A meeting between the monarchs of Morocco and Saudi Arabia in Riyadh should have cooled tempers between the two governments for the moment but it will be the Libya crisis which could re-ignite them.
The Moroccan king has a lot on his plate at the moment. Recently it was reported by media in the Maghreb kingdom that Mohamed VI travelled to Saudi Arabia to follow up on his own foreign minister’s wishes of “brotherly” endearment towards King Salman.
While both these figures have a patent affection and respect for one another, however, it is their geopolitics and the goals of their governments which threatens to put Rabat and Riyadh on a collision course in the longer run, with a fundamental disagreement over Libya playing a leading role in that discourse.
Until now, the spat between Saudi Arabia and Morocco was reported to be about a documentary which the Saudis produced some time back but chose to air recently on Western Sahara, which very few doubt was a somewhat churlish response to the Moroccan King failing to extend an official invitation to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), following the Khashoggi scandal which pointed the finger at him. But the tension between these countries goes back further and started when the Moroccans discovered that the Saudis chose to back the US bid for the 2026 World Cup and not Morocco’s – support which Rabat was banking on and had assumed was a done deal.
Historically, these two countries have been on the same page geopolitically, and so it was not necessary for Morocco’s foreign minister to talk of ‘red lines’ (areas which other countries who wish to enjoy good relations with Morocco should not cross).
Western Sahara is one such 'no-go zone' which in the past the Saudis have respected and more or less agree on anyway. The Moroccans reciprocated this on Yemen and even went one stage further and sent troops to Yemen to support the Saudis in their war there which has cost billions and has proved to be a thorn in the side of MBS. Perhaps Rabat was told by Saudi officials they could bank on the World Cup support and felt betrayed by the Saudis. It’s unclear at this stage.
But what is more evident is that while these two monarchs can patch up their differences over these issues, geopolitically they are drifting farther apart and there is a substantial risk in the coming years that Morocco will be alienated from the sphere of Saudi/GCC countries’ influence.
Morocco has always enjoyed good relations with Saudi Arabia but has never succumbed in any way to Riyadh’s power and influence or geopolitical hegemony. Indeed, one could argue that Morocco had shown, to some extent, some lack of respect towards the Saudis regional power by extending its relations with Qatar, which became the victim of a dirty tricks campaign when the Saudis hacked into its media as part of a ruse to destabilise it in May 2017.
It’s often reported that Morocco was one of the first – if not the first – Arab country to send food aid to Qatar once the Saudi blockade started and wishes to play no role in the blockade itself which.
For Morocco the traditional geopolitical model of Saudi Arabia more or less calling the shots in the Arab Sunni world versus a few Iranian satellites was never a realistic one – and not a polarised power game which it could ever sign up to. Other Muslim countries, like Qatar and Turkey, have also opted for a third way following the end of the Cold War, the fall in gasoline prices and the world changing. Even Egypt has aspirations to be more neutral and to improve relations with Russia, for example.
But both Riyadh and its king have a tricky manoeuvre to play now as this delicate tightrope act – stay close to the Saudis but not too close – might have seen its day.
Libya now threatens to polarise the Middle East once again and force countries who resist being bundled into one camp or another to take tough decisions. The problem with Libya is that the two groups which have emerged – primarily East versus West if you consider that Russia does not militarily support Haftar – put Morocco in a very tight corner.
Haftar enjoys the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, France and the US, with some limited, yet diplomatic support to some extent from President Putin of Russia.
On the other hand, the UN recognised government of Libya, run by Fayez al Sarraj has the token support of Algeria and Morocco (two countries which historically clash on regional issues, in particular, Western Sahara).
Morocco hosted the UN talks in 2015 in the coastal town of Skhirat and has excellent relations with the Sarraj government which is at pains to underline that it is, like Morocco, a full member of the Arab Maghreb Union. One could even argue that it was the Skhirat Agreement which formed the basis for both Sarraj and Haftar to agree to elections in the country in February of this year.
Rabat fundamentally disagrees with the Saudi-UAE support towards Haftar and much prefers to emphasise the original 2015 UN peace agreement which Morocco played a key role in drafting.
Despite a senior Libyan official recently telling media that the attack on Tripoli by Haftar’s forces effectively cancels the Morocco deal, Rabat would ideally like both sides to stick to it, at all costs, even though Haftar himself effectively annulled the agreement in December 2017.
And so, while the Moroccan media has dutifully reported the visit to Saudi Arabia of Mohamed VI, there has been no official statement which follows, perhaps suggesting that any feel-good statement about patching up their differences is still far from reality.
The capture and subsequent suicide of a UAE spy in Turkey in recent days will no doubt inflame the Emirati and Saudi mindset to hit back at the Turks. The incident in Turkey will be the basis of hot-headed decisions to strike back at the Turk-Qatar coalition which has been carrying out joint air force exercises in recent days, in a demonstration no doubt designed to vex the Saudis.
Morocco’s steadfast policy on Libya – a political solution backed by the UN – may well place it at odds not only with its friends in the Middle East but also with France its former colonial power. It will face difficult times in the coming months and its friendship with oil-rich Gulf Arab countries will be strained and might even reach a breaking point.
Rabat’s foreign minister's visit a few weeks ago to most GCC countries - but which skipped the UAE - has already resulted in the Emirati ambassador in Rabat returning to his home country. Morocco’s ‘special status’ that it acquired with the EU in 2008 after years of arguing its case, was well worth the wait. But Rabat will have to wait even longer if it expects Saudi Arabia and the UAE to follow the same lead.
Morocco may well look to the GCC region as a source of aid and investment (as Jordan enjoys) but will not be satisfied with token gifts from the Saudis like naming a sporting event after the Moroccan King. They will have to try harder.
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