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If Saudi’s MBS remains in control, more tensions with Morocco will come

February 16, 2019 at 12:15 pm

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 24 October 2018 [Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images]

Saudi-Moroccan relations are witnessing an unprecedented period of tension. Morocco has decided to pull its Ambassador from Riyadh. The Ambassador, Mustafa Al-Mansouri, has explained to 360 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 in the Western Sahara region of Morocco. This came just a few days after Morocco left the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The decision to leave the war in Yemen indicates that the coalition is becoming increasingly weak. What started as a nine-nation coalition appears, now more than ever, to be a coalition led only by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Yet despite the longstanding relations between Rabat and Riyadh, relations have reached their lowest point in decades.

“Morocco’s decision to leave the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, as well as the diplomatic row involving the recall of the ambassador, came in the aftermath of a number of issues, including the Qatar crisis, which has created tension between Rabat and Riyadh,” CEO of Gulf State Analytics Giorgio Cafiero told me. “Morocco did not join the anti-Qatar Quartet in 2017, and has maintained warm relations with Doha since this [Gulf Cooperation Council] GCC dispute broke out,” he added, referring to the ongoing Saudi-UAE blockade of Qatar.

On top of not joining the anti-Qatar Quartet, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI visited Qatari capital Doha six months after the siege began, which resulted in strengthening relations between Rabat and Doha. Furthermore, despite the fact that the king visited the UAE before heading to Doha, he did not visit Saudi Arabia, an action which may have not have pleased Riyadh.

It has also been reported that Morocco has previously declined Saudi Arabia’s request to freeze the bank accounts of those Saudi princes detained in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton. Such a refusal could easily have played a role in deepening the then-silent tensions between the two kingdoms, especially when it comes to a crown prince who seems to want all his orders executed regardless of what risks could ensue.

READ: Saudi-Morocco relations hit all-time low

In June 2018, Saudi Arabia turned its back on Morocco and supported the United States’ bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. This was received with a wave of widespread anger among Moroccans and signalled that Saudi-Morocco relations could head into a new stage weaker than in any previous period.

Arguably, the crimes committed in Yemen have led many countries which previously supported the coalition to take a step back. This happened as the world’s outrage against the war in Yemen grew, particularly in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which shone a spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen and elsewhere.

The United Nations reported on Monday that desperately needed food for millions of Yemenis “is at risk of rotting” in a key Red Sea storage facility because conditions are too unsafe to reach it. These sorts of warnings result in countries like Morocco – which tend to care about their global image – reconsidering their decisions and recalculating them. “Yet since 2015, Morocco has not been a major player in the Yemeni civil war. Thus, the decision was largely symbolic and will have little implications for events on the ground in Yemen,” Cafiero added.

A Yemeni man inspects the damage caused by a Saudi-led air strike on a cholera treatment centrer supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Abs region of Yemen on 11 June 2018. [ESSA AHMED/AFP/Getty Images]

A Yemeni man inspects the damage caused by a Saudi-led air strike on a cholera treatment centrer supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Abs region of Yemen on 11 June 2018. [ESSA AHMED/AFP/Getty Images]

During Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS)’s world tour in November, some expected Morocco would be one of his destinations. However, this did not materialise. According to Morocco World News which cited a government source close to the events -Morocco decided that it was not ready to host MBS. This suggests that even Saudi Arabia’s closest allies have begun to find it difficult to deal with Mohammed Bin Salman.

“I think this proves that even the Arab monarchies are not comfortable with the way Saudi Arabia under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is running Arab affairs,” the Director of Research and Analysis at  the Arab Center Washington DC, Dr Imad Harb, told me. “It is likely that the Moroccan government was just waiting for an excuse to step away and Al Arabiya gave it that excuse,” he added.

READ: MBS’ global campaign to silence critics exposed

In November, a report from Morocco’s treasury showed that Qatar and Kuwait are the two countries which provided the country with a pledged grant of $1.25 billion each, while Saudi Arabia paid only $868 million of the $1.25 billion pledged in 2012. This demonstrates Saudi Arabia’s failure to fulfil its promise, which could be one of the reasons that contributed to today’s ailing relations.

Moreover, in a rare step, Morocco did not support – as we are used to seeing in the past – the Saudi version of events on Khashoggi’s murder. “Morocco has misgivings about the Yemen war and the humanitarian disaster being perpetrated there, as well as the [MBS’s] responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Harb added. This elucidates the caution that Morocco has practised when it come into announcing its position on issues related to Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy recently.

“What will be important to watch is how Morocco positions itself in future conflicts and disputes that further pit the Saudi/UAE bloc against the Turkey/Qatar alliance. Other Sunni Muslim countries in the Arab world such as Kuwait and Jordan find themselves under similar pressure,” Cafiero concluded.

These series of events hint that the tensions between Morocco and Saudi Arabia have been created by cumulative factors. In light of this, Al Arabiya’s video has only added fuel to the fire and caused the Moroccans to say: “Enough is enough!”

Perhaps one reason why many countries have started to find it difficult to deal with Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is that, since MBS became crown prince, the Kingdom has started gradually to lose its traditional “Quiet Diplomacy” policy. MBS has taken the Kingdom’s diplomacy down a new offensive, arrogant and aggressive path that has weakened the Kingdom’s relations with many countries in the Middle East. As long as MBS remains the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, it seems that we should expect to more tensions between Saudi Arabia and other countries.

WATCH: Is Saudi reshuffling ministers to shelter MBS from the Khashoggi fallout?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.