Morocco – US: Why the kingdom remains in the White House’s good graces

By Soufiane Khabbachi
Posted on Wednesday, 4 May 2022 10:29

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) receives his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, in Washington, 22 November 2021. © Sarah Silbiger/POOL/REUTERS

Although Rabat did not take part in any of the votes condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington did not hold this against it.

“New Switzerland” is one of the expressions frequently being used on social media to describe Moroccan diplomacy since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Morocco has not taken part in any of the resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly, which has met three times to express its opposition to the war that Moscow started.

Although the votes on 24 March and 7 April revealed fault lines in the international consensus, the first resolution, which was adopted on 2 March and demanded that Russia immediately cease the use of force against Ukraine, had united a large majority of states (141 out of 193). The kingdom had already set itself apart by not condemning the Russian offensive.

Balancing act

Rabat did not try to justify itself too much. It merely stated that its absence from the vote could not “be interpreted in any way with regard to its position of principle concerning the situation [that prevails] between the Russian Federation and Ukraine.”

But the main point lies elsewhere, as Moroccan diplomacy is – once again – focused on the Sahara issue. Morocco did not want to antagonise Russia, which has permanent membership and a veto right in the Security Council. Although close to Algiers, Moscow has abstained from all votes on the Sahara.

While the kingdom might have feared a change in US policy on the Sahara issue following Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House, the opposite in fact happened. During his Maghreb tour at the end of March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US support for Morocco’s autonomy plan.

Washington, which even undertook to convince Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish government to change tack on the Sahara issue, does not seem angry that the Moroccans were absent during the vote on the UN resolutions.

Why is the US, which generally expects its allies to align themselves with its positions, turning a blind eye to Morocco’s actions? Is Morocco benefiting from preferential treatment?

Age-old ally

“It is true that Washington is particularly indulgent towards its Moroccan partner, with whom it maintains good relations. The monarchy has been one of America’s valuable allies for more than 200 years,” said Michael Shurkin, a specialist in defence issues in West Africa and director of global programmes in Africa for the consultancy firm 14 North Strategies.

These two states share a considerable amount of history. Morocco was one of the first countries to recognise US independence in 1776. Much later, during the Cold War, Rabat unambiguously sided with the West and, unlike Algeria, Nasser’s Egypt or, later, Gaddafi’s Libya, expressed hostility towards Arab nationalist movements as well as anti-imperialist and pro-Soviet campaigns.

“These facts help contextualise Moroccan pragmatism. The Americans know that there is no real substantive collusion between Morocco and Russia. Moreover, the kingdom has demonstrated that it is a bulwark against radical Islam and a sincere partner in the fight against terrorism,” says the researcher.

More recently, during the Arab Spring, the image of the stable monarchy was enforced. Mohammed VI gives the impression of being a head of state with real historical legitimacy in an Arab world that includes failed states (Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen), recent dynasties (the Gulf States) and is dominated by regimes in which the army plays a primary role (Egypt, Sudan, Algeria) – not to mention the instability that prevails in the Sahel.

This sentiment is shared by Intissar Fakir, senior fellow and director of the US think tank Middle East Institute’s North Africa and Sahel programme.

“The problems linked to human rights violations and restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Morocco appear limited compared to what is happening in other countries in the region, where authoritarianism is on the rise,” he says.

According to the researcher, the US simply cannot afford to fall out with the kingdom. “Trade and maritime flows could be disrupted at a highly strategic crossing point,” he says.

“Without being naive, the Americans prefer the Moroccan monarchy to the Arab world’s secular dictatorships. They know that its fall would open the door to the emergence of Islamist groups,” says Shurkin. “It is likely that if the Sahara had been annexed by another country, the US would have been more active in seeking a diplomatic solution. They preferred to not question their partnership with Morocco, which, moreover, enjoys a positive image in US opinion.”

Beyond these historical and political reasons, geostrategic considerations also come into play. “The relations and influence that Morocco has in Europe, the Middle East and the Sahel, and the desire of the Moroccan authorities to extend their diplomatic ties and partnerships in Africa, make Rabat a strategic and inexpensive ally for the US,” concluded Fakir.

The Ramstein meeting

On 26 April, the US held a meeting with 40 of its allies at its base in Ramstein, Germany, to assess Ukraine’s military needs. Even though Rabat had held back diplomatically, a delegation led by Abdellatif Loudiyi, the minister delegate in charge of the National Defence Administration, attended the summit.

Should this be interpreted as Morocco expressing gratitude for the US’ recent statements on the Sahara? A source close to the case confirms that the Moroccan line remains that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which, following its non-participation in the first UN vote, had expressed its “strong attachment to respecting the territorial integrity, sovereignty and national unity of all UN member states.” Morocco’s presence in Ramstein is therefore essentially symbolic.

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