By Hassan Aourid
Moroccan-Saudi relations have never been as cool and strained as they have become in the past week, following a report on the Western Sahara disputebroadcast on Al-Arabiya, a television channel close to decision-making circles in Riyadh. The report blatantly deviated from Saudi Arabia’s traditional pro-Rabat line, and was a reaction to an interview on Al Jazeera by Morocco’s foreign minister,Nasser Bourita where he had sketched Morocco’s new foreign policy guidelines, focusing on Morocco’swithdrawal from the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen.
Morocco’s immediate response to the Al-Arabiya report was to recall its ambassador from Riyadh ‘for consultations’. This is an inappropriate reaction since it was not an official Saudi position that overtly threatened Morocco’s strategic interests. Reports on a media channel cannot be construed as reflecting the official stance of a state, regardless of its connections with those in power, especially when considering the assertion made by Morocco’s top diplomat that his country has strategic relations with the Gulf states.
Since three Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain – and Egypt had decided to blockade Qatar, signs of a quiet crisis had emerged not only in relations between Rabat and Riyadh, but also between Rabat and the Abu Dhabi. Morocco did not yield to calls to boycott Qatar, but rather sent food to Qatar and sought to heal the rift between the Gulf countries. This did not sit well with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose leaders expected Morocco to abide by the decisions of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, or, more correctly, the decisions of their respective strongmen, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Mohammed bin Zayed.
Tensions worsened when Saudi Arabia refused to back Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 Football World Cup. Turki Al-Sheikh, then chair of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority and an official close to the Saudi crown prince, tweeted provocatively that grey zones were no longer acceptable and that ‘you are either with us or against us’. He mocked Morocco for leaning towards a little ‘emirate’ – meaning Qatar – and, in a spiteful tone, advised the north African kingdom to turn to the ‘tiny emirate’ for help, which, he said, would be futile since everyone knew ‘where the lion’s den can be found’. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, an expert in Morocco-Saudi relations and a former Saudi intelligence official, further asserted that the time for flattery had passed.
When MbS was in Paris in March 2018, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, attempted to bring together the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and MbS, even recording the event for posterity through a selfie. However, that did not persuade the Saudis to reconsider their position on the Moroccan bid. Not only did Saudi Arabia vote against Morocco – even though all Arab states had undertaken at an Arab League summit in Riyadh to back Morrocco – it also led a campaign supporting the US-Canada bid. Further, it went to great lengths to vilify Morocco, mocking its Berber origins and economic situation through social media.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was Morocco’s neutrality over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh refused to accept such a position a state it viewed as a strategic ally. The situation became more complicated when Rabat declined to host the Saudi crown prince while he was on a regional tour en route to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires at a time when he was desperate to break out of his isolation. MbS visited Tunis and Algiers but skipped Rabat, ostensibly due to the Moroccan king’s tight schedule which did not allow for a meeting, as Morocco’s foreign minister explained.
Is it ‘a passing cloud’?
Morocco’s ambassador to Riyadh referred to the spat between the two countries as ‘a passing cloud’. However, the current diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Saudi Arabia is actually the culmination of a series of successive developments. Moroccan-Saudi relations will not return to their former state of close relations whose foundations were laid during the rule of Morocco’s King Hassan II and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. It was during this period that Hassan II established an American-style university in the heart of the Atlas and named it the Akhawan University (the university of the two brothers) in reference to himself and Fahd.
Spurred on by the aftershocks of the ‘Arab Spring’, Saudi Arabia set up what has been referred to as a ‘club of monarchs’, which included Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states together with Morocco and Jordan. During the 2016 GCC summit, Morocco pledged unqualified commitment to the security of Gulf states, a position best illustrated by the king’s pronouncement that ‘whatever affects you, affects us’.
But this posture did not sit well with the new crop of leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose education and outlook starkly contrast with those of their predecessors. The old generation remained true to their Arab pride and to a sense of belonging to the Islamic community – even if these were leveraged as stock-in-trade, as in a business. The new generation, however, does not care much about Arab values, fully embraces current global financial trends, comes across as pragmatic (at times even beyond the bounds of reasonableness), and sees Islam and movements operating under its banner as a threat that warrants their enmity.
What Saudi Arabia did through the Al-Arabiya documentary was not merely a rap on the knuckles; it signalled a new way of dealing with Morocco, one where all means of inflicting harm and causing disparagement are legitimate. It feels betrayed by its closest ally in the region, and decided to inflict on Morocco similar treatment to that it meted out to Lebanon in 2015, when it closed sea routes and released the names of collaborators and recipients of remuneration, privileges or commissions from Saudi Arabia.
Morocco’s firm and wise response should not focus only on defending its strategic interests, but on doing it well. Securing the right to host an international sporting tournament cannot be considered a strategic interest, and should not be identified as a factor in determining relations with any other state. Those in power in Rabat must be reminded of this principle. The strength of any county’s foreign policy stems from its ability to reflect the interests of all its people, not only the interests of a specific category of people, and not by yielding to transient considerations of unknown origins and objectives.
Hassan Aourid is a former spokesperson of the Moroccan royal palace and a lecturer in political science at Muhammad the Fifth University in Rabat.
By Hassan Aourid
An astute observer of Algeria and Morocco will notice that relations between the two countries have taken a dangerous turn and tensions have visibly increased. Bilateral relations over the last forty-odd years have been marked by a situation of ‘no-war-no-peace’, with tensions kept in check on both sides. However, tensions have sometimes peaked dangerously; examples include the clashes that culminated in the first Battle of Amgala in January 1976, and, again, in a second battle a month later. There were, however, periods of de-escalation, starting from 1988 with the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, tensions escalated again in 1992 following a few destabilising events. These included the assassination of Algerian political leader and a founder of the National Liberation Front, Mohamed Boudiaf; Morocco’s imposition of visa requirements for Algerian citizens (in violation of the Marrakech Agreement that created the Maghreb Union), and the Algerian authorities’ closing of land borders in August 1994, which persists.
The longstanding tensions between the two north African neighbours have not been elevated to open confrontation since then, and the military doctrines of both countries disapprove of armed engagement. Despite the deep historical, social and humanitarian bonds that link the two countries, however, their military doctrine has not been able to contain their arms’ race, diplomatic clashes, media and security provocations, and the abandoning of diplomatic courtesy and good neighbourliness. Furthermore, there seems to be no getting rid of the ‘no-war-no-peace’ paradigm that mostly suppresses tensions but sometimes sharply escalates.
Hostile rhetoric in a dangerous international context that is characterised by alliances and the return of the Cold War makes the impossible potentially possible. However, neither the possible nor the impossible are inevitable. The worst case scenario should not be accepted as a fait accompli. Nations write their own histories and determine their own fates, with historical inevitability playing no part. In his book Dimensions de la conscience historique, the French intellectual Raymond Aron reflects on the Peloponnesian War, an almost-three-decade episode in the fifth century BC that played out between the Athenians and the Spartans. Aron draws on the account of the authority on this episode, the historian Thucydides, and concludes that the war did not conform to the logic of the times, and that it happened even though nobody wanted it. He compares it to the First World War – which was also largely unwanted, and which broke out as a consequence of a passing incident that became the proverbial spark that lit the flame in an extremely volatile context. Aron argues that the first case resulted in the end of the city state, the decline of Greek civilisation and the emergence of Alexander, who was drawn towards the East. The second case, on the other hand, heralded the end of the nation state, the shifting of the centre of civilisation from Europe to the United States of America, and the emergence of the Soviet Union. In other words, both episodes resulted in collapse or, rather, self-destruction.
In spite of the tensions and disruptions manifested across the Maghreb, or North Africa, the region remains promising. It is the only unitary framework capable of drawing together a bloc that can match the regional poles of Turkey and Iran, and create some form of balance. In fact, this unitary framework is a strategic necessity that works to the advantage of the entire Arab world; it is its strategic depth and protective shield against the tempestuous storms descending upon the region and ripping it apart. The Economistrecently posited that had the Maghreb Union succeeded, it would have become the strongest economy in the region, matching Turkey, which has in twenty years transitioned from a backwater to an emerging economy.
While the clock cannot be turned back, one can at least benefit from the lessons of history. The current tensions – in spite of their intensity – will not overshadow the awareness of a common destiny, or the depth of the historical, cultural, social and humanitarian roots binding Morocco and Algeria, and the countries of the Maghreb in general. This awareness is shaped by a collective memory, common symbols and cognisance of shared interests. It obviously does not negate points of difference, opposing visions, or the animosity that has entrenched the hostility prevalent in the current generation. Nonetheless, transcending the status quo is not impossible.
Logic has repeatedly dictated that dialogue between Moroccan and Algerian officials be undertaken, but this dialogue, when it did happen, did not lead to any breakthroughs, and there are no indications that new attempts will produce results. Why then should there be any objection to the establishment of unofficial dialogue between parties that possess an acute historical awareness, sense of responsibility, boldness and independence? Dialogue does not, after all, occur between interlocutors that share the same vision, but rather between those who have opposing views and approaches, while being conscious of imminent dangers and being bound by mutual respect and a willingness to listen attentively. Dialogue is a process; it cannot be constructive through a single engagement; it is not a pronouncement of intentions or a media event.
For dialogue to be successful – for it to be able to take place at all – there must be what former Tunisian president Moncef al-Marzouqi called a changing of the paradigm. Longstanding problems cannot be resolved within entrenched paradigms. Success can only be achieved gradually and a lack of confidence built up over years cannot be unravelled in a single instant. The awareness of a common destiny among the Algerians I have encountered in various forums and my perusal of their pronouncements and writings make the prospect of successful dialogue between them and Moroccans a real possibility.
The history books tell us the story of an Ummayad Caliph who dispatched his court jester, Abu Dullamah, to fight the Azariqah, an extremist Kharijite sect prone to warfare. Abu Dullamah was not a man of war, and he knew that confrontation would spell his demise. He therefore thought long and hard about his dilemma before meeting his rival. When the two parties met, Abu Dullamah was sent to face one of the fiercest Azariqah warriors. When they faced off he asked his opponent: ‘You over there, do you know me?’ The warrior responded: ‘No.’ He then asked: ‘Can you bear witness to any malice I have inflicted upon you or your family?’ The warrior responded: ‘No.’ Abu Dullamah then asked: ‘Do you harbour bad intentions toward someone who only wishes you well?’ The warrior responded: ‘No.’ Abu Dullamah then said: “I am sure that you must be quite hungry,” and the warrior said: ‘Indeed! I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday!’ Abu Dullamah responded: ‘I have some food that we can share,’ and retrieved a chicken from his satchel. The two then dismounted from their respective steeds and partook of the meal. What had been intended to be a violent clash was transformed into an amicable engagement because the enemies were given the opportunity to talk and get to know each other. The moral of the story is that familiarity is the source of fraternity and dialogue is a nothing more than a means to gain familiarity.
* Hassan Aourid is a Moroccan intellectual. He served in the Moroccan administration in several positions, including official spokesperson of the Palace.
** This article was originally published in Arabic in al-Quds al-Arabiand was translated by AMEC
By Afro-Middle East Centre
In his speech at the fifty-first ECOWAS heads of state summit in Monrovia, Liberia on 4 June, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed Africa and Israel shared ‘a natural affinity’ and ‘similar histories’. His attendance at the summit is a further indication of Israeli ambitions to shore up support from African states, extend Israel’s influence in Africa, and obtain observer status in the African Union (AU). ‘Israel should once again be an observer state of the African Union…I fervently believe that it’s in your interest too, in the interest of Africa. And I hope all of you will support that goal,’ Netanyahu told West African leaders. This initiative included Netanyahu’s visit to East Africa last year, the first visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister to an African state in twenty-nine years. However, the summit was punctuated by spats between Morocco and Israel after King Muhammad VI of Morocco reportedly skipped the summit citing the Israeli presence.
ECOWAS is a subregional bloc comprising fifteen member states dedicated to the advancement of political and economic integration in the West African region. Members include: Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, Cape Verde and Burkina Faso. Except for Nigeria, all fifteen states attended the summit, which discussed issues of security, political stability and economic integration. In his speech at the summit, Netanyahu addressed these issues, hoping to charm the West African delegates sufficiently to be able to garner support for Israel’s AU bid as well as to boost economic ties in the agriculture and technology sectors. As part of this effort he attempted to compare African struggles to Israel: ‘With determination and conviction, you won your independence…This is very much our story. Our people too were denied independence,’ he said.
Other non-member attendees at the summit included UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, AU commission chairperson Moussa Faki and a Moroccan delegation championing its application for ECOWAS membership. All the non-member attendees gave addresses at the summit except Morocco’s representatives. The fact that no Moroccan was slated to speak has been cited as one possible reason why King Muhammad VI did not attend the summit.
The Israeli government’s prioritising the bolster of ties with African states gained a boost last year when Netanyahu visited East African states Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Regaining AU observer status has been a crucial objective of Israel after losing this status in 2002, when the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) was dissolved and replaced by the AU. Israel’s loss of observer status was due to pressure exerted by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who accused Israel of promoting African wars, and South Africa. That the State of Palestine is an observer at the AU makes Israel’s bid even more desperate. Such a status will bolster Israel’s legitimacy in Africa, and enhance its ability to lobby and influence African states on several issues. It will also allow Israel to influence the voting behaviour of African states at multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.
Morocco and Israel have a shared ambition to influence African states in the AU and the UN. The West African country, which recently rejoined the AU, seeks African states’ support for its control of Western Sahara. Both Israel and Morocco see African states as a means to an end in the pursuit of their interests, hence the row between the two countries at the ECOWAS summit. According to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry’s official statement, Mohammed VI cancelled his trip to the summit because of Netanyahu’s presence at the meeting; he ‘did not want his presence at the summit to take place under a context of tension and controversy’. The Israeli government denied the Moroccan claims, saying Mohammed’s absence reflected his sulking after he was not given an opportunity to address the summit.
Netanyahu used the summit to secure support from West African states, including in sideline meetings with representatives of individual states. Believing that East Africa is securely in the Israeli camp, Netanyahu focused on renewing and forging relations with Francophone states. Even small states such as Togo are important for Israel because the votes of such small states at the UN General Assembly have equal value to any other states, which might be critical of Israel, especially states in the Arab and Muslim world. More support at the UN means Israel can more effectively oppose resolutions against its occupation. Netanyahu was clear about his objective to divide Africa: ‘There are 54 countries [in Africa]. If you change the voting pattern of a majority of them, you at once bring them from one side to the other. We want to erode the opposition and change it to support.’ Netanyahu also used the occasion to mend relations with Senegal, which, in December 2016, co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli’s ongoing construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, resulting in Israel recalling its ambassador. After a side meeting at the ECOWAS summit, Israel reconciled with Senegal, which will see the Israeli ambassador reinstated.
Netanyahu considers his East Africa trip last year as successful. He met Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who visited Israel in February 2016, and pledged that Kenya would advocate for Israel’s observer status at the AU. Kenya has strong trade and security relations with Israel. During the July 2016 multilateral meeting with East African states, Tanzania announced it would open an embassy in Israel, reversing the diminished bilateral ties between Tanzania and Israel following the 1973 October War. Following the July meeting last year, ECOWAS President Marcel Alain De Souza visited Israel where he and Netanyahu signed a declaration for greater economic cooperation between ECOWAS and Israel.
This will not be Netanyahu’s last trip to Africa this year; he is scheduled to attend an Africa-Israel summit in Togo in October, where he plans to meet representatives from twenty-five African states. Continental heavyweights, such as South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria, appear dissatisfied with Israel’s growing presence in the continent, and Nigeria’s absence at the ECOWAS summit may be an indication of such discontent. South Africa, Algeria and other states have staunchly criticised Israel, and expressed reservations about the upcoming Togo summit, but have not yet actively lobbied other African states in this regard, suggesting an incapacity or lack of commitment to curb the Israeli quest for influence on the continent.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
In the culmination of an extended process, Morocco was admitted to the African Union on 30 January 2017. This process saw the king undertake numerous visits to francophone allies, as well as concluding economic agreements. It also included the upgrading of ties with continental leaders such as Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. A key cog in the country’s accession strategy was its resolve to no longer make accession contingent on the de-recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). This resulted in the clear majority voting for its membership at the recent AU summit.
Central to this reconfigured stance is Morocco’s belief that the current civil war in South Sudan has diluted the independence drive among African states, as well as its view that counterterrorism cooperation will ensure closer ties with its allies. It also believes that the low oil price and leadership transition in Algeria will impair its support for the Polisario Front (PF), the main indigenous political force fighting for Sahrawi independence. Morocco thus believes that its 2007 autonomy plan will soon be recognised as an optimal solution for the forty-one year long conflict, especially since foreign powers such as the USA and France already support it.
Though indirectly, Morocco’s accession to the AU under this reconfigured stance will dampen support for SADR independence. Already twenty-eight states have formally advocated for SADR’s suspension. South Africa and Algeria will continue to support the PF and SADR; however, their influence will be limited in such an arena.
Autonomy for the territory within the Moroccan state, in some form, will thus likely be the eventual outcome. This will be complex and intractable, especially as the Moroccan monarch continues to maintain most state powers. However, in the short term we may see a return to active conflict, particularly if Morocco expands its territorial annexation.
History of the Sahrawi struggle
The issues currently facing the sparsely populated desert region of Western Sahara historically link to the 1884 Berlin Conference, which divided the continent among European powers. Spain took control of the 100 000-square-kilometre territory, known then as the Spanish Sahara. At the time, Spain saw it as strategically important because of its geographical location and fishing resources. Spanish rule remained until 1960, when UN Resolution 1514 advocated self-determination for former colonies. Between 1965 and 1973, the UN passed seven resolutions regarding the status of Western Sahara, and by 1975, Spain announced its intention to institute a referendum and relinquish control of the territory. However, at the time three contending actors sought the territory – Morocco, Mauritania and the indigenous Sahrawi under the banner of the Polisario Front. Feeling threatened that the referendum would result in Western Sahara’s independence, Morocco’s Hassan II successfully sought the International Court of Justice’s arbitration in the matter. Morocco contends that its colonial borders are incompatible with the country’s historical boundaries, which are believed to include the whole of ancient Mauretania, Northern Mali and parts of Algeria. Thus, it is unwilling to relinquish further territory.
In October 1975, the court ruled that although Sahrawi tribes have historical links with the Moroccan monarch, self-determination was incompatible with this claim. In November that year, around 350 000 Moroccans subsequently marched into the territory, stymieing the Spanish referendum attempt. As a result, Spain pulled out in 1976, without holding a referendum, and deferring sovereignty to Morocco and Mauritania. Subsequently, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared on 27 February 1976, and currently maintains a government in exile from Tindouf. Mauritania renounced its territorial claims in 1979, redeploying its troops, and ceding most of the territory it controlled to Morocco.
Since then the PF and Morocco have been engaging in conflict. Algeria currently houses the PF’s leadership, and has financially, militarily and diplomatically supported the group. This is in line with Algiers’ historic stance on independence from colonialism, as well as due to the country’s fears that ceding this territory to Morocco would pose a threat to its southwestern border. The PF currently controls around fifteen per cent of Sahrawi territory, with Morocco controlling the rest. The struggle between Morocco and the PF was originally a military one. However, in recent years, it has been carried out in international institutions such as the UN and AU, and most recently the European Court of Justice. The two sides signed a settlement agreement in 1991, which foresaw the holding of a referendum on Sahrawi self-determination, and endorsed the creation of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO). Originally slated for 1992, the referendum has yet to be instituted. Both sides still disagree on issues surrounding voter eligibility, even though in 1999 the UN approved an 86 000-person voter roll. Furthermore, the Moroccan monarch sought to circumvent the process over the fact that independence was to be an option on the ballot. Rabat thus left the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984, following the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and has remained outside the organisation since.
The disagreements between Morocco, SADR and Algeria culminated in the 2003 ‘Peace Plan for the Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara’, drafted and supported by UNSC Resolution 1429. The plan advocated for a four-year transitional period, during which the territory would be governed autonomously, followed by a referendum. Originally intended to force compliance among the main parties, subsequent UN resolutions (1495 and 1541) weakened the enforcement and implementation capabilities. By this point, Morocco was fully entrenched in the Bush Administration’s War on Terror and was seen as a key ally. The Secretary General’s special envoy to the region, James Baker, resigned in 2004, and the council has not formulated a credible initiative since. Morocco has recently been emboldened, and following former Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s alleged labelling of the territory as ‘occupied’ during a trip to refugee camps in Tindouf in March 2016, the country expelled around eighty personnel from MINURSO, and thereby severely impeding its monitoring capacity.
Recent events: The 2007 autonomy plan
In 2007, the country launched an autonomy initiative for the territory, which was to allow limited judicial, legislative, and executive autonomy in return for control over defence, foreign affairs and religious affairs. Furthermore, in step with this initiative, the country invested into the territories and announced its intention to invest an additional one billion dollars, in an effort to integrate the territory into Morocco, as part of its ‘advanced regionalisation initiative’. At the heart of this move is Morocco’s attempt to shift the Sahrawi issue from the realm of international politics to one of local negotiations. It now refuses to even recognise the whole territory as having special status under the autonomy plan, while viewing it as the first step in its regionalisation process. This would enable the king to remain in control, yet give an impression of decentralisation. Mohammed VI considers the Western Sahara issue as critical for his survival, since most Moroccans support his stance.
Thus, the king has also sought to expand its control of Sahrawi territory. In 2015, it dispatched troops into the PF-controlled region of Guerguerat, and now controls over eighty-five per cent of Western Sahara. In July 2016, the country announced its intention to join the African Union without preconditions; it submitted a formal request in September. The PF has threatened to recommence armed struggle, with student groupings already issuing declarations in this regard. However, thus far, the situation remains peaceful yet tense.
Morocco’s renewed confidence centres on two major factors: perceived disillusionment from the international community with independence struggles and the impact of the oil price on the PF’s Algerian backing. Rabat believes that the struggles in South Sudan have diluted the continent’s optimism for independence struggles. No African state has gained independence since Eritrea in 1994, with South Sudan’s 2011 recognition being an anomaly. Morocco assesses that many states will reconsider SADR recognition if major African countries and the AU accept the 2007 autonomy plan. As of 2016, more than thirty of the eighty-four states that had previously recognised Western Saharan independence globally have frozen and/or withdrawn SADR recognition, even though such a move does not comply with the 1933 Montevideo Convention on statehood recognition. Further, the country believes that the rise in weapons proliferation and militancy in the Sahel, largely caused by the NATO-led ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, will increase the tendency for states to favour their own stability over the right to self-determination of others. Consequently, after Gaddafi’s ouster, Morocco has actively engaged with states such as Mali and Mauritania, in addition to supporting France’s 2013 Mali intervention. Its position received a boost when it was elected to lead the executive committee of the twenty-eight-member Community of Sahel-Saharan States’ (CEN-SAD) in 2013.
Rabat likewise believes that the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) price drop has negatively affected Algeria to the extent that it would be unable to continue supporting Polisario at the same level as previously. It also believes that Algeria’s succession question will weaken its resolve. Algeria, however, argues that it remains committed to the Sahrawi struggle, and that its economy will weather the oil price crisis.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic opportunities and the need to re-engage
For Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa represents a significant market for its industries, especially following the 2008 global crisis, which slowed the US and European economies. Under Mohammed VI, the country is thus looking southwards. Moroccan exports to sub-Saharan Africa have increased more than tenfold from around 250 million dollars in 2000, to exceeding 3.5 billion in 2014. This is in addition to foreign direct investment from Morocco to the rest of Africa, which was doubled to around 500 million dollars in 2010, from 250 million just two years earlier. The continent remains third in Morocco’s foreign relations priorities, after Europe and the USA.
Morocco-Western Sahara and the AU
With this change in approach, Morocco is also increasing its diplomatic influence and activities in multilateral organisations. Apart from its leadership role in CEN-SAD, it was elected to the UN Security Council in 2012 as a non-permanent member. Morocco also regards conflict resolution as an important component guiding its foreign policy. It attempted to mediate between various parties following the failed coup in Guinea in 2010, and acted as a mediator to smooth US relations with Mauritania after the 2008 coup. Furthermore, the December 2015 agreement to form a unified Libyan government (GNA) was partly driven by Morocco, and signed in the Moroccan resort city of Skhirat.
The country was thus keen to restore its African Union seat. To this effect in September 2016, Mohammed VI formally submitted his request to accede to the AU. Morocco was subsequently admitted as a member in January 2017, with a clear majority. A key factor in this was Mohammed VI’s decision not to make the country’s admission contingent on SADR’s de-recognition. As a result, an unprecedented thirty-nine out of fifty-four AU member states supported the move, with only nine voting against it. Mohammed VI now believes that advocating for SADR de-recognition would have a better chance from within the organisation. This is especially since being inside the AU allows Rabat to lobby against the efforts of Algeria and South Africa, and use the support it receives from allies to weaken the organisation’s positions on the crisis. Significantly, continental heavyweights Algeria and South Africa voted not to instate the country.
Implications for SADR independence
Morocco’s accession to the AU has dampened support for SADR from within the institution. Already in July 2016, twenty-eight states formally requested that the organisation suspend SADR. Security coordination with Morocco was explicitly stated as a reason informing the appeal. While the AU’s Constitutive Act does not permit de-recognition of a state, the act can be amended to allow for this. Furthermore, AU commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat represents Chad, whose leader Idriss Deby Itno is a strong advocate of Morocco’s stance. Only thirty-six votes are required for SADR’s suspension from the organisation, and already thirty-one members have expressed their support for this move.
Autonomy in some form will thus likely be an eventuality, especially since the USA and Spain now see the 2007 autonomy plan as credible. In addition, it is unlikely that the AU will remain assertive in its calls for self-determination, with Mahamat at the helm. This is especially since Morocco can provide much needed funding to the organisation.
Already in the 1980s, the UN envisaged such an autonomy-based solution, iterated by former Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who conceptualised the plan. However, autonomy will be difficult to implement in an autocratic political system, which complicates the matter, especially since Morocco’s king has near absolute powers. He chairs the supreme council of the judiciary, the national security council, and the council of ministers, and is the self-designated ‘amir al-mu'minin’ (leader of the faithful). The king will thus retain his power to dissolve governmental institutions, inhibiting checks and balances, and enabling him to influence the territory’s domestic self-determination. Mohammed VI’s influence over judicial institutions means that even matters concerning the division of powers and responsibilities, which were to be adjudicated by the constitutional council and administrative courts, would be discredited and seen as prioritising the Moroccan state. In addition, a solution based on democracy within autocracy is incompatible with the rights provided to ordinary Moroccans, and consequently may lead to problems with implementation, and cause friction between citizens from Western Saharan territories and the rest of the country. Anna Khakee thus observes that it would be difficult for freedom of speech to be fully implemented in the territory when criticism of the monarch is not tolerated in the rest of the country; the king will face difficulty in allowing the participation of communal Sahrawi parties when the largely communal Al-Adl Wal-Ihsane group remains banned. This raises pertinent questions about the applicability of the solution in the current Moroccan political system and the impact of the proposed reforms in engendering nation-building.
In the short term, this may mean a return to active conflict, especially if Morocco continues to expand the territory it controls. This is particularly if institutions such as the AU and UN are not able to constrain Rabat’s demands, and if the PF begins to believe that armed struggle is the only means to ensure self-determination. Morocco and the PF may consider it more likely now that twenty-eight states formally requested that the AU suspend the SADR. Rabat thus intends to work through the institution to alter its constitutive act and realise this suspension. It believes that the aforementioned change in stance among many African states will enable this to be achieved swiftly.
For the moment, it remains improbable that the organisation will institute such a radical measure in the immediate term. The already vociferous opposition from South Africa and Algeria over Morocco’s accession to the organisation without the monarch’s recognition of SADR will be heightened. Article 10 of the resolution adopted at the twenty-eighth head of states summit in Addis Ababa was thus very stringent in its calls for the UNGA to set a date for the referendum, and in its criticism of Morocco’s exploitation of Sahrawi natural resources. Moreover, South Africa and Algeria are able to leverage similar interests as Morocco. Both countries have well-developed security sectors, and Algeria is seen as a country with vast amounts of knowledge in countering militancy. Further, both have vast resources – liquefied natural gas in the instance of Algeria, and financial and technical expertise in South Africa. These will likely be leveraged to ensure that countries, especially in southern and eastern regions of the continent vote against SADR’s suspension. Notably, the level of South African and Algerian opposition to Moroccan admission was tempered by the country’s modification of its previous stance that accession was contingent on SADR’s suspension.
In conclusion, continental heavyweights, such as South Africa and Algeria will continue to support the PF financially and diplomatically. This is especially the case for its main supporter, Algeria. In light of the current leadership transition, Algiers will exert extra effort to support the PF, since, just as is the case with Morocco, the Algerian regime’s legitimacy has become increasingly entangled with the Sahrawi struggle. An autonomy-based solution will thus meet much opposition, unless there is reform of the Moroccan political system, with real autonomy for Western Saharans, or until we see a real rapprochement between Morocco and Algeria.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The results of the recent, 7 October, Moroccan parliamentary election means little in terms of the exercise of actual political power, but is indicative of the continued popularity of the ruling Islamist Freedom and Development party (PJD) which won twenty-five per cent of the vote. Voter turnout stood at a low forty-three per cent because of apathy flowing from the realisation that King Mohammed VI will maintain control and the election meant little in terms of politics or power, and the belief that political parties’ objective was to join the extensive patronage networks rather than representing ordinary Moroccans’ grievances. Ideological polarisation and a skewed political system that inhibits the emergence of large political parties will further contribute to the legislature’s inability to keep the monarch in check.
With little real opposition to the king, the PJD’s victory is not terribly significant, especially in foreign policy and long term strategic planning. The party will rather attempt to further pry open the political space by confronting the palace on electoral and constitutional reform, and by focusing strongly on corruption. All this will be an incremental, attritional process.
Moroccan elections have been historically plagued by two major difficulties. First, the system promotes ideological fragmentation by encouraging the growth of multiple small parties. A low three per cent voting threshold is implemented, forcing larger parties to partner with small ones to gain a parliamentary majority. This inhibits ideological and policy coherence and allows Mohammed VI to stymie parliamentary opposition to his rule through what some call ‘political rationalisation’. Second, and more importantly, parliament has little actual power. Even though the king piloted constitutional reforms in July 2011 to curb his powers, he is still able to dissolve the government, and has absolute powers in the realms of foreign policy and strategic planning. Most major decisions must be ratified by the king, who chairs the supreme council of the judiciary, the national security council, and the council of ministers, and is the self-designated ‘amir al-mu'minin’ (leader of the faithful). Electoral power is thus circumscribed and many parties contest elections to gain access to the Makhzen (the palace) and thus its patronage networks.
This was manifest in the 7 October elections. The PJD increased its seat count from 107 in 2011 to 125, beating its main rival and the king’s favoured party, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which won 102 seats. The party must thus partner with some of the other thirty other parties to govern. It has entered into talks with the Democratic Front, consisting of the nationalist Istiqlal party (with forty-six seats), the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP, twenty seats) and the Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS, twelve seats). These will likely form a coalition to exclude PAM. The PJD’s leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, has had to delicately balance his party’s opposition to aspects of the monarch’s power with the party’s need for monarchical endorsement to contest elections. Thus, although criticising the current political system that he calls tahakoum (politically manipulated authoritarianism), he repeatedly clarifies that he serves at the monarch’s behest and that bad decisions should be attributed to the monarch’s advisors and not Mohammed VI himself.
The low election turnout, down from forty-five per cent in the 2011 parliamentary election and fifty-three per cent in last year’s municipal vote, is due to voter apathy, and the boycott calls from the civil society Islamist movement Al Adl wa Al Ihsaane (Justice and Goodness) movement and the leftist Democratic Way party, which have been shunned from the political system. At the heart of the apathy is the realisation that the legislature’s power is severely curtailed. Hence the higher turnout for municipal elections, which many citizens see as more relevant to their needs.
The election has proven the popularity of the PJD, despite the Makhzen’s attempts to weaken it through ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ vote rigging and explicit backing for PAM. The PJD has improved from five per cent in the 2009 municipal election to sixteen per cent in the 2015 vote and from 107 seats in 2011 to 125 in the October poll. The party is thus likely to endure, despite its worse than expected performance in last year’s election, and in spite of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa region, that is unfavourable to parties referencing Islam. However, similar to Tunisia’s Ennahdha and Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, the PJD’s success lies in a focus away from ideology and toward partnerships with non-Islamist parties, and a reluctance to strongly pronounce on regional issues.
With youth unemployment at twenty per cent and graduate unemployment in many urban areas at forty per cent, the conditions that sparked the February 2011 Moroccan protests persist. Parties such as the PJD will need to carefully navigate the current political terrain else, or risk being seen as complicit when protests erupt again. Already around eighty per cent of people polled by the Arab Barometer III survey view the state as corrupt and judicial decisions as open to corruption.