Investment is transforming the Saharan town of Dakhla
Mohammed sparks his lighter and the blade in his hand erupts in flames. He draws his knife to my neck and pivots it square with my jawline. Lines of sweat coat my forehead. All I can think about are the scraggly clumps of his hair I can see escaping from the worn blue baseball cap on his head. I wonder, Does the barber cut his own hair? I’d ask him, but he doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak French or Arabic.
An ancient Coca-Cola truck pulls up outside with empty glass bottles rattling with every cough and splutter from the engine. Hip young guys in Calvin Klein t-shirts periodically dip in to the barber’s shop to check for an appointment Their hair’s already immaculately trimmed, stuck back precisely with wax and gel. Seated in the 70s-style diner chair, a portrait of King Mohammed V gazing down at me, I watch Al Jazeera presenters lose their shit over an event I can’t quite figure out. With a flourish, Mohammed snaps the gown off me and proudly declares “Fini!”
I’m in Dakhla, a port town sitting on a narrow peninsula of 40 km that pokes out into the Atlantic Ocean. The rolling expanses of Saharan dunes are just about visible on the other side of the blue lagoon as I walk along the freshly paved boulevards. A cool sea breeze permeates the air, bringing a freshness despite the desert heat. Families meander through the streets in playful conversation, the kids alternating between chasing their parents and hiding behind lamp posts. They look a little bemused to see me strolling lost through their hometown.
On the surface, the town seems like an unlikely place to be promoted as Morocco’s newest tourist destination. Traders savour their mint tea while they gossip with other merchants, and guys decked out in djebella chill on benches and take in the sun. They seem unaware of how similar they look to the pointy-hatted desert guys in Star Wars. But under its gentle surface, Dakhla has an ambitious and hopeful eye on the future. Everywhere I look there’s development going on; colourful apartments popping up along the boulevard and construction workers busy repaving the souk.
Since it was announced as a host of Virgin’s annual kitesurfing world cup in 2009, along with destinations such as Isla de Coche in Venezuela and Costa Brava in Spain, fluorescent sails propelling water sports enthusiasts up and down the lagoon have become a familiar sight in Dakhla. It didn’t take long for tourists to embrace peaceful yoga retreats in the dunes and excursions into the untouched wilderness of the desert. This year’s investment in the region, courtesy of the Moroccan government, seeks to attract more travellers looking for an exotic, off-the-beaten-track sun break.
For the land’s indigenous Sahrawi tribes people, the burgeoning tourist trade is providing the investment and development needed to overcome years of ongoing dispute. During a car ride into the desert I ask my Sahrawi driver, Sedati, whether he considers Dakhla to be part of Morocco. He shrugs. “This is still called an area in dispute, but we are both Moroccans and Sahrawis,” he tells me. “In Dakhla, we don’t have conflicts like everywhere else in the Sahara. We are relaxed.”
Back in the seventies, disagreements between the Moroccan and Algerian governments, as well as the Polisario Front rebel group, embroiled the Western Saharan territories in conflict and controversy. By 1991, a ceasefire had been negotiated, and the UN had established a mission for a referendum to be held on the future of the territory. The referendum has yet to happen, but as with most political disputes, life goes on unabated for the people living here.
I briefly worry that my blunt question has offended Sedati, but he smiles and continues telling me about his hometown. “Dakhla is special because it’s an open and safe area,” he says. “Ten years ago there was nothing here; Dakhla was just a name on a map. Now people come from all over the world to be here. The tourists bring jobs and people with jobs aren’t concerned with the old conflicts.”
This is a view seemingly shared by Crans Montana, an international NGO dedicated to political and economic reconstruction, who chose Dakhla’s newly-built conference centre to host their annual forum this year. Speaking to the press when this decision was announced, the president of the Forum called Dakhla “a model for the future of Morocco and Africa [with] an outstanding strategic position as a economic and commercial hub”, and said that their decision to host there was “an opportunity to promote peace and dialogue” in the region. It certainly feels like an open and peaceful place for a curious, wandering traveller like me.
Back on the streets, battered motorbikes and four-wheel drives whirl past as I search for somewhere I can get a mint tea. Making my way back to the souk, I think about the footfall these shiny new streets will see now that the shroud of territorial dispute has been lifted from the lives of people in Dakhla. The future is full of possibilities.