Lessons in Diplomatic Tightrope-Walking Pt 1: Moroccan objectives and concerns in a post-COVID geopolitical environment

Archishman Ray Goswami is a second-year student studying the BA International Relations Programme. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the KCL Geopolitical Risk Society. In the first part of this series, he looks at Morocco’s relations with its key Western allies- the USA and France.

This series discusses Morocco’s foreign policy in a post-Coronavirus world, and looks at her relations with a number of countries in the MENA region and beyond. As an oft-overlooked but significant stakeholder in Middle Eastern and North African geopolitics, Rabat will have to tread lightly in a world potentially split by Sino-American rivalry in the post-COVID era. Yet various factors, political and otherwise, will cause her to re-evaluate historical friendships, work to quell any signs of domestic unrest in a politically unstable political atmosphere. All this will happen even as Moroccan policymakers keep an eye on the disputed Western Sahara region and the looming scourge of terrorism led by Al-Qaeda and ISIS, both of whom seek to expand in the region. This series will look at Morocco’s relations with the following countries, and how and why they may or may not change over the course of the 2020s. These include: Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Russia, Turkey, China, France and the USA. Each part of this series will look at Rabat’s future geopolitical considerations vis-à-vis each of these nations.

Note: This series will make numerous references to the disputed region of Western Sahara and the separatist group POLISARIO in the area. The region, however, will not be analysed in detail unless specified, and will only be mentioned in regard to Morocco’s foreign policy vis-à-vis other countries. For a deeper understanding of the geopolitics of the Western Sahara, please read this earlier analysis on KCL IR Today.

Part One- All along the Watchtower: Morocco and the West in a turbulent age

In the era of COVID-19, it is worth recollecting that nowhere will the pandemic’s geopolitical impact be felt more than in North Africa. As international attention refocuses onto the MENA region in a post-Covid age, Morocco -a significant political player in this theatre- may become a flashpoint of regional geostrategy.

Thus, an understanding of Morocco’s foreign policy can help predict the direction that North African geopolitics will take in the 2020s. Part One of this series focusses on Morocco’s diplomatic relations with the USA and France. The factors that drive Rabat’s line of policy with respect to these countries are also analysed, as is the extent to which they may be subject to change.

  1. The USA

Morocco shares a somewhat special relationship with the US, with diplomatic ties dating back to 1777[1]. Relations remain strong, with Washington recently offering the Moroccan government- also a major non-NATO ally- a grant of $5.7 million in May 2020 to fight COVID-19[2].

Moreover, Washington’s support for Morocco on its claim on Western Sahara dates back to the Cold War. Support continues even today. In September 2019, the State Department cleared a near-$1 billion arms deal with Morocco, supplying her with F-16 fighter jets that would be used against potential POLISARIO-backed Sahrawi separatist insurgents[3]. However, US-Morocco ties have shown recent signs of wear. The 2010s saw Washington’s stance on Western Sahara falter slightly with its 2018 vote to limit the extension of the UN mission in the area, MINURSO, to six months from a year[4]. Morocco criticised the move, since MINURSO’s withdrawal could potentially re-ignite conflict and threaten Moroccan authority in the area. Nevertheless, in February 2019, the USA provided Morocco with funds which it also clearly stated were available for Rabat’s development projects in Western Sahara- an apparent signal that Washington’s pro-Rabat Western Sahara policy won’t change anytime soon[5].

Yet the fact remains that neither the Obama nor Trump administrations have given any personal assurances supporting Morocco’s territorial claims in the region, unlike Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush. This raises questions as to whether pragmatism has changed Washington’s Western Sahara policy. Indeed, with growing war-weariness domestically, Washington is unlikely to focus military resources towards reinforcing military presence in Africa. Morocco may thus lose its previous relevance as the USA’s force multiplier in MENA. Washington had already contemplated withdrawing US troops from Africa in December 2019, and while Defence Secretary Mark Esper later denied that a complete removal would occur, he still admitted that troop withdrawals were under review[6]. All this suggests that Morocco could also lose its ability to negotiate US support for its stance on Western Sahara.

Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that ties will nosedive based simply on speculation regarding certain US actions. Rabat’s most likely course of action will be to maintain a studied silence. Although such status-quoism remains flexible due to other factors (explained later in this series), the USA’s tendency to support Rabat’s actions will positively help stop differences from escalating.

  1. France

Franco-Moroccan ties are equally cordial. As one of the largest recipients of French investment in Africa, Morocco, with its recent re-admission into the African Union, provides France with a window to pursue its Françafrique policy. Franco-Moroccan relations are also influenced by culture and people-to-people relations- approximately a third of Moroccans speak French and 18.4% of France’s immigrant population are Moroccan[7].

However, diplomatic ties are equally guided by tension and necessity. Morocco is the only African country sharing a land border with a European country- the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Thus, she holds a significant stake in the discourse about African refugee and migrant crises vis-à-vis domestic politics in France. The 2015 Syrian refugee crisis triggered a wave of populism across Europe, causing turbulent, institutional changes in politics, society and culture. France’s current dispensation is determined to avoid the re-occurrence of such nativist unrest, even as it grapples with the Coronavirus and the Yellow Vests movements[8]. Therefore, Paris looks to stay friendly with Rabat, given that the Ceuta border is a major point of entry for EU-bound migrant flows. Morocco in turn recognises the significance of this pressure point in attaining political assurance from France.

Like the USA, however, France worries about Chinese influence in Morocco. While this factor will be discussed in greater detail in Part 2, it is important to highlight that France views Chinese investment as an encroachment on her sphere of influence. One such example was when Beijing recently outbid Paris to help build the high-speed Marrakesh-Agadir railway line at half the cost[9]. Given French companies’ previous investments in Morocco’s railway network, she views such developments with caution, especially as COVID-19 is causing Sino-French relations to diminish significantly. France has thus attempted coercing Morocco to move away from China by altering her traditionally pro-Rabat stance on Western Sahara, fast-tracking political asylum claims from anti-government journalists and Sahrawi separatists[10]. However, France’s broader domestic political considerations and strategic commitments in Africa will have to be borne in mind when devising a specific policy regarding Morocco.

French military commitments in Africa have also allowed Morocco to utilize her strategic location to dilute recent discordance with Paris. The French Army’s Operation Barkhane in the Sahel, taking place in conjunction with Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso, is aimed at preventing a nexus between regional ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates. French commitment to Operation Barkhane was reiterated in February 2020, when 600 more troops were sent to the Sahel[11]. Moroccan policymakers understand that given Western Sahara’s border with Mauritania, France has no option but to work alongside Morocco for logistical support as long as French troops remain in Africa. Furthermore, Rabat has a history of sharing terror-related intelligence with the West (most notably during the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack) and is one of the few MENA countries with the necessary infrastructure to do so. Subsequently, France will need to work with Morocco, despite recent posturing.

Overall, Morocco’s ties with the West remain quite cordial despite certain issues of difference. Nonetheless, the situation remains flexible as the anti-Western Russo-Chinese bloc begins making overtures to Morocco. Details of this are analysed in greater detail in Part Two.

Bibliography

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kerryadolan/2013/11/21/why-morocco-matters-to-the-u-s/#22d92d884f75

[2] https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2020/05/304184/moroccan-fm-receives-us-ambassador-amid-covid-19-crisis/

[3] https://www.defensenews.com/global/mideast-africa/2019/09/13/morocco-cleared-to-buy-almost-1b-in-american-missiles-and-bombs/#:~:text=Morocco%20hopes%20to%20arm%20its,of%20just%20under%20%241%20billion.

[4] https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/06/western-sahara-problems-us-push-peace

[5] https://thearabweekly.com/morocco-feels-vindicated-western-sahara-us-bill

[6] https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2020/01/30/esper-says-us-military-not-withdrawing-from-africom/

[7] https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2019/10/284246/moroccans-make-up-nearly-20-of-frances-immigrant-population/#:~:text=Moroccans%20are%20the%20second%20largest,to%20the%20Maghrebi%20immigrant%20community.

[8] https://www.thelocal.fr/20200518/yellow-vests-protests-restart-on-first-weekend-france-loosens-its-lockdown

[9] https://thekootneeti.in/2020/02/14/france-and-morocco-in-a-diplomatic-stand-off/

[10] Ibid.

[11] https://www.france24.com/en/20200202-france-sahel-africa-parly-troops-army-soldiers-defence-minister-florence-mali-burkina-faso-niger

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