UAE to open consulate in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara

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RABAT (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates will be the first Arab state to open a consulate in the Western Sahara, the disputed region controlled by Morocco, Rabat said on Tuesday.

The consulate would be in Western Sahara's largest city, Laayoune, and the decision to open it came after a phone call between Morocco's King Mohammed VI and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Royal Palace said.

Gaining international recognition for its claim to Western Sahara has long been Morocco's most important diplomatic ambition and the UAE decision may help build support towards that end with other Arab allies.

Some 15 African states have also opened consulates in Western Sahara. Zambia and Eswatini both opened theirs on Tuesday.

Morocco has controlled Western Sahara since Spanish colonial rule ended there in 1974, with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front pushing for it to win independence.

United Nations efforts to broker a settlement between Morocco and the Polisario have repeatedly failed. A referendum on its future, promised as part of a 1991 ceasefire deal, never took place.

Western Sahara, though a sparsely populated desert region, has rich fishing waters, phosphate deposits and Morocco's only working land route into the rest of Africa as its border with Algeria is closed.

Rabat has said the most it can offer as a political solution to the dispute is autonomy. The Polisario and its ally Algeria reject this and say they want a referendum, with independence for Western Sahara as one of the options.

Like Morocco, the UAE is a close ally of the United States and it last month signed an agreement to normalise relations with Israel, followed soon after by another Gulf monarchy, Bahrain.

(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; editing by Angus McDowall and Grant McCool)