Rabat – As Ireland announces its plan to establish an embassy in Morocco in the coming months, Rabat and Dublin prepare to put years of lukewarm, and sometimes nonexistent genuine diplomatic connection behind them.
But the countries’ overt disagreement on the Western Sahara question remains the elephant in the room, the thorn in the side of the new relationship.
In a series of social media posts in recent weeks, the Moroccan embassy in Dublin announced a flurry of moves being prepared to move the Rabat-Dublin relations in more friendly waters. In the embassy’s posts, education was one area that stood out in the new impulse towards which the Morocco-Ireland relationship is said to be heading.
On July 5, the embassy took to its Facebook page to announce the reception by Al Akhawayn University in Irfan of an important delegation from Trinity College Dublin. Authorities from the two universities discussed “strategic collaboration issues,” the post noted.
Later that day, the embassy subsequently announced “promising productive relations between University College Dublin (UCD) and Moroccan universities.”
The announcement explained this time, “The visit was an interesting occasion to explore options to develop further students and professors mobility and to share mutual experiences in education programs and in research areas.”
Mohammed V University in Rabat and Cadi Ayyad of Marrakech are the two other Moroccan universities that have so far been associated with the new winds of Morocco-Irish cooperation. It is expected that the partnership will include Irish institutions other than UCD and be extended to other Moroccan institutions as well.
New Moroccan strategy
With Ireland now set to open its embassy in Morocco in 2020, there are mild hopes that perhaps this time the two countries will work out a more effective bilateral cooperation.
But the relationship is still alive mainly because, as has been the case with other countries where it has recently increased its appeal—mainly in Africa and Latin America most recently—Morocco is playing a proactive rather than reactive diplomatic card.
In late 2012, Morocco recalled its ambassador to Dublin after Eamon Gilmore, who was then the deputy head of the Irish government, met with a Polisario delegation. “Mr Gilmore made it clear at the meeting with Saharawi Republic President Mohamed Abdelaziz that he supported the right of the Saharan people to self-determination,” the Irish Independent reported at the time.
Asked why Morocco had withdrawn its ambassador, a spokesman for the Irish government was blunt: “The Moroccan government does not like our position on Western Sahara. It’s just one of these things.”
The Moroccan ambassador subsequently returned to his post. There then followed a semblance of normalization, although the Irish position on Western Sahara never really changed in the intervening years.
In December 2018, the Irish Senate passed a bill to “ban sale of goods from occupied territories,” as reported by the Irish Times.
As the move came in the heat of debates over the legitimacy of the EU-Morocco fisheries and agriculture agreements, it caused some hard feelings in Rabat. Only this time Morocco did not withdraw its ambassador.
Consistent with its newly adopted proactive approach, Rabat last month sent a delegation of Sahrawi representatives to meet with Irish officials. The message was clear: Not all Sahrawis identify with the Polisario’s agenda.
Days later, Habib El Malki, the speaker of the Moroccan parliament, traveled to Dublin to meet a number of high-ranking Irish officials. He reiterated the message of the earlier delegation while dwelling on the merits of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan.
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In response, an Irish delegation led by Sean O Fearghail, the chairperson of the lower house of the Irish parliament, visited Rabat, where the agenda included Irish-Morocco relations, EU-Africa issues, and sustainable development.
The recent developments in the Western Sahara dossier and prospects of stronger Morocco-Ireland bilateral relations were inevitably the major talking points of these series of visits. The two countries expressed their wish to move their friendship to the next level, beyond the important but not sufficient learning and exchange agreements between Irish and Moroccan universities.
“Your embassy in Dublin has been fighting for us to open an embassy here,” O Fearghail said at a press conference during his visit. He went on to announce that Dublin has been considering opening an embassy in Rabat and has finally decided to take the plunge in the early months of 2020.
Meanwhile, on Western Sahara, the Irish position cannot be said to have evolved much. During their Moroccan stay, the Irish delegation simply noted that their country was ready to support and submit to whatever settlement deal that comes out of the ongoing UN-led process.
With the latest UN resolutions taking a direction that Morocco has welcomed, Ireland’s insistence on respecting the terms of the UN-led agenda came across as the least Morocco-hostile position Dublin has taken in recent years.
In this, and with the prospective Irish embassy in Rabat, Morocco sees the possibility of dialogue, of changing Dublin’s mind—as it has done with other countries in recent years and months—if only the European country would (really) listen to Rabat’s side of the story, or history, of the Sahrawi question.
Like it has done with other diplomats, Morocco has invited Irish officials to visit the cities of Laayoune and Dakhla. The two cities have witnessed gigantic development projects in recent years, and Rabat hopes to show Dublin the efforts it has put into realizing those projects.
The realizations have largely been interpreted by other visitors as the ultimate proof of the “sincerity” of Morocco’s Autonomy Plan for Western Sahara.
But whether Dublin will follow suit, and decide to reconsider its support for the Polisario narrative, or come to the conclusion—as Rabat ardently hopes—that Morocco’s plan for the region is sincere and credible, remains to be seen.