rights monitoring, which would bring down international scrutiny on Morocco’s judicial malfeasance and human rights violations in the region, including unfair trials, beatings, arbitrary restrictions on travel, and denial of the right to peaceful assembly, association, and expression.

The thwarted opening of Swedish-founded furniture giant Ikea could, therefore, be seen as Morocco’s warning to any other states, which, like Sweden, consider supporting self-determination for the region. Thus far, the SADR “has been recognized at various points by some 80 countries” of which a number have since withdrawn or suspended their recognition. Currently, a total of 34 states maintain diplomatic relations with the SADR, and it is an official member of the African Union. Despite the recognition coming from many former colonies and states in the Global South, no Western country has formally recognized it, leading Sahrawi activists to criticize countries like France and Spain for what they see as the West’s complicity in blocking their path to self-determination.

This changed last year, when the Swedes elected a center-left coalition around Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. The new government’s reiterated support for self-determination led to speculation that Sweden’s recognition of Western Sahara might be imminent. Morocco’s suspicions were amplified when Sweden formally recognized the state of Palestine in November. However, responding to the Ikea debacle, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom said that Sweden was not ready to take any formal stance on the Western Sahara conflict and the country’s stance on self-determination was the subject of an internal review. According to the statement, “The issue of recognition is currently not on the table.” As of yet, Ikea has not commented.

But regardless of Sweden’s stance on the issue, and putting aside whether Morocco’s move to boycott Swedish companies is based on accurate predictions or a premature spook, the move raises crucial questions about the politics of corporate recognition of self-determination in the Western Sahara. Firstly, what does it mean to boycott a “Swedish” company in the age of multinational corporations? Though Ikea was founded in Sweden, it hasn’t legally been Swedish since the 1980s. Ikea’s own headquarters are in Denmark while Ikea’s parent company is run out of the Netherlands.

And second, what is Morocco threatened by? In the case of Ikea, it is not so much the company itself as what it stands for. The Moroccan government seems only to be using Ikea as an intermediary through which it can punish Sweden for considering recognition. It is also casting its actions as legitimate retaliation against an alleged, but unfounded, Swedish campaign to boycott products from Western Sahara.

But could the positions or statements of individual corporations on the issue be threatening in and of themselves? More recently in Morocco, Uber was met with online backlash and public outcry when it listed Western Sahara as one of the countries it planned to launch operations in, rather than including it in its Morocco operations. Outside of the Western Sahara, in 2013, Israel asked Google to reconsider its decision to list Palestine among its localized search pages. The request came after Google had change the label of the search page from “Palestinian territories” to “Palestine” after the UN voted to designate Palestine as a non-member observer state. In response, then Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor said the “change raises questions about the reasons behind this surprising involvement of what is basically a private Internet company in international politics — and on the controversial side.” In cases like the Western Sahara and Palestine, where the international community of states has long been mired in deadlock, actions by multinational corporations may actual offer change in the politics of recognition.

The unexpected Ikea fiasco points to what could be the darkest chapter for Moroccan-Swedish relations in the past six decades. But it also reveals what might be an alternate route to bringing the Western Sahara back on the world stage. For Sahrawis, the silence on the issue is arguably the thing most detrimental to their cause. It remains to be seen if the actions by Ikea and Uber will push Sweden to break the silence as the first western country to recognize the SADR or if the story will end only with recognition from corporation. Either way, when multinational corporations get wrapped up in the story, the Western Sahara makes headlines, reminding the international public consciousness of the unrecognized status of a “forgotten people.”


About the Author

Katherine Lamb '16 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review, concentrating in International Relations and Middle East Studies.