The converging interests of an “on-the-move” Morocco and a “global Russia” setting its sight on recovering its soviet era prestige may lead to deeper, strategic connections.
Rabat – Earlier this month, news of Morocco signing an agreement to import Russian beef made the rounds in the Moroccan press. The agreement, whose first step was initiated in January 2018, was reported to be the starting point of historically improving Russia-Morocco relations.
At the 7th session of the Moroccan-Russian Joint Cooperation Committee last year, Rabat and Moscow agreed to not only drive up the value and volume of their agricultural cooperation, which was then estimated to represent 77% of trade Russia-Morocco trade volumes and amounted to MAD 1.5 billion, but also to diversity to the growing cooperation to other sectors.
In normal circumstances, seeing in Morocco’s green lighting of Russian beef good omens for the “intensification” of strategic relations between the two countries would easily sound like another instance of the media—and political analysts, for that matter—seeing significant developments where they were none. In other words, perceiving “strategic rapprochement” in a simple or mundane trade agreement between two countries would typically take a certain propensity to exaggerate, over-amplify. But the buildup to that beef agreement makes up for exactly that type of reading.
Russia, while not a country that would come to mind as harboring hostility towards Morocco, is not, for now at least, a “historic” or “strategic” Moroccan partner either. Relations between Moscow and Rabat have been neither notably very good nor perceptibly very bad.
They have traded and cooperated in certain areas, but never expressed—or rather acted on—a pointed desire to get closer or to intensify their until now warmish relations. Like two potential lovers who would both be okay with going out on a date but never really considered the idea because of either a busy schedule or just a shared blasé or clumsy attitude, they both seemed content with keeping things as they were.
But things seem to have changed in the past two years or so. With a change in ambitions has come a desire on both sides to explore some aspects of what a strong relationship between the two could be or generate. Like the two potential, but sluggish lovers, they now seem interested in making that date come true. They want to put things straight; to lift the self-imposed limits they had subconsciously put on their diplomatic self-expression as they focused the bulk of their energy on gaining significant weight in their respective immediate regions.
Morocco and Russia ‘on the move’
Late last month, both the Moroccan and Russian foreign affairs ministries sent out a rather triumphant statement on an “important” telephone meeting between Russia’s FM Sergei Lavrov and his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita.
In their conversation, the statement informed us, the two diplomats recognized the need for their two countries to grow their countries’ trade volumes and political ties. “During the conversation, Russia expressed its willingness to deepen the political dialogue with Morocco for settling the Western Sahara question, in addition to discussing other key international and regional issues,” the statement noted.
Of even more critical significance from Bourita and Lavrov’s conversation was their evocation of the 8th Moroccan-Russian Joint Cooperation Committee. The event was initially scheduled for December 2 and both ministers suggested they were eager to use it to put forth a shared vision of what a Rabat-Moscow “strategic rapprochement” would look like in actuality, especially given the sometimes diverging diplomatic fronts the two countries appear to be engaged in.
That meeting, which was later rescheduled to take place sometime in late December, is now understood to have been rescheduled to an unspecified date, understandably sometime in early 2020. Still, there remains among Moroccan diplomats a huge sense of achievement.
Echoing the spirit of the Moroccan foreign ministry’s summary of the Bourita-Lavrov conversation, a number of Moroccan diplomats would subsequently explain to the Moroccan media that the main take-away from the recent developments between the two countries was an existing desire on both sides to strengthen their cooperation on multiple levels.
What this means in actuality, they argued, is a move from principally economic ties, trade-driven bilateral relations, to a “multidimensional” and “multi-sectors” relationship.
In most cases, they cited King Mohammed VI’s trip to Moscow in 2016, Lavrov’s visit to Morocco earlier this year, and—this may be the most crucial development in recent months—the recent signing of an energy deal as part of the slowly but assertively growing bilateral connection. What is expected is a gradual move towards a point where Moscow and Rabat can eventually be referred to as “strategic partners.”
In a sense, therefore, rather than the Russia which was once—actually fairly recently—described as constantly “plugging away” at wholeheartedly engaging North Africa, unsure of which of Morocco, Tunisia, or Algeria to pick, now appears to have developed the confidence that it can opt for a more assertive, assumed presence in the region.
So what could have possibly changed for these two countries, previously not hot on a “strategic” relationship, to suddenly take on the “why not?” look of two potential partners who have until now resisted the temptation to “try this out” and see where it could potentially lead?
The most readily available—and for now more convincing—answer is that both Rabat and Moscow have now set their sights on bigger goals than before. The whole Russia-Morocco “strategic rapprochement” story—or perception of it— is therefore completely reliant on both sides’ recognition of, or rather insistence on, the imperative of diplomatic versatility in an age of multi-polarization.
The idea is that, having asserted their unquestionable and unmistakable diplomatic weight on critical regional issues (Morocco in Africa and the Arab world, and Russia in Eurasia and growingly in the Middle East), the two countries now seek to use each other’s influence for bolstering their respective “strategic interests.” This is, as the Moroccan foreign affairs ministry would have it, a tale of “proactive, multidimensional” diplomacy.
“Since 2012, Russia has been conducting a sophisticated, well-resourced, and, thus far, successful campaign to expand its global influence at the expense of the United States and other Western countries,” remarked a detailed 2017 study on “Global Russia,” a reference to Russia’s growing influence beyond Eurasia.
Of Moscow’s professed desire to increase its visibility and political significance in Africa, the study added, “Moscow’s activities in Africa have not focused much on fueling the continent’s economic development or addressing the problems it faces. Instead, the Kremlin has focused on expanding Russia’s web of diplomatic relationships and seeking opportunities to benefit Russian commercial and strategic interests… On the political front, Moscow sees African countries as useful for shoring up support for its positions in international organizations.”
Much the same can be said of Moroccan diplomacy in the past five years, although Rabat’s significance on the global scene is not remotely close to Russia’s. This is especially true in light of the country’s much-reported return to the African Union, which it has rather poetically called its “homecoming” and prosaically labeled its return to its “institutional family,” almost three years ago.
In its assessment of its “successes” in 2019, Morocco’s foreign ministry said that the country’s diplomacy thrived this year. To make its case, it cited Morocco’s South-South commitment, the increased visibility in Africa, as well as the country’s growing status on the world scene as an indispensable partner on questions of migration, transnational security, and many others.
The main idea is that Morocco is simply becoming an invaluable, indispensable partner for any global player with African ambitions.
“Morocco is Russia’s second [economic] partner in the Arab world and in Africa and looks forward to be the first partner and Russia’s gateway to the [African] continent,” Bourita said in January of this year following meeting with Lavrov during the Russia FM’s Maghreb tour.
There was an element of optimism and diplomatic bravura in Bourita’s tone, as he insisted on the now familiar—and viable—narrative of Morocco being the ultimate “gateway” to any global player interested in plying its trade in Africa.
While the signing of a $2 billion energy deal between Morocco and Russia is what garnered most of the attention from Morocco’s participation in the recently concluded Russia-Africa summit, one remarkable illustration of the “strategic rapprochement” between Rabat and Moscow was Russia’s snubbing of the Polisario Front by not inviting the self-determination seeking group in Western Sahara.
Western Sahara is Morocco’s most important issue, and there is nothing as Morocco-friendly as drifting, even if half-heartedly, towards Morocco’s position on the territorial dispute. Russia has not exactly voiced unmitigated support for Morocco’s Western Sahara agenda; but its current position—support for a mutually acceptable, compromise-based political solution—is understandably interpreted in Rabat as susceptible to more pointedly shift in Morocco’s direction if Rabat plays its cards well.
The idea, starkly and simply put, is this: Morocco’s leadership position in Africa represents a much-needed opportunity for Russia’s African ambitions, whereas Moscow’s global status, especially its Veto right at the UN Security Council, represents a much-needed support for Morocco’s Western Sahara agenda.
Recently, the idea that the US, currently Morocco’s strongest global partner, has not been sufficiently supportive of Morocco ’s legitimacy claims on Western Sahara has been increasingly—though latently— mentioned in Moroccan policy circles. Is Morocco therefore seeking to send a clear message to Washington by embracing Russia?
Many senior Moroccan officials declined to comment on this question, telling me that it does not make much sense, “at least right now,” to make bold comments on something (the growing ties with Russia) that is only being explored. “Yes, there is a desire on both sides to grow much closer than before. But nothing is sure for now. We have to wait for the next Moroccan-Russian Joint Cooperation Committee meeting and see where we go from there,” one senior official reluctantly commented.
What does that mean in much plainer terms? Requesting anonymity in exchange for candor, the senior official stressed that, at its most basic, Morocco embracing Russia as a potential “strategic” partner is not something strange or unexpected in a multipolar age that requires a sense of diplomatic versatility from any country seeking to be “a crucial and respected player on the global scene.”
For Morocco, the official elaborated, the rationale of diplomacy in our age of relentless globalization is to “broaden your horizons and spheres of influence or diplomatic significance” by forging win-win relationships with as many players as possible, especially “those countries whose support really matters in Morocco’s quest for the recognition of its legitimacy on the Moroccan Sahara.”
But isn’t there a sense of hoping beyond hope in Morocco’s embrace of Russia, knowing that Algeria, for better or worse, remains Moscow’s foremost ally in the Maghreb?
“We believe that few things should be taken for granted in diplomacy. The geopolitical landscape is constantly shifting and if you can ply your trade well, you can make unprecedented progress, engineer historic overtures. This is exactly what is happening with our diplomacy in Africa and Latin America. More than thirty years ago, the African momentum on Western Sahara was against us and we left the Organization of African Unity as a result.
“But then we understood that our absence from the organization was actually favoring the other side. We decided to come back, to claim our historical place in African affairs and pan-Africanism, and now the momentum has significantly changed, shifted towards Morocco. There are now promising signs in Latin America, too.”
Granted, Morocco has made notable diplomatic gains in the past years. But does that guarantee success with Russia? Is Rabat equipped to deal with Washington’s eventual, reported outrage at Rabat’s growing ties with Moscow?
Adding a note of tempered optimism, the official insisted on Morocco’s “historically independent diplomacy.” Chief in the argument was that while the “US remains our best ally, we have the right, as a sovereign country, to expand our alliances.”
Appearing to refer to the “doctrine of non-doctrine” idea, a well-established theory among Moroccan diplomats and researchers when it comes to explaining Morocco’s “independent diplomacy” guided by the realities of the diplomatic rather than by ideological fixity, the source added, “I can’t say much about the implications of Russia-Morocco rapprochement. I just know that both sides really want to bring our cooperation to the next level. Will the US strike back or warn us against that? Well, let’s wait and see.”
Moroccan diplomacy, he elaborated, has always been “guided by ideas, principles that we defend.”
“We come to the table prepared and lay out what we want or expect from any relationship, and we also explain what we can give the other side. So, Morocco has historically been open to any partnership, to broadening our relations, as long as this does not conflict with our constant principles and benefits our strategic interests.”