Morocco makes Spain feel shift in diplomatic power

By Tarik Oumazzane
Posted on Tuesday, 29 March 2022 10:33

Morocco's King Mohammed VI welcomes Spain's King Felipe VI upon his arrival in Rabat, 13 February 2019. © Xinhua/ZUMA-REA

Rabat and Madrid have put an end to their diplomatic quarrel, following a gesture of support that Morocco has long demanded on the sensitive issue of Western Sahara. Spain’s new position demonstrates that the balance of power between the two countries has changed.

Anyone familiar with Morocco’s foreign policy has noticed that its diplomacy has unexpectedly changed in recent years. Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s foreign affairs minister, summarised this new dynamism in a single sentence: “The Morocco of today is not the one of the past.”

The crisis with Spain, which ended on 18 March when Madrid endorsed Morocco’s plan to grant some level of autonomy to Western Sahara, illustrates the new direction that the kingdom intends to take regarding its international relations. All this is happening amidst a context in which the Global South is strengthening its position on the world stage and slowly changing the rules of the game.

From words to deeds

The World War II paradigm of the north leading the world order, with the south expected to follow it, has long been ingrained in the minds of former colonial states’ leaders.

Even though many of these countries have declared their independence, the former coloniser has continued to exercise political and economic control, a strategy known as neo-colonialism or, in Kwame Nkrumah’s words, “the last stage of imperialism”.

Taking a look at the episodes surrounding the recent crisis between Rabat and Madrid helps us better understand to what extent this balance of power is on its way out.

Good neighbourliness is not a one-way system…

In May 2021, when Bourita stated that the Morocco of today is not the one of the past, he was in fact sending a direct warning to Spain, which had welcomed Brahim Ghali, the Polisario’s leader, a few days earlier. Morocco then moved from words to deeds by recalling its ambassador from Madrid, reducing its security cooperation and – for some time – stopping surveillance of its northern borders, thus provoking a migratory crisis in Ceuta.

Madrid reacted by accusing Rabat of “blackmail” and asked the EU for support. Margarita Robles, Spain’s defence minister, said “Spain’s territorial integrity is not negotiable”, terming the turn of events as “an act of aggression against Spain and the European Union’s borders”. She said Morocco cannot “play this kind of game” with Spain.

Bourita responded to this aggressive statement by reiterating that “good neighbourliness is not a one-way system” and that Morocco “is not obliged to protect Spain’s borders”.

The kingdom thus demonstrated that it was just as capable as its northern partners of showing realpolitik and taking advantage – if necessary – of the balance of power in its favour.

A power that counts

Morocco is behaving more and more like a rational actor, choosing its diplomatic options based on precise objectives that align with its national interest; in this case, Spain recognising Morocco’s plan for the Sahara.

In fact, the kingdom has become an important regional power, one that is difficult to ignore. In the African scene, it has consolidated its position as the “‘gateway to Africa”, thanks to a clever combination of investment and active diplomacy.

Economically, it has established itself as one of Africa’s leading international investors, with foreign direct investment (FDI) estimated at around $4bn in 2020.

In terms of connectivity with the continent, Morocco has weekly connections to over 40 West African ports. The kingdom’s aviation strategy has expanded its connections to the continent at competitive rates, positioning Casablanca as a transit hub for businesses heading to Africa from Europe and North America.

Financial heart

Morocco’s top three banks, Attijariwafa Bank, Bank of Africa and Banque Centrale Populaire (BCP), have thousands of branches across the African continent – from Cairo to Brazzaville and from Bamako to Dar es Salaam. In 2010, Morocco created Casablanca Finance City (CFC), a regional financial centre, which is set to become the financial heart of Africa.

Outside Africa, Morocco has adopted the same pragmatism by normalising its relations with Israel under a tripartite agreement that includes the US. Rabat has become an active member of several forums and initiatives, such as the Morocco-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forum, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the Turkey-Africa Forum, the India-Africa Forum and the Chinese Belt and Road initiative.

Consequently, trade between Morocco and some southern states has grown. In 2021, Moroccan exports to Brazil reached a record $1.9bn, an increase of 95.5% over the previous year.

Geostrategic changes

Add to this Morocco’s growing ability to adapt to geostrategic changes, including the strengthening of South-South cooperation, China’s Silk Road project, Britain’s departure from the European Union and Russia’s increased involvement in Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East. In so doing, the kingdom has reduced its dependence on certain states and given itself the means to impose its point of view on the issue of its territorial integrity.

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