How long will it take before Morocco openly and formally responds to Saudi provocations?
Rabat – A documentary on Western Sahara, aired on Saudi-owned Television Al-Arabiya, has put forth pro-Polisario claims, putting Saudi Arabia’s Moroccan ally in an uncomfortable position regarding its Western Sahara claims.
While refraining from overtly espousing a number of pro-Polisario concepts like “occupation” or “colonization,” the historical time frame presented in the show unequivocally buttressed the claim that Morocco “invaded” and “occupied” Western Sahara when Spain left the territories.
Al-Arabiya added insults to injury, however. In addition to its pro-separatist historical timeline, the documentary’s narrative suggested that the international community recognizes the Polisario Front, the separatist group claiming independence for the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as “the legitimate representative of the Sahrawis.”
Morocco and Saudi Arabia are historically strategic allies, with especially strong bonds between the two royal families. But the recent months have seen a pattern of gradual decline of warmth in relations that the two kingdoms used to enjoy.
Is it all about Morocco’s position in the Gulf crisis?
For all the pedigree of the increasingly complicated diplomatic ties between Rabat and Riyadh, Morocco’s position of “constructive neutrality” in the ongoing spat between the Saudi-led group—Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia—and Qatar may be the main reason for the sustained tension, observers have suggested.
The suggestion was reinforced in a recent wide-ranging interview that Morocco’s foreign affairs minister Nasser Bourita gave to Qatar-owned Al Jazeera.
Speaking to Al Jazeera journalist Jalal Chahda on the Bila Houdoud (Without Borders) program, Bourita gave a wide-ranging view of Morocco’s diplomacy, touching on the kingdom’s neutrality in the Gulf crisis.
“If the parties so wish, the Kingdom of Morocco is ready to offer its services to foster a frank and comprehensive dialogue,” Morocco said in the wake of the crisis in July 2017. Bourita reiterated Morocco’s belief in “Muslim solidarity,” calling the now defunct Gulf Cooperation Council “the only point of light in the Arab world.”
As Al-Arabiya, which considers itself to be a counterbalance to Al Jazeera, aired its Western Sahara missile barely a week after Bourita’s interview, it is safe to assume that Morocco’s refusal to pick sides in the Gulf crisis, or more precisely Morocco’s refusal to side with the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar, has still not been swallowed in Riyadh.
In the weeks before June 13, 2018, Saudi Arabia actively lobbied in favor of the US-led North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup. The June vote followed a number of anti-Moroccan sentiments from Turki Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority.
The episode ignited strong feelings in Morocco, with many Moroccans calling on the government to revise its diplomatic stance vis-a-vis Riyadh. Other events pointed to the “historical lie” that pan-Arabism has always been.
But while the gradual rift received considerable news coverage, both countries have been careful enough not to openly attack each other on highly important issues. Morocco has been especially diplomatic even when declining to cater to Saudi demands that did not dovetail with its interests.
“If relationships are measured by different schedules, this trivializes the relationship,” Bourita said in his Al-Jazeera interview. Bourita was explaining why Morocco, which was initially part of Crown Prince MBS’s infamous world tour, finally removed itself from the Saudi prince’s itinerary.
Need for a response
However, in response to Al-Arabiya’s documentary, many have suggested that Morocco’s diplomatic attitude towards Riyadh’s undiplomatic moves will have to change sooner rather than later. The documentary, one report contended, is a “violation of the historical friendship” between Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
The point is that while Moroccans have come to expect mild anti-Moroccan sentiments from some quarters in Riyadh, an overt attack on Morocco’s territorial integrity cannot be put in the same basket as other occasional mood swings or miscommunication from the likes of Al-Sheikh.
In his Al-Jazeera interview, Bourita said that Morocco’s sovereignty over its southern territories is non-negotiable. Bourita’s firmness on that occasion was reminiscent of his statements when Morocco severed ties with Iran, which it accused of “militarily and logistically” helping Polisario through its Hezbollah proxy.
Most recently, on January 29, Morocco’s Permanent Representative to the UN Omar Hilale said that Morocco is unfailingly adamant when it comes to its territorial integrity.
“That’s the top. That’s the bottom. That’s everything, and within the sovereignty of Morocco…. Outside autonomy, nothing,” the Moroccan diplomat said of the ongoing UN-led talks on Western Sahara.
He pointed out that the 2007 Autonomy Plan, which grants local Sahrawis the “largest operative power” under Moroccan sovereignty, is the furthest Morocco could concede. And, like Bourita, Hilale went on to argue Morocco’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacred and non-negotiable.
But now that a Saudi-owned channel has crossed what Rabat considers a red line, how will Rabat respond?
As narratives hostile to Moroccan interests continue to flourish in Saudi public discourse, it remains to be seen whether this time Rabat will at least formally notify Riyadh that there are some things that Morocco does not tolerate.