The Dakhla Atlantic Port: Challenges and Opportunities in Western Sahara

Dakhla Atlantic Port Banner
A picture taken at the entrance of the Dakhla Atlantic Port during SpecialEurasia’s official visit in Morocco and Western Sahara (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 42 Issue 7
Author: Silvia Boltuc

The Dakhla Atlantic Port, Morocco’s largest infrastructure project, initiated in 2012 as part of the National Port’s Strategy, aims to become a regional and international logistic and trade hub. Stemming from the New Development Model for the Kingdom’s Southern Province (NDMSP) adopted in 2011, the port is crucial for economic development, supported by initiatives such as the Tiznit-Dakhla road construction.

Despite geopolitical complexities and risks associated with Western Sahara’s disputed status, the port presents opportunities for economic growth, job creation, and strengthening Morocco’s influence in the region, though challenges remain regarding international recognition and security concerns.

Background Information

The Dakhla Atlantic Port is the Moroccan biggest infrastructure project. The concept of constructing this port originated in 2012, as part of the National Port’s Strategy, which recognises that Moroccan ports serve as an economic catalyst to align with global developments. 

In response to the projected rise in port demand, from 290 to 370 million tonnes per year by 2030, the Kingdom has been exploring new strategic zones for development.

In 2011, Morocco adopted the New Development Model for the Kingdom’s Southern Province (NDMSP). The government made efforts to comprehend the economic dynamics of the Sahara region under Moroccan rule, in order to address its vulnerabilities.

Indeed, statistics proved that in Western Sahara’s province the economy was performing worser compared to the rest of the kingdom. The diagnosis showed that one of the key problems of the Moroccan controlled Southern part was ‘diversification’. The local economy was based on few activities, which for the Dakhla region, where the port is located, were mainly fishery and fishery-related industries.

That New Development Model advised the government with several recommendations, the first related to building high-quality infrastructure, which would have benefited the entire kingdom’s economy.

In this context, the Ministry of Equipment, Transport, Logistics and Water have started two different projects: the first is the road called Tiznit-Dakhla that links the centre of Morocco to Dakhla and to the Southern border with Mauritania (1.055 km of infrastructure, whose cost is about 950 million euros). The second is the Dakhla Atlantic Port that will enhance the numbers of economic activities in the area.

During the 63rd anniversary of the ‘Revolution of the King and the People’, King Mohammed VI of Morocco delivered a speech to his nation, underlining that for the kingdom, Africa means more than just being part of a geographical area, or having historical bonds with the continent, but extends Morocco.

On this occasion, King Mohammed VI sat out his vision for the future. He launched an initiative towards the Sahel countries, aiming to give them more access to Atlantic oceans and the Atlantic front to enhance their import-export activities. Mali, Chad and Niger will be among the countries that will benefit the most from this new maritime infrastructure.

The King’s idea is to establish a corridor through Mauritania to connect the Sahel countries to the Dakhla Atlantic Port, which will become their getaway. Trucks will transport the goods. There are currently no plans for a railway project in the near future.

Furthermore, in April 2024, Morocco launched the Green Hydrogen Offer, a sustainable energy development plan with incentives from the government to encourage investors to shift towards green energies. The entire port will focus on the shift towards eco-friendly policies. Indeed, as soon as hydrocarbons are no longer needed, the port administration will reconvert the oil products terminal to green energy.

Morocco’s dedication to renewable energy development is ingrained in its New Development Model, which promotes a transformative change in the country’s energy sector. The southern region incorporated in the kingdom holds the largest potential for harnessing solar and wind energy. Solar plants are already providing electricity to the construction side.

Map of Tiznit-Dakhla highway
Map of Tiznit-Dakhla highway (Credits: Etoile79, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Dakhla Atlantic Port Project

Dakhla Atlantic Port was designated as one of the key infrastructures to operate in the field of transportation and storage of green hydrogen. The port area, located 40 km away from Dakhla in occupied Sahara, will be 650 hectares. The cost of the project, funded by the kingdom, is 12.65 billion dirhams (around 1.2 billion euros).

Seven km away from the port, one thousand hectares will be allocated for the economic activities, including a logistic pole, a general industrial zone, a marine competitiveness pole, a commercial zone and a shared public services pole.

The port is equipped with a marine bridge measuring 1.330 meters, suitable for deep-sea vessels. The infrastructure will include a shipyard, a fishing port, and a trade port.

With a depth of 12 meters, the ship repair port and the fishing port are capable of receiving a wide range of vessels that operate in the area, including fishing boats and government vessels.

Once operational, the fishing port will be able to handle one million tons of fishery products, making it the largest fishing port in the country.

The trade port is a versatile port that can accommodate various types of vessels and cargo transportation. With its 16 meters depth, it can receive the Panamax vessels and will provide Western Sahara with a capacity of 35 million tons: 5 million tons of oil products, 1 million container TEU, 20 million tons of Bulk Cargo. To give a sense of scale, all the ports in Morocco combined have a capacity of 300 million tons. This new maritime infrastructure concentrates over 10% of the country’s port capacity.

Strength of the port:

  • Port capacity
  • Green energy/Green hydrogen
  • Multimodality of transportation
  • Proximity to the African and Latin American markets
  • Maritime logistic hub
  • Economic and social impact
  • Acquatic tourism.

Port purpose:

  • Fisheries and related industries (which currently make up over 40% of the regional GDP)
  • Extractive and processing industries
  • Containers
  • International road transportation
  • Renewable energies
  • Ammonia (related to the following point)
  • Agriculture
  • Hydrocarbons (until the green transition will be completed)

Listen also | Ep. 17 – Mounir Houari Described the Investment Strategy In Dakhla’s Region

Geopolitical Scenario: the port’s role in the disputed territory

The United Nations (UN) has recognised Western Sahara, which used to be a Spanish colony, as one of the 17 non-self-governing territories since 1963. However, it is the only territory among them that does not have a registered Administrating Power. Since gaining independence in 1956, Morocco has asserted its sovereignty over Western Sahara and has officially incorporated approximately 80% of its land, exerting effective control in violation of the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion in 1975.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) as a national liberation movement and through the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) has been campaigning since its creation in May 1973 in favour of independence through a referendum on self-determination to be supervised by the UN.

Morocco left the Organisation of African Unity, predecessor of the African Union (AU), in 1984, after the body recognised the independence of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

Rabat submitted its bid to rejoin the AU in 2016, reportedly hoping being inside the Union would bring the kingdom diplomatic gains against Western Sahara’s independence movement, the Polisario Front, and allow it to lobby against Western Sahara’s membership in the AU.

Despite opposition from member states regarding the status of Western Sahara, Morocco rejoins the African Union in 2017 after a 33-year absence.

Building large-scale infrastructures and attracting Moroccan citizens to move as a workforce to the region will help Morocco maintain its grip on Western Sahara and make it more difficult, if not impossible, to remove its leadership from the disputed area. In particular, this scenario is more likely if the United Nations holds the planned referendum on the self-determination of Western Sahara and if the relocated Moroccan citizens are also eligible to vote in that referendum.

By attracting investments and interests through the port in the fields of Green Energy, fishing and mining, Morocco will be able to gain consensus in European and non-European circles to recognise Western Sahara as part of the kingdom.

The port will act as a gateway for African countries to access the Atlantic Ocean, potentially leading them to recognition of the Moroccan rule over Western Sahara.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which facilitates intra-African trade and regional value chains, will highly benefit the port activities, and might lead to the same scenario, enhancing Morocco’s control over the disputed region. Western Sahara has a fertile soil that is abundant in phosphates, with Morocco being recognised as a major global supplier. Additionally, its extensive coastline stretching 1.200 km is teeming with fishery products, making it one of the most bountiful in the world.

The Dakhla Atlantic port will undoubtedly favour the activities surrounding these industries. European boats can already fish off the contested coast of Western Sahara due to the existing agreement with Morocco (Euro-Mediterranean Agreement). Still, the agreement sparked a discussion in Europe because it failed to fully consider the impact on the rights of the people in the disputed territory to access and benefit from the natural resources in the waters.

In 2021, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled in favour of the pro-independence Polisario Front that the agreement violated the rights of people in the disputed Western Sahara.

Dakhla Atlantic Port Map_SpecialEurasia
The Map of the Dakhla Atlantic Port (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

Risk Assessment

  • The ongoing dispute over the status of Western Sahara could result in political instability, posing challenges in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) and companies to the port areas.
  • Potential for protests or civil unrest in the region, particularly by the Sahrawi, might paralyse the port’s activities or cause investors to withdraw.
  • Security threats from armed groups or terrorist organisations operating in the Sahel area, particularly those affiliated to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, might disrupt or blockade the transport corridor from target countries to the port.
  • Risk of disruptions to port operations due to a conflict with the Polisario Front or neighbouring countries such as Algeria further complicates the port’s future.
  • Legal risks might emerge associated with operating in a politically contentious territory.
  • The risks associated with sanctions being imposed on the port as a result of Morocco’s non-compliance with international law might be a foreseeable outcome. Europe is already contemplating pulling out of the fishery agreement because of the Sahrawi issue.
  • Challenges in obtaining insurance coverage for the port and its operations.
  • The controversial location and legal status of the port could pose reputational risks for companies, making it harder to attract FDI.


Dakhla Atlantic port is a key component of the King’s vision to establish more mutually beneficial relationships with countries in West Africa and Latin America.

The AfCFTA has created the largest free trade area in the world, measured by the number of countries taking part, connecting 1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a GDP valued at US$ 3.4 trillion. The Dakhla Atlantic Port project, which should be ultimate in 2028 and be operative by the end of 2029, will profit from this liberalised and connected market.

According to representatives of the port administration, the income of locals is already three times higher than in the rest of Morocco and the new port will increase this trend, attracting workers from other regions. The construction process has generated 2.500 job opportunities, and there are currently 1.600 workers actively working on the site. Furthermore, the administration is actively developing training programs for individuals who will be in high demand soon within the port areas.

While the port as the potential to enhance Morocco’s rule over disputed Western Sahara and benefit the kingdom’s economy, the ongoing instability in the Sahel region and the role of Mauritania as a key transit country make the port activities vulnerable to risks associated with jihadist terrorism and disputes with neighbouring nations.

Moreover, Morocco’s non-compliance with international law might lead to sanctions or Europe’s withdrawal from mutual agreements.

Still, the infrastructure holds the potential to benefit the economies of the Sahel landlocked countries and contribute to their stability. This result, combined with the shifting demographics in the area in favour of more Moroccan citizens, will assist Rabat in consolidating its control over Western Sahara and bolster the Moroccan government’s narrative of having a positive influence on the disputed territories.

Nevertheless, there are certain facts that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the kingdom in the region and raise concerns about investing in local infrastructure, especially considering the potential for sudden destabilisation in the entire area.

The reports on the disappearance of local dissidents and the Moroccan government’s use of the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware against activists in the occupied Sahara region are factors that could potentially ignite unrest or compel the international community to intervene.

Another concerning factor about corridors running through Mauritania towards the Dakhla port is the presence of the 2.700-kilometre-long sand wall called Berm, stretching from inside southern Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean at Guerguerat. The Berm and the immediate areas around it, are heavily contaminated by landmines and explosive ordnance (EO), including cluster munitions, a result of the conflict that took place from 1975 to 1991 between the Royal Moroccan Army (RMA), Mauritanian armed forces, and the military forces of the Polisario Front. The risks associated with import-export activities in this area make the future of the infrastructure even more complex.

Read also | Morocco: A SWOT Analysis

For further information, reports, and investment assessments of Morocco, contact us at

Related Posts