Rabat – Dressed in Moroccan-style outfits, First Lady Michelle Obama and her daughters attended an iftar meal in Marrakesh last night with members of the King Mohammed VI’s family.
Mrs. Obama and her two daughters dressed in kaftan dresses – traditional Moroccan robes for special occasions — appropriately modified for the three American visitors. The First Lady wore a simple, patterned kaftan dress with traditional Moroccan-style buttons down the middle, while her daughters dressed in long, patterned dresses reminiscent of the Moroccan robes. Members of the royal family wore more ornate, traditional kaftans. The First Family’s decision to wear Moroccan-inspired clothing and participation in this important Ramadan ritual symbolized the friendship and cultural exchange that has characterized the two nations’ diplomatic relations for centuries.
Since declaring independence in 1776, America has benefitted from largely positive relations with the Kingdom. Morocco was one of the first nations to seek diplomatic relations with the nascent United States; diplomacy between the two countries in the late 18th century began a long history of cooperation based on economic opportunities. The strong relationship between the two countries has been underpinned by friendly relations between leaders since its inception. George Washington, the first American president, wrote a letter to Sultan Sidi Mohamed praising him as a “Great and Magnanimous Friend.” Multiple American presidents and leaders traveled the Kingdom throughout the 20th century, and King Hassan II and King Mohammed VI each visited Washington several times.
Today, Morocco is an important strategic ally for the United States with respect to counterterrorism efforts, sustainable development, and spreading democracy and education in the MENA region. The United States has invested heavily in trade and foreign aid in Morocco and has established many government-funded cultural exchange programs for students from both countries.
However, debates over U.N. presence in the Western Sahara strained relations between the Kingdom and America this spring. After U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon referred to Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara as an “occupation” in March, Morocco expelled U.N. civilian staff from the region. In April, the United States proposed that U.N Security Council require Morocco to readmit the expelled workers. The United States has largely supported Morocco’s stances regarding the Western Sahara in the past. Some leaders, including Hillary Clinton, have even been criticized by pro-Polisario groups for their close alignment with Rabat’s policies. However, America’s support for the reinstatement of U.N. workers in the region this spring angered Morocco.
Mrs. Obama’s visit the Kingdom and commitment to cooperation with the Moroccan government to improve girls’ educational opportunities indicates the two nations’ desire to move beyond the tension of the spring. In a blog post detailing her trip, the First Lady noted that Morocco is one of the United States’ “oldest allies” and an “important partner” in America’s initiatives to increase access to girls’ education. While in the Kingdom, she announced that the American government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation will invest $100 million to reorient and improve secondary school in Morocco. According to Mrs. Obama, these funds will help 50,000 teenage girls access secondary education.
The First Lady’s investment in girls’ education in Morocco indicates the United States’s reaffirmed commitment to strong political relations with Morocco after the tensions of the spring. However, pictures of Mrs. Obama and her daughters dressed in Moroccan-style clothing and smiling broadly next to Lalla Salma at the iftar indicate that the relationship between the two countries is not only strategic. The First Family’s visit is the most recent manifestation of a long history of cross-cultural friendship between Moroccan and American leaders, a relationship that will be increasingly important as xenophobic anxiety rises across the world.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Obamas wore kaftans. They wore Kaftan dresses.