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The United Arab Emirates inaugurates a consulate in Laayoune in Morocco's disputed region

The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday became the first Arab country to open a diplomatic mission in the Moroccan-controlled area of the disputed Western Sahara. The inauguration of the consulate general in the northern coastal city of Laayoune brings to 16 the number of missions opened in the region since late last year. The UAE move "reinforces a dynamic of recognition of the 'Moroccan identity'" of Western Sahara, with "increasing support from the international community," Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita told AFP on Wednesday after the opening. Western Sahara, a vast swathe of desert on Africa's Atlantic coast, is a disputed former Spanish colony. Rabat controls 80 percent of the territory, including its phosphate deposits and its fishing waters. The Algerian-backed Polisario Front, which fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991, demands a referendum on self-determination. Morocco, which maintains that Western Sahara is an integral part of the kingdom, has offered autonomy but insists it will retain sovereignty. Since late 2019, 15 African countries have opened diplomatic missions in the former colonial capital Laayoune and in the fishing port of Dakhla, further south. "It's not an insignificant act, it's an act that has political, legal and diplomatic meaning," Bourita said of the UAE move. The Polisario Front considers the opening of the missions a "violation of international law and an attack on the legal status of Western Sahara as a non-autonomous territory". Negotiations involving Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria and Mauritania have been suspended for several months. The Barron's news department was not involved in the creation of the content above. © Agence France-Presse