On Tuesday, furniture giant Ikea was due to open its first store in Morocco near the port city of Mohammedia. According to a report in Retail Week, about 300 workers had been hired and the 270,000-square-feet store was prepped for shoppers.
However, the grand opening has not taken place. Instead, Morocco's Interior Ministry released a statement on Monday saying that the store's opening had been blocked as IKEA needed a "conformity permit."
Moroccan authorities haven't elaborated on the last-minute decision, but according to Le 360, a news Web site perceived as close to the Moroccan royal court, the real reason for the closing may be geopolitical: Ikea, a company founded in Sweden and deeply associated with the country, is being punished over Swedish support for the Western Saharan independence movement.
Western Sahara is a disputed territory in North Africa that shares its northern edge with Morocco. From the late 19th century onward, the area was controlled by Spain, but in 1975 the Spanish relinquished control of the area — in part because of a growing insurgency led by the nomadic Sahrawi people indigenous to the land.
That year, the International Court of Justice rejected territorial claims by Morocco and Mauritania on the land, but Spain backed down and reached a settlement that granted two-thirds of the land to Morocco, which, in turn, annexed more.
An Algerian-backed Sahrawi group called the Polisario Front fought a guerrilla war against Moroccan authorities, declaring the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. In 1991, the United Nations brokered a cease-fire and made plans for a referendum on independence. However, the referendum never took place, and attempts at further negotiation have stalled despite U.N. condemnation.
While the SADR is recognized by a number of states and is a member of the African Union, no Western country has formally recognized it, and activists have accused a number of states — including France and Spain — of backing Morocco in the dispute.
However, in Sweden, there has been a serious debate about recognizing the independence movement in recent years — in 2012, the center-right Swedish government vetoed a parliamentary motion that called on Sweden to support the SADR.
A center-left coalition came into office last year, leading to speculation that recognition of Western Sahara may be imminent — speculation that only intensified after the government formally recognized the state of Palestine in November. Last year, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven reiterated his country's support for self-determination and announced that it was initiating a study to find a lasting solution to the conflict. Although no clear plan to recognize Western Sahara has been announced, Moroccan politicians appear to be spooked: There are reports in the Moroccan news media of a delegation heading to Sweden to fight against any support for independence.
According to Le 360, Moroccan authorities held an emergency meeting on Monday at the prime minister's office on how to deal with the situation. If the report is to be believed, the solution they latched onto was to cancel the grand opening of Ikea's first Moroccan store — a move that also jeopardizes plans to open five more stores in the country, part of a broader Ikea push into the African continent. It is unclear whether and when any of the stores will open.
The Swedish Foreign Office has denied that the Ikea issue is linked to Western Sahara, with a spokesperson telling Sveriges Radio that "there are question marks regarding the permit with some local authorities." However, Ikea wouldn't be the first foreign company to incur the wrath of Moroccans for a perceived support of Western Sahara — Uber recently faced an online backlash in Morocco after it listed Western Sahara as an independent country where it planned to launch operations.
For Ikea, there's a painful twist to the story, too: The company hasn't legally been Swedish since the 1980s. It is headquartered in the Netherlands.
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