Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the decline of Islamist groups in North Africa as a win for regional stability and cooperation; but even if Islamist parties may be slowly fading from the picture, this by no means suggests they are disappearing.
Important regional developments in recent weeks have highlighted Morocco’s strong – and sometimes conflicting – economic and political ties with Gulf Arab states. On October 28, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country to announce that it would be opening a consulate in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which is de-facto under Morocco’s control. This was a major diplomatic victory for Morocco, as well as a sign of a tightening bond between Morocco and the UAE. Two weeks earlier, Morocco took steps suggesting support for the informal Saudi-led boycott of Turkish products that has been gaining momentum over the past two years. On October 15, Rabat raised taxes on imported Turkish goods by up to 90%. These new restrictions came just before Morocco’s Cabinet began to review the Moroccan-Turkish free trade agreement that was signed in 2004 and officially began in 2006.
While Morocco has maintained official neutrality in the Gulf dispute and has strong economic ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, it appears Morocco is aligning itself more directly with the Saudi-UAE axis. However, these significant developments should be understood in the context of growing regional competition between Gulf Arab states, as well as Turkish-French tensions, and Morocco’s own strategic interests. They also suggest that Morocco could become the next Arab country to reach an agreement to normalize ties with Israel, following the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan.
Morocco’s Strategic Interests
Rabat’s most pressing foreign policy priority is to gain greater international recognition for its control over the disputed Western Sahara territory. The area, known in Morocco as the southern provinces, was under Spanish control until 1974 and was annexed by Morocco in 1975. This led to a 16-year armed conflict between the Moroccan government and the Polisario, a political group made up of Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawi people and supported by regional rival Algeria. A United Nations-brokered cease-fire was agreed upon in 1991 with the commitment by Morocco that a referendum on independence would take place (though it never did).
The Polisario declared the founding of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic in 1976, which continues to be recognized by several countries and regional institutions, including the African Union. Since then, Morocco and the Polisario have been locked in diplomatic and political battles about who should govern the contested territory. Morocco insists that Western Sahara is under its sovereignty and seeks to avoid a referendum on independence, though it is offering an autonomy plan as a way out of the conflict. Meanwhile the Polisario demands the implementation of the U.N. plan. Morocco de facto controls the majority of the territory, but it is still considered an international conflict by the U.N., which continues to renew its mission’s mandate.
This is why the UAE’s plan to become the first Arab country to open a consulate in Laayoune, the capital of the disputed territory, is a big win for Morocco, helping to legitimize Rabat’s control over the territory. More than 15 African countries already have opened consulates in Western Sahara as a part of their diplomatic missions to the Kingdom of Morocco, in a show of support for the country’s control over the disputed region. Much of this took place after Morocco rejoined the African Union in early 2017, and King Mohammed VI embarked on a diplomatic tour across the continent, offering stronger diplomatic ties and robust aid, investment, and infrastructure deals. The motivations behind this were to ensure greater African support for Morocco’s control over Western Sahara and to bolster Morocco’s economic and diplomatic links with some of the biggest African economies, such as Nigeria.
Another factor in the UAE’s decision is likely related to its campaign to encourage more countries in the region to agree to normalize ties with Israel. Israel has been lobbying the administration of President Donald J. Trump to officially endorse Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. In exchange, Morocco would agree to normalize relations with Israel. Reports from 2019 indicated that Morocco’s foreign minister had discussed normalization with Israel’s prime minister. These meetings have been officially denied by the Moroccan government, especially Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani, from the Justice and Development Party, who said that he rejected “all forms of normalization with Israel.” However, soon after Othmani notably corrected himself, saying he was speaking on behalf of his Islamist-affiliated political party and not on behalf of the government. This sudden and conspicuous change suggested that the prime minister was likely pressured by the royal palace to qualify his statement and leave the door open for normalization. Even if the Islamist-led government, and perhaps Moroccan society at large, is against normalization, King Mohammed VI and his key advisors have the final say on all major political decisions.
It seems that Morocco’s and the UAE’s foreign policy interests are increasingly aligning. This could indicate that Morocco is ready to position itself more solidly with the Saudi-Emirati regional axis, repairing previous episodes of diplomatic spats between Morocco and Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Tensions burst to the fore on several occasions, especially since Morocco decided to remain officially neutral in the Gulf dispute and even sent planeloads of food to Qatar after the blockade began. Even after Morocco cut diplomatic ties with Iran in May 2018, in what seemed to be an overture to the Trump administration and Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these same Gulf Arab allies voted against Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup. Morever, after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Morocco notably did not host Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his November 2018 tour across the Arab world. Then, Morocco decided to cease its support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in early 2019. Reports even surfaced that Morocco recalled its ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and UAE after Al Arabiya aired a documentary that criticized Morocco’s position on Western Sahara.
Investment and foreign direct investment are integral components of Morocco’s relationship with Gulf Arab states. Saudi direct investment in Morocco has been decreasing since 2015, leading some experts to argue that the era of strategic partnerships between Morocco and some Gulf Arab states is over. However, this is part of a general trend of declining FDI in Morocco, especially from its key European partners, due to economic downturns and shifting priorities; overall FDI to Morocco fell by 55% in 2019, while investment from Arab countries has fallen for three consecutive years. However, the important exception to this trend has been FDI from the UAE and Qatar, which increased by 9% in 2019. The UAE remains the leading Arab investor in Morocco.
Could growing diplomatic and economic cooperation with the UAE hurt Morocco’s ties with Qatar and Turkey? The UAE is Morocco’s top investment partner from the Gulf, but economic and security ties with Qatar are also robust. Morocco will no doubt attempt to walk this tightrope to ensure continued cooperation with all parties. But the UAE could use its expanding regional role, and its vast economic resources, to convince Morocco of the benefits of a stronger alliance with the Saudi-Emirati axis over that of Qatar and Turkey.
Turkish Boycott Versus French Boycott
Other indicators also suggest that Morocco is swinging back toward the Saudi-Emirati regional alliance. Notably, there are the aforementioned steps suggesting that Morocco is joining the informal, Saudi-led boycott of Turkish goods, which began after Saudi-Turkish tensions spiked following the killing of Khashoggi in Istanbul. Most recently, the head of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce, Ajlan al-Ajlan, called for the boycott of “everything Turkish,” including imports, investment, and tourism, in response to the “continued hostility of the Turkish government.” The unofficial boycott of Turkish products has hit the international fashion scene as well. The Financial Times reported that fashion brands like Mango were exploring alternatives to Turkish suppliers because of the “slowing down of customs processes for products of Turkish origin in Saudi Arabia.”
Some analysts view Morocco’s decision as independent from the Saudi-led boycott of Turkish goods, arguing that the Morocco-Turkey trade imbalances needed to be addressed and the free trade agreement needed to be renegotiated, irrespective of intensifying tensions between Turkey and Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Others point out that the timing of this reassessment reflects growing concerns from some of Morocco’s chief allies (France, the United States, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia) about Turkey’s aggressive foreign policies in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya. Recent sparring between the Turkish and French presidents is escalating tensions between Turkey (and Gulf allies like Qatar) on one side and France (with Gulf allies like the UAE and Saudi Arabia) on the other. After the beheading of a French teacher who displayed controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on freedom of speech, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a eulogy defending free expression and secularism that was criticized by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for being hostile to Islam. In an October speech, Erdogan chastised the French president, asking “What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam,” declaring “Macron needs treatment on a mental level.”
Erodgan then called for a boycott of French goods and companies, which many politicians, food chains, and citizens in the region have publicly supported. Political leaders across the Middle East have called Macron’s comments divisive and chastised them for promoting Islamophobia, and people have expressed outrage on social media. The boycott of French goods has been most effective in Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Iran. Criticism from Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been notably muted. The UAE has been especially careful about publicly criticizing the French government. Saudi Arabia condemned linking Islam with terrorism and the French cartoons depicting the prophet but has shied away from embracing calls for a boycott of French products. Yet, calls for boycotting the French chain Carrefour nonetheless began trending among Saudis on Twitter, reflecting a disconnect between public opinion and government policy.
The hashtag #boycottFrenchproducts was recently trending across Moroccan Twitter accounts in response to Macron’s statements. The Moroccan government condemned the publication of offensive cartoons of the prophet and Islam as well as all violence perpetrated in the name of Islam. Even if the boycott is popular among some, France is Morocco’s most important economic and trade partner and Morocco likely cannot economically or politically afford to support the calls.
A Shift in Morocco’s Gulf Partnerships?
While it is difficult to determine the extent to which these developments reflect a fundamental shift in Morocco’s policies toward its Gulf Arab allies and the Gulf divide, the UAE’s move to become the first Arab country to open a consulate in the disputed Western Sahara territory was a very important step. It suggests that Morocco may be leaning toward normalization of relations with Israel, something that would surely bolster its alliance with the Emiratis and bring along significant economic benefits in the form of aid and investment, as well as greater diplomatic support for Morocco’s control over Western Sahara from other countries following the UAE’s decision. Finally, economic and diplomatic tensions between Morocco and Turkey could accelerate this shift, given Turkey’s intensifying competition with France. This puts Morocco in a difficult position, given the outsized importance of France as Morocco’s top economic partner. The Middle East and North Africa is a deeply interconnected region, and policy decisions implemented by middle powers like Morocco are shedding light on wider regional realignments and their strategic implications.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a consultant with the Shaikh Group’s Track II “Dialogue for Mutual Security in the Middle East” initiative.
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