For all the perceptible diplomatic gains Morocco has made in recent years on the complex Western Sahara front, there is still a long way to go.
Rabat – The Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Minister Nasser Bourita’s visit to Latin America was part of a larger, intricate scheme to get more involved in the region and gather momentum for its Western Sahara position. Latest news suggests an overwhelming sense of mission accomplished for government department.
Brazil, a Latin American power-house and one of the four countries that Bourita visited in his recent tour in the region, has just given Rabat a much-needed morale boost by affirming its support for the North African country’s “territorial integrity” on the Western Sahara question.
Speaking on Thursday during a joint press conference with his Moroccan counterpart, Brazil’s foreign affairs minister, Ernesto Araujo, said that his country is poised to throw its weight behind Morocco’s efforts towards a “realistic” settlement in the decades-long territorial dispute.
Avoiding the usual enthusiastic and overt proclamation of support in such instances, Araujo was diplomatic in his remarks—a reminder of the thorny issue that the Western Sahara question has become in diplomatic circles. Even when you support one side, diplomatic decency seems to impose deference to the UN-led process which prides itself on its objective and neutral search for a common ground.
But standing out from Araujo’s diplomatic and measured declaration of support is the blunt reference to “Morocco’s efforts” towards lasting and politically negotiated solution. To Rabat’s ears, this was bound to sound like a thinly veiled recognition of the widely recognized “seriousness” and political feasibility of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan over the Polisario’s ideological and impractical rhetoric. At least that was the implied meaning here, and such an interpretation was correct in many regards.
As a strong Moroccan partner, the Brazilian minister said, Brazil wants to contribute to the UN-led process to carve out spaces of understanding and genuine dialogue to reach a roundly agreed-upon solution that “goes beyond mere rhetoric.”
In a singularly Morocco-friendly instance during his press conference, Araujo said, “On the issue of Western Sahara, a vital issue for Morocco, Brazil supports Morocco’s efforts to reach a realistic solution to this issue, which has lasted for decades.”
But while in Brazil Morocco was served a music that was much to its liking—Rabat has been adamant that its approach is pragmatic and realistic while the Polisario’s is ideological and soaked in unnecessary hostility—much closer to home, in Abuja, an emerging Moroccan partner added a sour note to what could have been an immensely satisfying week for Bourita and the Moroccan diplomacy.
The African front still needs engaging
Also on Thursday, while speaking on the sidelines of an event Morocco had notably attended, Nigeria’s President Buhari, said to be on very friendly terms with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, said his country was “historically committed to liberation movements” in Africa. Like Araujo, however, President Buhari saw no need to engage in profuse declamation of support for the “Sahrawi cause.”
The simple mention of “liberation movements” was enough for pro-Polisario outlets to put the Nigerian president’s remarks in much more strident and hostile terms. “Why Nigeria Is Committed to Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s Independence,” Sahara Reporters headlined a report on Buhari’s remarks.
The editorial-like headlined piece provided no answer to its originally intended question. Instead, the short report only limited itself to drawing attention to what seemed to matter more: Nigeria, an African giant thought to be indispensable for Morocco’s continental ambitions, had just given the North African country the cold shoulder, even though rather mildly, on the Western Sahara question.
Undoubtedly, the charm and allure of Morocco’s “royal diplomacy,” has come from the remarkable visibility and influence Rabat has secured in African circles in a ridiculously short span. Since the African Union (AU) welcomed Morocco in January 2017, what has followed has been a cascade of Morocco-friendly moves making it sound—and rightly so—to Moroccan diplomats that the continental momentum is irretrievably shifting towards Rabat.
The AU, an organization which still recognizes SADR, and until recently seemed intent on pushing for a Western Sahara agenda other than the UN’s, has decided to retreat from the Western Sahara dossier and unconditionally support the UN process. In Rabat, the move was greeted with exuberance. It felt like the highest point, the most resounding affirmation of the bumper harvest of Morocco’s return to Africa’s most consequential organization.
“It appears today that consensus is building up at the international level about the fact that ideological options of the past, things like referendum and independence, are totally unrealistic,” Brahim Fassi Firhi, the founder of Amadeus Institute, one of the leading Moroccan think tanks, told MWN in a recent interview on the continuously cloudy but largely encouraging horizons for Morocco’s Western Sahara claims.
When you look at what has been unfolding in African and global discussions around the Western Sahara question in the past months, Fihri elaborated, there is no mistaking that the momentum is Rabat’s. He singularly stressed the significance of Morocco’s presence in the AU, dismissing critics who continue to question Morocco’s “historical Africanness” to challenge the sincerity of its increasingly African gaze.
Fihri’s measured optimism, the belief that Morocco is so far winning the public relations battle on Western Sahara but there is still so much left on the plate, is perhaps the most determining signature of the Bourita-led diplomacy.
When the Moroccan foreign affairs ministry announced Bourita’s Latin American tour earlier this week, it noted the country’s eagerness to convince reticent interlocutors while keeping momentum alive in places that have already signaled a shift towards Rabat.
Transplanted in the context of President Bouhari’s nod to SADR, the perceptible optimism of Moroccan diplomats invites the question: What now? More plainly, will such positions affect the improvement that the complicated Rabat-Abuja ties have registered in recent months?
The question has already been answered at the various Africa-saturated symposiums and political fora Morocco has organized since it joined the AU: continue to preach the merits and “authenticity” of Morocco’s “African roots” and engage in a relentless diplomatic race to prove Rabat’s “historical legitimacy” over the disputed territory. This means that even as the momentum seems to favor its claims, Rabat plans to take nothing for granted.
In March of last year, after an important Malian delegation visited Rabat to sign an array of bilateral agreements, I pointed out to a former Moroccan ambassador to Geneva that the Moroccan media was being misleadingly and—quite naively—celebratory about the possible political implications of the much-reported Morocco-Nigeria pipeline project.
As Nigeria has been a known Polisario supporter, even if less avowedly so than South Africa, I asked the ambassador, is it not wildly exaggerating to expect so much in so little time from Abuja, especially on a question as intricate as the Sahara conflict?
The ambassador, who was talking at an event on the “Future of Morocco-Africa” at the Rabat School of Governance and Economy (EGE), agreed with my reservations. But, perhaps more crucially in the current context, he argued that Morocco knows how to be patient to get the results it hankers after. If it is going to take decades to convince Nigeria and other African partners, he said, Morocco will be glad to oblige.
At a November 2018 event his think tank organized in Tangiers, Firhi gave a strikingly similar answer when asked about what Rabat plans to do about Abuja’s reticence to Morocco’s ECOWAS bid. “We are not in a rush,” he remarked.
Taking nothing for granted
Back to the contradictory messages from two regional giants on which Rabat is visibly counting to give more weight to its now applauded South-South-driven foreign policy moves, what such convictions from front-bench Moroccan actors elicit is a certain belief in the virtue of diplomatic patience—and measured recklessness. An effective diplomacy, the suggestion seems to be, lies in yielding encouraging results in less encouraging, sometimes overtly hostile, environments.
In addition to taking nothing for granted, this requires adjusting until the other party is convinced. The point is that outcome-defining diplomatic victories only come with long-term-oriented acceptance that change takes time and energy. And also that some instances of reticence (like President Buhari’s principled—but gentle—commitment to Nigeria’s default Western Sahara stance) should invite more sustained engagement.
Sometimes, Moroccan diplomats appear to argue, reticence complicates more than it reveals. President Buhari’s comments can be interpreted as an emphatic dismissal of hopes that his reputably strong ties with King Mohammed VI are could be reasons to renounce a position he himself engineered. (Nigeria first recognized SADR in 1984 with Buhari as the chief of the country’s then ruling military junta). But the statement can also be taken to be a far-from-muscular acknowledgement that changing a decades-long diplomatic identity will not happen in five years.
Whichever the correct interpretation, underpinning the current Moroccan diplomacy is the faith that effectiveness comes with a vigorous demand for looking at the larger picture, rather than focusing on the fever of the moment which leads to inescapable disagreements with partners on some principles.
By all accounts, versatility has emerged as the distinctive article of faith for Moroccan diplomats. So whatever happens next, expect Morocco to play hard when it can and softly when it should. For a country hungry for international support for its territorial integrity, all roads lead to Rome.