Morocco needs to rethink its overall bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, and King Mohammed VI’s refusal to welcome Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman is a first step toward that goal.
Washington D.C – When a Saudi press release announced MBS, the Saudi crown prince, would embark on a world tour of North African countries, many wondered why Morocco was not on the list. Rumors had it that MBS was snubbing Morocco for not supporting Saudi Arabia’s blockade of Qatar.
A few days later, a number of news outlets, such as Al Quds and Lakome, suggested that it was King Mohammed VI who refused to receive the Saudi crown prince. The news was confirmed to MWN by a government source familiar with the subject.
King Mohammed VI’s decision to abstain from receiving MBS is a step in the right direction. With this decision and the decision to remain neutral in the Gulf crisis, Morocco is moving progressively towards adopting a foreign policy that is far removed from the strategic calculations—or rather miscalculations—of the Saudi crown prince.
The time when Rabat used to say that what harms the Saudis harms Moroccans may have become history. It was both striking and heartening to see that Morocco was among the few Arab countries that issued no statement of support for MBS after the backlash caused by his apparent involvement in the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Relations at their worst in 60 years
Morocco is not a vassal state, and it should not accept being used in Mohamed bin Salman’s attempt to regain international recognition and legitimacy after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
One does not just decide to make an official visit to a sovereign state overnight or on a whim. It usually takes several weeks and months to organize a high level visit of this kind and define the agenda and the agreements, if any, to be signed.
The international context of the visit and its short notice indicate that Mohammed bin Salman is simply seeking to rehabilitate himself on the global stage, regain some sort of legitimacy and assure his supporters that he is still able to carry out his economic and political agenda.
Such a visit would not bring any benefit to Morocco. The Saudis must understand that Morocco has its own strategic interests to take into account, and Morocco should not offer blanket support for any foreign policy decision the Saudis take.
Despite the silence of the two countries and the publication from time to time of communiques from both capitals in which they stress the strong traditional ties that bind them, there is no doubt that their relations are going through their worst period in the past six decades.
MBS’ rapid ascension to power and his impulsiveness seem to have upended the traditional understanding and cordial relations between the capitals. The Saudi crown prince, known for his recklessness and total lack of experience, simply expects Morocco to blindly follow every foreign policy decision he makes, even if it runs contrary to Rabat’s strategic interests.
Saudi Arabia’s brazen decision to support the US-led World Cup 2026 bid and its behind-the-scenes efforts to convince other Arab and Asian countries to vote against Morocco was a clear reminder that it was no longer business as usual with Saudi Arabia. The understanding and mutual respect that used to govern their bilateral relations have waned.
Saudi Arabia can’t buy Moroccan support
Saudi Arabia would be misguided to think that because it grants Morocco financial aid—less than $300 million annually—Morocco should be beholden to it and support all its foreign policy decisions.
Saudi Arabia has so far failed to fulfill to its commitment to grant Morocco $1.25 billion as part of the financial package that Gulf countries decided to provide Morocco between 2012 and 2016. While Qatar and Kuwait fulfilled their pledges, Saudi Arabia has, as of August 2018, disbursed only $868 million.
The inconsequential financial aid Saudi Arabia provides comes in exchange for the continuous military and diplomatic support Rabat has provided over the years. For instance, Morocco moved to sever its diplomatic ties with Iran in 2009 and expressed solidarity with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia after Tehran questioned the Sunni rule in Manama.
Morocco was also at the forefront of countries that provided their support for the Saudi-led coalition to oust the Houthi rebels from Yemen and restore the authority of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. In the first months of the conflict, Moroccans mourned the death of a Moroccan pilot, Yassine Bahti, who died while fighting alongside the Saudis.
The Yemen war and the crimes that the Saudi military has been committing against the Yemeni people have left a stain on Morocco’s reputation at the global level. The UN named Morocco in a report released in October 2017 which blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition for killing and injuring 683 Yemeni children and attacking dozens of schools and hospitals in 2016.
Morocco should build on the experience of Egypt. While it has received $25 billion in financial aid from the Saudis since 2014, Egypt has not necessarily espoused all the foreign policy decisions dictated by the Saudis. In Yemen, the Egyptians have refused to provide troops, and in Syria, Egypt supported President Bashar Al-Assad although Saudi Arabia had turned the toppling of the Syrian president into the core of its foreign policy in Syria since 2011.
Moving forward, every overture towards Saudi Arabia should be based on what Morocco will receive in exchange for it. The Saudis should no longer take Morocco for granted nor see it as their backyard.
Morocco is a sovereign state that has its own interests and agenda. The bilateral relations between the two countries should be based on a win-win partnership, mutual respect and support. Morocco should make clear, now more than ever, that its foreign policy decisions are based on its own calculations and strategic interests and that it cannot be expected to continue providing blanket support for another state’s foreign policy decisions.