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Saudi Arabia and Morocco’s wounded friendship

Moroccan soldiers march past the official stand during a military parade in Bobo Dioulasso on December 11, 2010, during celebrations marking its 50 years of independence from France [AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images]
Moroccan soldiers in Bobo Dioulasso on 11 December 2010 [AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images]

For the last two years, the traditional friendship between Saudi Arabia and Morocco has been seriously shaken. Even though officials from both sides have lately tried to lower their tone and deny deterioration of their bilateral ties, there is a strong perception that these once close allies have reached a low point.

However, it is premature to make any conclusions as to whether the current friction will lead to permanent alienation or whether the two countries are just going through a temporary crisis.

Following the documentary on Western Sahara broadcasted by Saudi-owned Al Arabiya – which described the disputed territory of Western Sahara as an “occupied” territory – Morocco reportedly recalled its ambassador to Riyadh, Mustafa Al-Mansuri. The controversial documentary was viewed in Morocco as deliberate Saudi provocation, threatening its primary foreign policy goal – the recognition of Morocco’s control over this region. Observers believe that Al Arabiya’s documentary came in response to Morocco’s announcement that it would end its support for the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen.

For James P. Farwell, a senior research scholar in strategic studies at the Munk School, Center for Global Security from Toronto and former adviser to the US Department of Defense, US Special Operations Command and the US Strategic Command on the Middle East, the emerging rift is surprising. Farwell recalls that the Kingdom has invested $22 billion in Morocco’s military and, when Morocco was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Saudi Arabia became an important foreign investor. After all, the 2011 Arab uprisings tended to solidify relationships among Arab monarchies, all of whom felt threatened by what transpired in Tunisia and Egypt. On a more personal level, King Mohammed VI’s cousins are cousins of Saudi prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal.

Read: Ambassador: Saudi Arabia considers Morocco’s territorial integrity a ‘red line’

But the emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and his aggressive policy approach has significantly changed the perception and image of Saudi Arabia. “Given Morocco’s major unease with the direction in which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is conducting Saudi foreign policy, Saudi Arabia’s deep disappointment with Rabat’s neutrality in the Qatar crisis, as well as other issues plaguing the bilateral relationship, it is not clear that ties can be mended easily, or any in a quick manner,” Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics told MEMO.

However, in late March, King Salman discussed Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Morocco in a phone call with King Mohammed VI and requested Morocco review their “brotherly relationship”. This was a clear sign that Saudi Arabia does not want to lose an important ally in North Africa, but it is highly questionable whether one phone call can fix the damage done in the past two years.

Anna Jacobs, an independent researcher based in Doha, told MEMO that King Salman’s call will help ease some of this strain temporarily but doesn’t change the fundamental roots of current tensions, namely MBS’ aggressive foreign policy in the region and Morocco’s desire to remain neutral and maintain a more independent foreign policy in the face of major regional cleavages.

This is particularly true in the case of the Qatari crisis, in which Morocco remained relatively neutral in the spat between Qatar and its neighbours.  Morocco refused to follow Saudi policy and bow to MBS’ pressure on Sunni Arab states to align with Saudi interests in the region. Morocco has expressed a clear desire to remain neutral in the GCC crisis and maintain solid relations with both the Saudi-UAE block and Qatar (and thus by extension Turkey). As a matter of fact, Morocco was one of few states that immediately sent aid to Qatar, soon after the introduction of a blockade. Solidarity with Qatar allegedly angered the Saudis so much that they voted against Morocco hosting the 2026 football World Cup. On the other side, Morocco riles MBS in refusing to welcome him during his recent Arab nations tour.

Therefore, finding common ground and resolving ever-greater differences, before they escalate into an irreparable row, won’t be an easy task

Read: After months of tensions, Morocco, Saudi discuss cooperation

Many suggest that if Saudi Arabia continues to pursue this policy it will likely face even greater isolation. The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October last year and the humanitarian consequences of the Saudi-led war in Yemen have greatly damaged the image of the Saudi Kingdom. Consequently, many countries have begun to distance themselves from Riyadh. The risk of losing an important partner in North Africa is the last thing the Saudis need at the moment.

Even though the current frictions may not necessarily mean a major rupture of the Saudi-Morocco alliance, Jacobs said that relations will remain cold for a while and that Rabat will continue with a more independent foreign policy. She pointed out that Morocco has made it clear that it will not follow Saudi Arabia on every issue, especially since MBS is coming under increasing scrutiny both within the Saudi political establishment and internationally.

It is therefore unlikely to expect any significant shift in Morocco’s foreign policy in order to improve relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi (especially regarding the Qatari crisis and Yemen). Cafiero thinks that simply cutting off ties with Qatar to please Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would certainly undermine Rabat’s ability to keep its options open. At the same time, he added, “there are Islamist factions in Morocco that would likely take issue with their government joining the Saudi/Emirati-led campaign against Doha, given that Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the underlying causes of the Gulf crisis”. Thus, domestic politics have also prompted the Moroccan leadership to break with Riyadh on the Gulf dispute.

Nevertheless, Farwell believes that their mutual security interests and cultural ties are more likely to lead to a renewal of a strong alliance and friendship between the two nations sooner or later.

Read: Saudi king calls Morocco king to review ‘brotherly relations’

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

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AfricaArticleMiddle EastMoroccoOpinionSaudi Arabia
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