by David Hernández Martínez
Upon the outbreak of the Arab Spring, relations between Morocco and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council rapidly solidified. In just six years the association between Rabat and (respectively) Riyadh, Doha and Dubai has grown considerably, with common concerns ranging from the economic to the strategic. These close ties may now be hampered due to the crisis between Qatar and the rest of the neighbours, directly affecting Moroccan interests.
Morocco’s main international allies have historically been the US, France and Spain, who have pursued a policy of protecting the royal dynasty and overseeing the political changes that have been taking place. The country has great strategic value, not only for its location between Europe and Africa, but also given its importance within the Maghreb area and ties to the greater Arab world.
As such, in addition to ties with fellow Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, Morocco maintains a strategic alliance with the US (which is, in fact, Washington’s oldest). Moroccan kings have long been supported as bulwarks of containment: during the Cold War they were a barrier against revolutionary and socialist movements, and later against the threat of Islamist radicalism and jihadism. The US and Europe have long considered Rabat their most reliable ally in the area.
Mohamed VI has been on the throne since 1999. Following the guidelines of his father Hassan II, he has attempted to conduct a foreign policy of “good neighbourliness” with the Arab States of the Maghreb and the Middle East, with the exception of Algeria with whom Morocco still has an unresolved border dispute. It is not surprising that Morocco has friendly relations with countries as geopolitically diverse as Israel and Iran, since conflicts and controversies have always taken a backseat in Moroccan diplomacy.
During the months of February and March 2011 the Arab Spring arrived in Morocco, with citizens’ movements taking to the streets to demand broad political changes. This was a crucial moment in the recent history of the country. Mohamed VI, advised by France, Spain and the United States, carried out reforms to convert the regime into a constitutional monarchy. In addition, the leader tried to diversify his partners on the international scene, to look for new allies and expand trade.
Throughout this time, the Saudi princes have sought to incorporate Morocco and Jordan into the Saudi fold. The House of Saud has tightened its relations with the Moroccan monarchy to achieve three main objectives: 1) to gain a greater presence in North Africa; 2) to bring another Arab State within its circle of influence; 3) to prevent any Islamist movement from disturbing the status quo as happened in Egypt.
Morocco has received beneficial political and economic support from Saudi Arabia and other GCC members. In recent years Rabat has managed to close important trade agreements with these governments, leading recently to massive Saudi investment in Morocco’s military industry. Beyond the economic sphere, Morocco has also secured new sources of diplomatic support, who stand ready to provide assistance in case of any internal unrest.
As relations between Morocco and the GCC were growing, the diplomatic crisis with Qatar emerged. This situation has been a source of great unease for the Moroccan government. Mohamed VI neither wants to be involved in this conflict, nor lose favour with any of the parties. Like Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad of Kuwait, the king of Morocco is attempting to remain neutral, seeking to act as a mediator.
A few days after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Libya and Yemen broke relations with Qatar, the king of Morocco decided to send several airplanes with food to the small emirate. While Mohamed VI has helped the Doha government to resist the blockade from its neighbours, he has continued to maintain his relationship with the Saudis, trying to ensure that his reputation as a neutral and conciliatory actor is not tarnished.
This regional crisis coincides with the high-water mark of Morocco’s foreign outreach policy. Since 2015, Mohamed VI has worked hard to strengthen his ties throughout the Middle East and Africa. Morocco was one of the first countries to join the international coalition led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, it has re-established relations with Egypt after having cut them in response to the coup d’état of 2013, and it has rejoined the African Union, which Morocco had abandoned in the 1980s over the question of Western Sahara.
Morocco has always been protective of its independence and wary of losing autonomy in any international arrangements. For this reason, Moroccan governments have taken great care of their participation in international organisations and possible regional conflicts. Saudi Arabia has been aiming for Morocco and Jordan to join the GCC since 2011, but Rabat has taken no concrete steps towards acceding. Mohamed VI needs the money and political support of the Gulf monarchies, but he does not want to be subjugated beneath Saudi power and get embroiled in controversies like the current one.
Most Gulf monarchies saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to expand their influence. Saudi Arabia acted in most cases as a counter-revolutionary force, quick to support those regimes facing crises of legitimacy as Morocco did. Qatar has chosen to participate in the majority of local conflicts to expand its network of influence. Mohamed VI does not want to have to choose between Riyadh and Doha. However, this attitude is becoming increasingly difficult, as the months go on with no solution in sight for the Gulf countries.
David Hernández Martínez is a visiting researcher at the Middle East Centre. He is also a researcher in the International Relations Department of the Complutense University of Madrid. His fields of research include regional politics and security in the Middle East and the Maghreb. He tweets at @david_hm91