By Afro-Middle East Centre
The February 2016 announcement by Moroccan King Mohammed VI that the kingdom intended to upgrade diplomatic ties with South Africa pointed to a recalculation of that country’s national interests. This has mainly been caused by regional factors such as the increase in militancy in the Sahel, and the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices. In Morocco’s assessment, these factors have helped weaken support for Saharawi independence, and the kingdom believes that its 2007 autonomy plan will soon be accepted as an optimal method of resolving the issue, especially since it has created new facts on the ground. Morocco thus expelled UN civilian monitors in March, and wants to ensure that the mandate of the United Nations’s Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) no longer includes holding a referendum. Moreover, it has stepped up attempts to engage with African countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, which recognise the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), to gain support for the Moroccan position on the SADR, and lobby the African Union to alter its stance on this issue.
The slowdown in the global – and especially European – economy following the 2008 financial crisis, and the weakening of domestic demand, has also forced Rabat to look toward Sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, for economic partnerships. An upgrade in ties between Morocco and South Africa will, however, be of little political consequence. Although bilateral economic opportunities and counter terrorism coordination will likely be facilitated and increase, South Africa will continue its support for the Polisario Front, the Saharawi liberation movement, and its recognition of the SADR, which has an embassy in Pretoria. Morocco hopes economic convergences and increases in bilateral trade will help mitigate these differences.
Relations since 1990
Moroccan-South African relations were formally established in September 1991 after Pretoria established an interest office in Rabat. Morocco reciprocated in April 1992, and both offices were upgraded to embassies in 1994. Earlier, Morocco had supported the anti-apartheid movement and provided diplomatic, military and financial backing to the African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela had travelled to the kingdom in the 1960s to garner support for the anti-apartheid struggle, and received some military training there. Since 2004, however, relations between Pretoria and Rabat have been tense because of ANC support for independence of the SADR, whose territory is claimed by Morocco.
Morocco formally downgraded relations in September 2004 after severely criticising Pretoria’s inauguration of a Saharawi representative office in Pretoria. South Africa believed that it could maintain good relations with both Morocco and the SADR, which it views as independent states. This is similar to South Africa’s position on Israel and Palestine. When the term of South Africa’s ambassador to Rabat ended in 2006, Ashraf Suleiman was appointed to head the South African mission. Rabat ignored the appointment and did not issue South Africa with the necessary agrément (approval). After about a year of waiting, it seems President Thabo Mbeki got the message. He deployed Suleiman elsewhere, and downgraded South Africa’s representation in Rabat to chargé d’affaires level.
At the time, trade between the two countries stood at around 500 million rands annually, with companies such as Eskom and Anglo American benefiting the most. NEXSA (formally the nuclear energy cooperation of South Africa) had been building a facility in Morocco and procuring material to assist in the area of nuclear medicine.
The situation has since changed. A 150-member Moroccan delegation, including the country’s prime minister and foreign minister attended last year’s Africities summit in Johannesburg, and it is probable that diplomatic ties will soon be upgraded to ambassadorial level, following a February announcement by King Mohammed VI of a new ambassador to Pretoria, AbdelKader Chaoui. He is, however, no longer the ambassador-designate because of ill-health, and the king is currently considering a replacement. That Chaoui’s appointment was publicly announced suggests that agreement had been received from Pretoria for the upgrade in ties, and South Africa will likely reciprocate. In a further indication of an upgrade in relations, Royal Air Maroc (Morocco’s national carrier) will soon launch direct flights to South Africa.
Why the change from Rabat
The change in approach is mostly in terms of Morocco’s foreign relations; Pretoria has not altered its positions much from its 2004 decision to recognise the SADR – the main reason for Rabat’s downgrading of relations. Until then, the kingdom had believed that it had the upper hand in attempts to get African states to withdraw recognition of the SADR and its Polisario Front. South Africa’s recognition, unofficial from the ANC’s accession to power in 1994 until 2004, was an obstacle in this process.
Morocco claims Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1975, as part of its territory, and has since occupied much of the territory. Morocco also refuses to join international and regional organisations which recognise the independence of the SADR, pulling out of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984, and playing little role in other regional bodies on the continent. Pretoria, though, views the Saharawi struggle as the last anti-colonial struggle in Africa, has lobbied international organisations for the Saharawi right to self-determination, and believes that its support for the SADR is integral to a foreign policy guided by human rights imperatives.
Rabat now believes that there is no longer enthusiasm for Saharawi recognition, and that the Polisario’s capabilities are on the wane – because of three key factors. First, the kingdom believes it has created a situation on the ground that makes Saharawi independence less viable than previously. It has conceptualised an autonomy plan that will allow the territory some legislative and judicial powers, but guard Rabat’s control over defence and foreign policy. Certain major powers, such as USA and France, have responded positively to the plan, and have worked with the kingdom to halt opposition to it. France and Senegal (currently a non-permanent UNSC member) have even lobbied to alter MINURSO’s mandate to exclude the hosting of a referendum.
Second, the South Sudan crisis has diluted optimism for independence struggles even amongst European states. No African state has gained independence since Namibia (formally South West Africa) in 1990 with South Sudan’s 2011 recognition being an anomaly. Morocco assesses that many states will reconsider SADR recognition if African heavyweights and the AU accept the 2007 autonomy plan. To date, over thirty of the around eighty-four states that had recognised Western Saharan independence have frozen or/and withdrawn SADR recognition, even though such a move does not comply with the 1933 Montevideo convention on statehood recognition.
Furthermore, the kingdom believes that the increase in weapons proliferation and militancy in the Sahel, largely caused by the NATO-led overthrow of Muammar Gadhdhafi, will increase the tendency for states to favour their own stability over the right to self-determination of others. Morocco has thus been actively engaging with states such as Mali and Mauritania after Gadhdhafi’s ouster, and supported the French 2012-13 Mali intervention. The increasing influence of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in areas around Western Sahara and the group’s recruitment of Saharawi youth convinced Rabat that its assessment of states’ response was correct. Its position received a boost when it was elected to lead the Community of Saharan and Sahelian States’ (CEN-Sad) executive committee in 2013.
Third, Rabat believes that the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) price drop has negatively impacted Algeria to the extent that it would be unable to continue supporting Polisario at the same levels as previously. It also believes that Algeria’s succession question will weaken its resolve. The over fifty per cent drop in the oil price between 2014 and 2015 placed immense pressure on Algiers, which sought loans and suspended subsidies. Algeria, however, argues that it remains committed to the Saharawi struggle, and that its economy will weather the oil price crisis.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic opportunities
For Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa represents a significant market for its industries. Although previously relying on Europe for over sixty per cent of its exports and for foreign direct investment, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent increase in competitiveness of Eastern European states placed pressure on this export potential. Under Mohammed VI the kingdom thus looked southwards, backed by Moroccan companies which possess a competitive advantage in many industries such as banking, construction and electricity generation. Domestic demand within Morocco has stagnated, increasing by a mere 2.4 per cent from around six per cent in 2011, and the free trade agreement with the US failed to realise an increase in trade.
The rest of Africa still however remains third in Morocco’s foreign relations priorities, after Europe and the USA. Moreover, even though trade between the Kingdom and the rest of the continent has increased in recent years, it only comprises around five per cent of overall Moroccan trade. Moroccan exports to sub-Saharan Africa tripled from around 250 million dollars in 2000 to over 840 million in 2010, and foreign direct investment from Morocco to the rest of the continent has doubled to around 500 million dollars in 2010 from 250 million just two years earlier. Focal sectors include banking, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Airline diplomacy, cultural ties, and counter terrorism cooperation have been used to strengthen ties with francophone West African states such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. King Mohammed VI has himself increased his visits to West and Central Africa, and concluded treaties on eliminating double taxation and reducing tariffs.
With this change in approach, Morocco is also increasing its diplomatic clout 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. As such, it successfully prevented the UN from extending its Western Sahara mandate to include human rights monitoring. Morocco also regards conflict resolution as an important component guiding its foreign policy, and it attempted to mediate between various parties following the failed coup in Guinea (2010), and acted as a mediator to smooth US relations with Mauritania after the 2008 coup there. Furthermore, the recent agreement to form a unified Libyan government, which resulted in the Government of National Accord, was partly driven by Morocco, and signed in the Moroccan resort city of Skhirat.
The Kingdom is keen to restore its African Union seat, but will rejoin the AU only if the SADR’s recognition is revoked. While the AU’s Constitutive Act does not permit the de-recognition of a state, the act can be amended to allow for this, and there is a precedent in this regard. At the founding of the OAU in 1963, the Portuguese protectorate of Kabinda was recognised as the thirty-ninth African state still to be decolonised, and Angola the thirty-fifth. However, when Angola gained independence in 1975, the OAU recognised the incorporation of Kabinda into Angola despite Kabindan opposition. For any such attempt by Morocco, South African support will be crucial, partly because of Pretoria’s clout in Southern Africa, and because it is one of the ‘big five’ members of the African union.
Impact on Morocco-South Africa relations
it is within this context that Morocco is looking to upgrade relations with Pretoria and return them to ambassadorial level. Chaoui, named by Mohammed VI as the new ambassador to South Africa, is a former dissident who spent fifteen years in jail for belonging to the Leninist ‘March 23’ movement. Released in 1990, he joined the justice ministry, and is currently the ambassador to Chile. It is probable that Chaoui was strategically selected because of his dissident credentials and favourable reputation amongst Moroccan opposition parties, which Morocco would have hoped would endear him to Pretoria. His replacement will likely have similar credentials. However, it is inconceivable that any ambassador to South Africa will have a different position on the SADR than Rabat; most political parties and politicians operating in Morocco, those supporting and those opposing the monarchy, support the king’s claims over Saharawi territory.
The participation of a large delegation – with the largest exhibition stand – to the Africities summit in Johannesburg in November 2015 was not coincidental. Morocco’s attendance was to garner support for its stance on Saharawi independence, and to exhibit its local government-decentralisation model. Yet the country’s foreign minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, met with South Africa’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. It is likely that Chaoui’s appointment and Pretoria’s reciprocation was a key issue discussed.
The upgrading of diplomatic ties and recently-announced direct flights between Morocco and South Africa will have mainly economic implications. Opportunities for investments for both South African and Moroccan companies will increase. This is especially pertinent because they are the two largest investors in the continent. South African companies, especially in the areas of retail, finance and mining, have been very active on the continent, while Morocco’s banks have replaced much of the French continental banking investments following the 2008 economic collapse. In 2015 South Africa’s largest insurer, Sanlam, acquired around thirty per cent of Moroccan insurer Saham Finances in a five billion rand deal that will allow Sanlam to have a foothold in the largely untapped and lucrative Francophone West African market. South African trade statistics already show an increase in bilateral trade from around thirty four million rand in 1992, when the interest office was established, to over four billion in 2015. The tripling of exports from South Africa to Morocco from 1.2 billion in 2014 to over 3.2 billion in 2015, and the quadrupling of imports from Morocco to over one billion in 2014 from around 270 million the previous year point to increasing economic convergences. It is thus not surprising that Morocco’s reading of the change in the SADR situation prompted it to reconsider its diplomatic relations with South Africa.
The political consequences will, however, be minimal. The upgrade might strengthen continental counter terrorism cooperation, which Morocco is keen on. However, South Africa’s stance on the SADR is unlikely to change. Pretoria has been emphatic on the issue, and altering its position will undermine its soft power, hegemonic aspirations and its moral authority on the continent. Pretoria is also unlikely to support Moroccan attempts to lobby the AU to change its position regarding SADR recognition. South Africa’s close ties with Algeria will ensure that it will defer to Algeria’s position on the SADR, which is unlikely to change even with the current budget crunch and succession battle. If Rabat seeks better diplomatic relations with South Africa while ignoring Pretoria’s recognition of the SADR, the upgrade in relations will be successful; however, if the kingdom expects to move Pretoria’s position on the SADR, it will likely fail. Economic convergences can mitigate these differences, and bilateral relations will likely improve in the short- to medium-term.