Rabat – Morocco’s shift from the association with the Middle East towards embracing its African identity is evidenced in yet another step: the third annual gathering in Fez, which included the celebration of the “Afrique Central” Music. The theme of the gathering is “Africa for Africans”, and it explores Morocco’s role as a bridge between countries, continents, politics and culture.
The four-day event is organized by local Moroccans in partnership with other organizations, such as the Cervantes Institute, and explores an assortment of artistic expressions ranging from photography and music to Sufism, contemporary African art, and linguistic exchange. The shift, however, is also reflected in geopolitical moves.
Rejoining the African Union after 33 years of absence, Morocco seeks to integrate itself within the other African countries, and to prevent the domination of Algeria on the Western Sahara issue. Algeria had used Morocco’s absence to promote its own position, in support of Polisario, which threatened Morocco’s national sovereignty. However, this development means more than a diplomatic maneuver in response to an old adversary. It also represents a move away from Europe’s stagnating markets towards the growing economies in Africa’s southern countries.
Morocco is taking the initiative to be seen as an indigenous and involved part of the region, rather than merely an Arab state that happened to be physically located in Africa. Indeed, Morocco’s policies, starting with its Constitution, emphasize its diverse and multicultural identity. In pursuit of the new policy, King Mohammed VI went on a tour of African countries through December, January and February of 2017. He engaged more closely with other African leaders, including the President of Nigeria, launching strategic partnerships on a variety of business fronts.
Morocco remains a staunch Western ally; her closer union to Africa is an important opportunity for the United States to build bridges to the continent that for decades have been closely associated with development aid, diseases, wars, and corruption than with entrepreneurship, trade, and culture Renaissance. Indeed, the overwhelming focus on the Western Sahara issue in the US media’s coverage of Morocco’s return to the African Union illustrates just how much of the bigger picture the Western media is missing in its failure to ask basic questions and its engagement in shallow, predictable copy-cat analysis. And the bigger picture is this: Morocco is looking to become a leader in Africa. It already plays that role with developing the world’s largest solar power plant.
Likewise, in his effort to modernize the country, the king has taken on corruption in a transparent constitutional move, that leaves no lingering questions. He first launched an audit in a probe of unfulfilled promises related to the development the Northern Moroccan city of Al Hoceima, in response to seven-month-long-protest movements. As a result of the probe, several senior officials were sacked and banned from holding public office. That is an important signal to send to the country, and likewise follows a concerted movement to disassociate the country from the corrupt image of the Middle East, and towards the growth-oriented hub of African countries.
The move towards the embrace of its African identity for Morocco is as symbolic as it is pragmatic. Hoping to project its role as a bridge between continents and cultures does not mean completely giving up the remnants of its Arab identity; rather, for Morocco, it means embracing pluralism, while taking on a more complex and subtle role. Taking on an economic lead, exercising soft power, such as retraining imams from all over Africa, in a quintessentially African (Maaliki) tradition of Islam, but through the lens of Moroccan tolerance, providing development aid to other African countries Meanwhile, Morocco is also engaging in joint ventures and projects that will benefit the populations of these countries and not merely their leadership. These are all signs that Morocco is taking on an assertive forward-looking policy that will bring into the league of influencers with a lot to share with the world, and away from the European Union’s bureaucratic nattering.
Indeed, this movement provides the United States with much greater opportunities for engagement with Morocco, and through Morocco, with other African countries – on trade, culture, and business opportunities, than ever before. As European Union becomes increasingly less relevant, Morocco, nevertheless, seeks to grow, modernize, and engage in innovative business ventures. The US is much better suited for that role, with its orientation towards more liberal markets, and pursuit of trade policies that will give increased opportunity to American workers. Strengthening and engaging in additional bilateral treaties with Morocco, engaging in joint ventures on assorted private business projects, and finding a friendly bridge towards investing into entrepreneurial ventures in other African countries is the sort of visionary foreign policy that would bring the United States to a position of international greatness in a positive and welcome manner, in more than just rhetoric.
Politically, too, Morocco has more to offer in its growing role as an African, rather than Middle Eastern countries. This new dimension to its identity allows Morocco to maintain a staunchly independent political position. By remaining outside the fray of assorted Middle Eastern conflicts and disputes, Morocco can play a positive role in two ways:
First, by exercising a subtle moderating influence against the proxy conflicts in Africa. Most recently, these conflicts have played out through religion: Iran and Saudi Arabia have tried to use soft power through mosques and religious organizations to recruit adherents; Iran has been winning the influence game. However, Morocco’s rise to prominence in Africa, can provide a more moderate alternative to Wahhabism and Iran’s support for violent Shi’a groups throughout Western Africa. The second issue is the Gulf Crisis, which now has made its way into Africa, threatening regional stability even up to the point of the potential war between Egypt and Sudan. Morocco’s neutrality in the standoff between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and UAE has proved prescient – and much easier to maintain as an African, rather than a Middle Eastern country, which would have been forced to choose loyalties. Indeed, Morocco has the legitimacy and solid relations with all involved states to play a credible moderator in this crisis, while maintaining distance from its immediate effects.
Having this neutral, regionally accepted, moderator as an ally is a very positive development for the United States, which has been caught between the rock and the hard place while off-guard. Morocco’s own geopolitical interests come into play. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE have all been supportive of Algeria over the Western Sahara issue; Al Jazeera has been critical of Sisi, which is likewise beneficial to Morocco while the tensions remain in place. At the same time, maintaining relations with Qatar may help Morocco talk the Emir out of the position of brinksmanship, which he has adopted in response to the Saudi-UAE blockade and ultimatum. The US has not been significantly involved in the Western Sahara issue under Trump; economic relations with Morocco are far more important to the administration than diplomatic entanglements in other countries’ long-standing conflicts.
Staying out of that conflict and developing closer business, security, and cultural relations with Morocco is the best thing the administration can do. Morocco’s potential role in deescalating the Gulf Crisis can only help in the growth of these relations. The United States houses an important naval base with Qatar; it has engaged in extensive joined training. US has also concluded important arms deals with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Some have postulated that at least in part, the escalation of the Gulf Crisis has been over historic regional rivalries, and the wish to see the US move its base to UAE from Qatar. Whether that disingenuous position is truly behind the somewhat deceptive presentation of the conflict to President Trump at the outset is hard to tell; what is true, however, is that Qatar has not yet agreed to any of the demands made by its Gulf neighbors, but some of those demands are of direct interests to the United States.
Whether or not Qatar and the Saudis will ever come to an agreement over Al Jazeera is impossible to predict at the current juncture; Morocco can also play a positive role in helping to reach an understanding over the other demands made by the Gulf States, and which could ultimately serve the region well by strengthening the relationships inside the GCC against the common regional threats, such as sectarian violence and terrorist infiltration. King Mohammed VI has been at the forefront of the battle against extremist inside Morocco; the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has been an ideological threat, solidly behind the revolutionary Islamist influences which Morocco seeks to eradicate from Africa through more moderate education of imams. That is precisely the issue that can bring Morocco and Egypt together; Sisi views Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat and has designated it a terrorist organization, as did some of the other states. They have also encouraged the US to designate it as such. However, under the US law, Muslim Brotherhood, though indeed an ideological threat, would not be considered a terrorist organization because it has not been directly linked to any violence or terrorist attacks. Rather, it has been a funder/sponsor of various extremist regional groups, and many terrorists have been influenced by the Brotherhood’s education. Playing whack-a-mole with terrorist designations may bring the US closer to African countries and Middle Eastern state, but will not ultimately solve the problem. Rather, countering its ideological influence with positive alternatives, and cutting off funding that goes towards its proxies should be top priorities for all involved.
The United States is in a sensitive position; Muslim Brotherhood-influenced groups are a potential threat to its troops in Qatar; furthermore, terrorist groups financed by the Muslim Brotherhood are a threat all over the Middle East, as well as in Africa. The US does not wish to limit its trade and relations with countries in the region; relocating its base would be a significant inconvenience. Nor does the US wish to be seen as having been played by the Saudis and UAE. Avoiding the deterioration of relations with Qatar is important to US geopolitical interests; no less, so, however, is maintaining solid relations with the Saudis/UAE block in the face of common threats, as well as business and trade opportunities. For that reason, having the Gulf Crisis go on indefinitely or escalate to the point where the US has to make painful choices is quite undesirable.
Morocco’s position of having the credibility to help reach some reasonable compromise with respect to grave security considerations, while, as an African country, not being pushed around by either side may be that diplomatic solution to this ongoing and distracting headache. With the US focus now being on Iran and eradication of ISIS, the last thing it needs is to contend with fragmentation among its Middle Eastern allies; the crisis, actually plays right into the hands of Iran and terrorist groups, which are taking advantage of the division to sow further chaos, recruit allies, and distract the governments from its own direct threats to regional stability. Rather than continuing to maintain outward neutrality on the Gulf Crisis, the United States should work with Morocco to achieve a mutually beneficial solution through diplomacy and pragmatic, result-oriented step-by-step deescalation.
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