Spanish press have written extensively about the potential move despite both Moroccan and Spanish officials denying the news.
Rabat – Rumors of a US military base potentially moving to Morocco have made the rounds in Moroccan and Spanish media despite official denials. Moroccan weekly outlet Al Ayyam first reported that the US military base in Rota could be moved to Tan Tan, Morocco, as part of the roadmap established between the two countries.
The outlet reported the news as part of ongoing secret negotiations between US and Moroccan military officials. The remarkable news soon spread in Moroccan news outlets, triggering a fury of responses from Spanish media. The possible US decision became the topic of discussion for the Spanish press, from large dailies in Madrid to local papers.
The US maintains nearly 800 military bases around the world that host 160,000 military personnel and their families. Its base in Rota, located in the province of Cadiz, serves as a transitory hub for operations in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East. The base hosts advanced navy destroyers and thousands of Spanish and American military members.
The need for a US base
For the US, a military base in the region serves as a refueling and rearming hub from which it facilitates missions in the Meditterean and the Middle East and North Africa. The location of the base, near the strait of Gibraltar, ensures that US military planes can be refueled on their way to the Middle East. Thebase, meanwhile,serves as the largest US weapons and fuel facility in Europe.
For Spain, the base means a flurry of economic activity for the region. Around 6000 American military personnel are based at Rota, joined by 2600 of their family members. Hosting 5000 Spanish troops,the base is also a place for collaboration between the Spanish and US militaries.
On the economic front, the 2,300 hectares base has a regional economic impact estimated to be between 444 and 600 million euros. Part of the base’s expenses are paid for by the Spanish military, yet the facility’s economic impact extends far beyond that. The base only hosts roughly 400 houses, meaning that military staff rents and shops in towns around the area.
Moving the US base would be a “severe blow” to the region’s economy, according to Spanish newspaper La Razon. Two thirds of the region’s GDP depends on the base and the region earns a collective €1.2 million from rented housing alone, with nearly two thousand houses rented in the region. Local contractors also benefit, with €229 million in defense maintenance contracts for local businesses.
Spain sees the base as an important symbol of Spanish-US military cooperation. The nearly 70 year old base was established in 1953, along with three other bases. Over the years those four bases have been reduced to just two, one in Rota and one in Moron. While the US military presence in Spain has been reduced, ties with Morocco have exponentially grown in recent years.
The US and Morocco collaborate on a large-scale military exercise named “Atlas Lion,” usually operating from Tan Tan. In late 2020, the US and Morocco agreed on a Defence Cooperation Roadmap in 2020 that is set to further deepen military ties over the coming decade.
Add to these facts the US recent recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, and the suggestion is that Morocco is rapidly becoming one of the strongest, “indispensable” US allies, especially in the ever strategic MENA region.
Meanwhile the base at Rota faces an expiring agreement regarding its continued use. A bilateral defense agreement that covered the base was extended by only a single year in November 2020. The agreement is due to expire on May 21, 2022, which could be an indicator of a possible move.
Rumor mill and lingering disagreements
Despite insistent reports from Moroccan and Spanish media, officials from both countries have strongly denied the news regarding the US base in Rota.
On January 4, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Arancha González Laya said the Rota base is “not in any danger.” There is “no reason to fear,” Laya stated, adding that she couldn’t “speak of the plans that the United States has with Morocco.”
In Morocco, top officials issued similar denials regarding the US base. Morocco’s Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani categorically rejected the news. Yet the rumor mill continued to swirl.
As the news comes amid lingering tensions between Rabat and Madrid, media obsession over the potential move of the US base at Rota presents evidence of the coldish relations — and perceptible strategic divergences — between the two neighbors.
Besides the economic impact of moving the US base to Morocco, the symbolic value of the transfer is not lost on the Spanish press that have focused on the topic. The establishment of the US base only slightly predates Morocco’s attempts to recover its southern provinces from Spanish colonial rule and could signal a shift of US priorities towards Rabat.
Both Morocco and Spain continue to officially stress that diplomatic relations are good, yet behind-the-curtain communication between the two countries indicates simmering disagreements. A diplomatic meeting in December was suddenly cancelled by “mutual agreement,” according to Spanish Vice President Carmen Salvo.
If Al Ayyam’s reporting is correct, secret negotiations are underway and the US base at Rota could be in its final year. Yet the strenuous denials of top officials from both countries mean little is definitive at the moment.
The US has to extend its defense agreement with Spain six months in advance of its expiration in May 2022. This means that by the end of November 2021 the move could be confirmed, if it will happen at all.
Whether the US base will move to Morocco or not, the Spanish reaction to the news has once again confirmed the underlying tensions between the two hitherto “excellent” neighbors.