Rabat – Morocco and Qatar representatives recently concluded a series of strategic agreements, aimed at strengthening and growing the relationship between the two countries.
The agreements included in the areas of media and communications, education, agriculture, industry, and counterterrorism. Additionally, the countries made a maritime agreement, which aims to facilitate trade between Morocco, Qatar, and other countries in the region. Normally, such agreements, while a positive development for both states, would not be anything out of ordinary. However, in light of the Gulf crisis – the stand-off between Doha and the Anti-Terror Quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain), marked by a naval, land, and air blockade against Qatar – Morocco’s growing closeness with Qatar may raise some eyebrows, especially as Morocco continues to maintain good relations with the rest of the GCC.
Morocco’s dedication to maintaining its own independent policy is laudable and marked by two central issues: first, identifying as an African, rather than a Middle Eastern country, and second, focusing on garnering support for its position of Western Sahara. Qatar sides with Morocco on that issue; the other countries are supportive of Algeria, perhaps in part due to its membership in OPEC. The United States, too, has tried to maintain a balanced position on the crisis, but for different reasons. From the US perspective, a weakened GCC invites proliferation of additional threats, including jihadists, and further empowers the expansionist Iran. Therefore, under now-former Secretary of State Tillerson, the US strategy, initially critical of Qatar’s alleged intransigence regarding countering Islamist organizations, involved first pressuring Qatar into signing memoranda of understanding where Qatar obliged to withdraw its support for Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and others, but later shifted towards conflict resolution mood.
Much of the US pressure is now on the ATQ to lift the blockade against Qatar and patch up the relations inside the GCC. There is reason to believe, however, that even in the unlikely case that were to happen (and there is no evidence that the ATQ is about to lift the blockade), Qatar itself is interested in a more muscular and independent foreign policy and would not be satisfied with the return to status quo. Rather, it is looking to align itself with stronger actors, and assert its own interests wherever and whenever possible. Despite Qatar’s claims that the blockade pushed it more in the direction of Iran, for instance, Qatar and Iran have had growing relations preceding the blockade; further, Iran, is not the only country with which Qatar has grown closer. In the past, it has tried to maintain relations with a multitude of state and non-state actors, which frequently ended in a conflict of interest and has gotten Qatar in trouble on multiple fronts.
Having perhaps, learned a lesson in diplomacy from these experiences, Qatar is now looking to build long-term bilateral relations with a wide range of rising state actors, including the United States, Iran, Turkey, Sudan, and now Morocco, with the hope that deepening these relationships will bring it out of the shadows of Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and establish it as an independent and responsible actor, fully accountable for its own fate. Its strategy differs slightly from the recent past, where Qatar has tried to play all sides equally. Now it is more selective and strategic in choosing which countries are more in line with protecting its own interests, and less likely to try to direct its foreign policy. Although Iran has the geographic advantage and the size to pressure Qatar on a number of fronts, it also needs Qatar as a more acceptable diplomatic proxy, for instance. Qatar is also utilizing the recently signed MoU with US as a way to legitimize itself through more public relations with Israel on the Gaza reconstruction issue, and with the US through strategic annual dialogues.
Morocco is central to Qatar’s interests, because it provides an important foothold to Africa. Until recently, Qatar’s role in Africa has been limited to financing Iranian and mostly Turkish deals and soft influence in countries such as Sudan. Qatar was recently accused by Egypt of engineering a crisis with Sudan and Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam and water shortage related issues, which was the first sign of Qatar’s interest in expanding and strengthening its own independent policy in Africa. Last year’s visit to six African countries by top level officials, including Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani cemented the emergence of Qatar’s own pivot to Africa, where it seeks to create relationships beyond supporting stronger state actors. Therefore, those who believe that Qatar is merely a pawn of Iran and Turkey, are severely misconstruing these engagements, as Qatar seeks to be a lot more than just that – however, if alliances with “mentor” states will give it platform for furthering its agenda, Doha will certainly embrace them.
Morocco is a rising star in Africa, and mostly recently reengaged in the African Union, while also seeking to shift its identity towards the continent, and to strengthen, grow, or build new relationships with other African countries on a variety of business, defense, cultural, religious, and security matters, including providing valuable counterterrorism assistance, as well as being a role model for problem-solving and social mobility, to key Western African countries, such as Mali. For that reason, for newcomers seeking to enter the “market”, Morocco is seen as the winning ticket. Morocco is rapidly modernizing; battling corruption; and engaging in a plethora of international engagements that are quickly propelling it towards t he international scene, which in turn, makes it more appealing for new friends.
At first glance, however, Qatar’s outreach may seem disconcerting to the United States. After all, if Qatar continues to strengthen its bilateral relationships with other countries, and promote an assertive foreign policy, that may very well inhibit any motivations it might yet have to return to the GCC, and repair its relationships with the ATQ. Rather than distancing itself from bad actors, it will continue to grow closer to them. And furthermore, with additional friends and trade contracts, Qatar may choose to disregard the blockade altogether, so whatever pressure the blockade may have asserted, Qatar will render null by finding ways around it. And if the aims of the blockade have been to prevent bad actors from taking advantage of the GCC’s liberal open border policy among its members, the new trade routes Qatar is developing with Morocco, threaten that effort as well. In other words, anything that strengthens Qatar’s foreign policy agenda may be a net negative because it ultimately enables Qatar’s worst instincts and entrenches its opposition to any sort of compromise with the ATQ, which the United States states views as vital regional allies.
Looking below the surface, however, there may be more to these developments than meets the eye. First, if there is any sort of dissatisfaction either by the United States, or the ATQ, it has not yet been made public. Morocco, on the other hand, has been very public about this relationship, in part, in an effort to underscore its independence from the Middle East and its conflicts, and in part to show that the ATQ’s policy on Algeria will have logical consequences. Morocco is becoming the sort of country that no one wants to alienate, precisely because it has been progressing in all the right ways and becoming an indispensable ally in counterterrorism, intelligence sharing, and other matters. At the same time, however, the silence over Morocco’s role in seemingly undermining the blockade may be interpreted differently.
Perhaps the United States views Morocco as part of the solution, rather than a contributing problem and an enabler. Quite simply, unlike Iran and Turkey, in the estimation of the Trump administration, Morocco is precisely the kind of friend Qatar should be making. In this case, the growing relationship between the tiny notion known for its reckless diplomatic entanglements, and clumsy dealmaking, may come as somewhat of a relief to those who are concerned about its future steps, particularly in Africa. The thought is that Morocco’s genuine dedication to countering extremism may act as an insurance policy of thoughts against Qatar’s return to its past bad habits, and in fact, Qatar’s engagement with Morocco on that front could be not only objectively beneficial, but end up soothing the ATQ’s concerns. Likewise, the fact that Qatar is engaging in trade and related matters with Qatar, creates a modicum of transparency in an otherwise bewildering and mystifying situation, where the United States is left wondering, which, if any of the GCC members is open and truthful about what is really going on.
Morocco has no interest in enabling extremists, smugglers, or the Iranian intelligence in their passageways to Qatar or through and around Qatar. Whatever is in the works between the two countries will probably be the best guarded and least harmful routes and trade options out of anything currently in existence. In fact, Morocco may in the future, and out of its own self-interest in securing its vessels, prove to be a guarantor of Qatar’s good faith in keeping to the MoU with the United States – because even outside the existing agreement, Morocco will likely view involvement of undesirable third parties, even in other matters outside the routes its own vessels take, as a business risk to be avoided, and for that reason, will likely be an enforcer of stringent oversight. At the same time, Qatar, is more likely to take Morocco’s concerns seriously because Morocco is not part of the ATQ kerfuffle, and does not in any way dishonor or shame Doha if it demands additional precautions as a matter of common sense.
Morocco’s sturdy hand in managing this relationship is also a potentially welcome diplomatic boon. Morocco may end up playing an important role in deescalating the tensions, and allowing all the parties involved to save face. The ATQ’s concerns are legitimate; however, if Qatar is able to engage in trade with various countries, and continues strengthening its relations with hegemonic state actors, while also potentially misleading the West about its relationships with Hamas or others, it is clearly ineffective and is putting everyone in an awkward positions. To the Trump administration, the ATQ’s insistence on the blockade as a way of pressuring Qatar seems counterproductive; it has no other solutions in bringing Qatar back to the fold, so at best the situation will continue at an impasse unacceptable to everyone.
At worst, the administration will levy additional pressure on the ATQ to lift the blockade, which may add to tensions rather than resolve them. Qatar, on the other hands, does not wish to be “managed’ by the Saudis any longer; for what it’s worth, it prioritizes its new and growing stature as a serious power broker and financier of various operations, and the GCC is no longer necessary for it to play that role, as it has new relationships that do not make additional demands on Doha. It has all the benefits of the new alliances with far few obligations and constraints. Still, if the ATQ and the United States prevail against Iran’s and Turkey’s hegemony, or if at some point, the US discovers that Qatar’s new policies run counter to US interests in Africa and the Middle East and starts putting pressure on Doha, Qatar will find itself at a serious disadvantage and will new to find a way of backing away from the edge. If and when that time comes, Morocco is the bridge towards a turn around in policy that will avoid Mexican stand-offs until the bitter end.
Meanwhile the new trade agreements between Morocco and the ATQ, which, at this point may realize that they have effectively been outmaneuvered in this particular battle, may turn out to be a backchannel necessary for the slow deescalation process that could help avoid far bigger problems in the future. Future GCC meetings will likely be far less awkward if there are behind-the-scenes ongoing low level business dealings that can help pave way for the lifting of the blockade in exchange for private guarantees from Qatar, plus, perhaps, additional multilateral agreements, brokered by Morocco. Bilateral agreements at this point are not likely, for each country wishes to defend its interests with fervor.
Qatar, despite having overplayed its hand multiple times in the past, and quite possibly now, will not back away from its newfound role in public. It can, however, make some modest compromises privately, that could eventually give it a lifeline away from Iran and Turkey. At the same time, and despite the overt divisions over Algeria, the Saudis appear to stay faithful to their commitment to deradicalization, and are indirectly cooperating with Morocco in that regard. After a period of negotiations, they have more than willingly ceded a Brussels mosque back to Belgium; the mosque has long had a reputation for promoting radicalism – and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is looking to distance the country from such associations.
Whether, and how, Belgium will deal with that issue remains to be seen, but it will be in the hands of Europe, rather than the Middle East. However, given that the Muslim Executive of Belgium is close to Morocco, which has benefited it through intelligence sharing, and all of that is well known to the Saudis, the message here may be clear. Morocco is being seen as a leader in the deradicalizaton and countextremism in Africa, and is being look to for guidance in Europe. Members of the ATQ are recognizing it as well, and rather than engaging in fruitless fights over dominance, are wisely ceding way to focus on other battles.
Despite the seeming difference over the Qatar issue, the ATQ and Morocco are very likely in the near future to increase their already decent level of cooperation on a variety of fronts, and that is a good thing. For the United States, Morocco is an increasingly welcome influencer in its own rights; interestingly, it is by distancing itself from the Middle East, and its feuding factions, that Morocco turns out to be quite possibly of great importance in resolving tensions, avoiding additional drama, and providing pragmatic, credible, and respectable solutions that meet the US interests in controlling the damage from the GCC fallout and ensuring security and defense cooperation among existing and emerging security threats.
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