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Saudi-Morocco relations hit all-time low

Tension in Moroccan-Saudi relations has been silently brewing since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Gulf kingdom's de facto ruler, political analysts in Morocco say.
Tension in Moroccan-Saudi relations has been silently brewing since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Gulf kingdom's de facto ruler, political analysts in Morocco say.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Morocco have reached an all-time low after Morocco pulled its ambassador from Riyadh over the Western Sahara issue, just days after leaving the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

This latest spat represents a new low in an ongoing crisis between Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Rabat this weekend recalled its envoy to Riyadh, citing a report by Saudi channel Al Arabiya on the disputed Western Sahara region. Though Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have traditionally supported Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara – a former Spanish colony that is also claimed by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front – the Al Arabiya documentary is said to have diverged from this official position.

The move came just days after Morocco decided to withdraw from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Two Moroccan researchers told Anadolu yesterday that Rabat's decision to withdraw from the coalition was "expected", especially in light of what they called "obstacles" that have recently characterised relations between the two countries.

The absence of any official statement from the two countries until midday yesterday has left the future of relations between them open to all possibilities.

READ: Sahrawis protest against Algeria over civilian kidnapping

Western Sahara increases tensions

The issue of Western Sahara lies behind the strained relations between Saudi Arabia and Morocco. This has been worsened by Morocco's neutral stance towards the Gulf rift – in which Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed an 18-month blockade on Qatar – and because Morocco did not receive Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) during his last Middle East tour. It is believed Morocco's position was influenced by the international repercussions of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October.

In a statement Friday to the pro-establishment "360" website, Morocco's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mustafa Al-Mansouri, said that "his country [had] recalled him from Riyadh, in order to consult on relations between the two countries," describing the situation as "just a phase".

Al-Mansouri pointed out that the reason for his recall was Al Arabiya's broadcasting of a video report against the "territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Morocco," which was interpreted as indicating support for the Polisario Front's independence campaign. Al Arabiya's report was itself seen as a reaction to an interview with the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Nasser Bourita, in a talk show with the Qatari Al Jazeera channel.

Though Al-Mansouri asserted that "things will soon be fixed, especially in light of historical relations between the two countries," no official statement has yet been issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

READ: Evidence shows Khashoggi murder planned, carried out by Saudi officials

A day after Al-Mansouri was summoned, local newspapers published news that Rabat had recalled its ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mohammed Ait Ouali. Bourita, however, denied the recall in a statement reported by Russian agency Sputnik, saying: "The news is fake, baseless [and] not issued by an official."

Morocco considers the Western Sahara issue as a measure of its relations with other countries. The dispute began in 1975, after Spain ended its presence in the region. The subsequent dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front turned into an armed conflict that lasted until 1991, before ending with a ceasefire agreement.

Rabat insists on its right to the Western Sahara and proposes "self-management under its sovereignty" as a solution, while the Polisario Front has demanded a referendum to determine the fate of the region. This proposal is supported by Algeria, which hosts displaced refugees fleeing the region.

Worrying indicators

Although Morocco and Saudi Arabia have historically shared "privileged" relations and share many military, economic and security cooperation agreements, in recent months a number of issues have revealed a widening gap between the two countries. Morocco opted for neutrality in the Gulf crisis and offered to mediate between the conflicting parties. It also sent an aircraft loaded with food to Qatar, and the Moroccan monarch later visited Qatari capital Doha to meet with Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani.

The latest issue was the crisis that followed the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, given that Morocco – unlike many Arab countries – did not express any position in solidarity with Saudi Arabia. Relations were further soured after Saudi Arabia voted against Morocco's hosting of the 2026 World Cup and voted instead for the United States, Canada and Mexico to host the tournament.

READ: US envoy tasked with resolving Gulf crises resigns citing lack of 'progress'

"Expected" position

Two Moroccan researchers told Anadolu that their country's decision last week to withdraw from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and to summon Rabat's ambassador to Saudi Arabia for consultations was "expected".

Political science professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Khaled Yaymut, said that "Morocco's position was expected, especially as the foreign minister expressed it diplomatically in [his] interview with Al Jazeera". Yaymut added that "his country had [adopted] positions against the war in Yemen," which came after the US called for an end to the war in Yemen.

Yaymut added that "from 2014 to 2018, Morocco has found itself faced with a number of declared and undeclared agreements with Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and until now the only country that has kept its commitments is Qatar". He continued: "Morocco has a big project that is not being circulated in the media, which is its intention to become a regional gas powerhouse, and the only country that has expressed logistical support for this is Qatar."

The second Moroccan researcher, Khaled Al-Shayat, said that "these developments were expected in view of the [existing] conflict between the two countries," pointing out that "Morocco's remaining in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has become meaningless, especially as the conflicting parties are in advanced stages of direct conflict".

READ: Trump objects to measure ending US support for Saudis in Yemen war

Al-Shayat explained that "his country [Morocco] has found itself in a coalition that has no practical achievements," adding: "The two countries have recently been witnessing a crisis. Despite the obstacles that the two countries had previously faced in light of a strategic relationship, this had not reached the current situation."

The future of relations?

Saudi Arabia has not officially responded to this unfolding crisis so far. The researchers consider that the future of relations between the two countries is open to all possibilities, especially in light of the ongoing tensions that underlie the current crisis. Al-Shayat predicted that Saudi Arabia will continue to target Morocco's interests, especially in an unofficial way through researchers, officials or the media.

Al-Shayat added: "It is difficult to believe in any case that relations between the two countries will return to what they used to be in the past."

READ: US military exercise brings Moroccan and Algerian soldiers together

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