Morocco is building its African leadership on its deep-rooted “African identity” and its genuine interest in advancing common continental causes.
Rabat – In the past four years, Morocco has emerged as an indispensable actor on the African scene. While most analysts tend to credit this apparent paradigm shift to the country’s much-hyped 2017 return to the African Union, Moroccan political scientist Yousra Abourabi contends that Rabat’s recent diplomatic gains in the continent are the outgrowth of a strategic reorientation that began a little over 20 years ago.
Writing for The Conversation on March 1, Abourabi put in broader perspective the noted success of Morocco’s Africa-focused diplomacy. She pointed to the abundance of signs suggesting that the country, already an established “African leader,” is on track to deepen even further its continental advances and cement or expand its newfound leadership role.
Specifically, the Moroccan academic argued that the origins of “Morocco’s African policy” — the subject of both her PhD thesis and her latest book — date back much earlier.
The first foundations were laid in the post-independence decades in postcolonial Africa, when Morocco was a central force in the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor of the African Union (AU).
But, Abourabi hastened to add to this necessary historical apercu that it was King Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne in 1999 that propelled Morocco’s continental ambitions to new heights.
Most people failed to pay due attention to the newly coronated King’s Africa-oriented diplomacy, however. From the early 2000s to 2010, explained Abourabi, most observers considered King Mohammed VI’s “Africa diplomacy” an eccentric, “non-existent” or even desperate foray into a doomed integration enterprise.
Today, however, she added, Morocco’s notable gains in Africa, especially the continent’s unmistakably pro-Rabat shift on the Western Sahara question, has “awakened” observers and analysts to Morocco’s rise as an “African leader.”
To be sure, Abourabi’s analysis builds on — or perhaps consolidates — similar conclusions by most watchers of African affairs. In other words, the central threads of her analysis are hardly groundbreaking. In fact, they have become a staple in expert discussions about Morocco’s South-South turn.
In a January 2019 article for Financial Affairs, for instance, Jon Marks took the view that Morocco’s “pivot to Africa… points towards the emergence of a genuinely post-colonial African order.”
Abourabi makes similar points. But her analysis also dives far deeper, providing not only the present and future implications of Morocco’s continental leadership. She explores the theoretical or philosophical foundations of Morocco’s “identity” and “projection” as a crucial, indispensable presence on the emerging strategic discussions in and about Africa.
“Morocco’s African policy is based on an approach that is both realistic and constructivist,” she wrote. As a realist regional leader aware of some lingering strategic divergences — the South Africa-Algeria axis on Western Sahara comes readily to mind. As such, Abourabi concludes, Morocco “seeks to overcome ideological divides to defend a certain number of national interests in a more rational and pragmatic way.”
What makes Morocco’s strategy “constructivist” is that, at bottom, “it is based on the defense of a role identity on an international scale.” But how does this work in practice?
The answer, Abourabi argues, can be found in the type of diplomacy Morocco has been mobilizing in Africa in the past decade. The country has updated its continental approach by adopting an “indirect strategy.” This is premised on “the art of making extensive and offensive use of diplomacy, in order to bypass the fields of conflict,” when necessary.
Morocco’s new approach differs from the confrontational approach that led Rabat to angrily leave the OAU in 1984 in protest of the organization’s recognition of Polisario’s self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
The new Moroccan approach, in Abourabi’s view, is one of strategic patience and constructive dialogue with even African countries that are sympathetic to the Polisario Front. This, in Abourabi’s words, is a strategy that seeks to “paralyze Polisario through diplomatic deterrence.”
Since 2017, at least ten African countries formerly supportive of Polisario’s statehood claims have withdrawn their recognition of the group. Meanwhile, 28 African states have formally requested that the AU strip Polisario’s self-proclaimed SADR of its membership of the continental organization.
For Abourabi, such developments are part of the large and growing repertoire of evidence showing that Morocco’s strategic reset is working.
Also central to Morocco’s recent continental success is the country’s demonstration of its deep-rooted “African identity” and its genuine interest in advancing common continental causes.
Abourabi writes, “Long accused of defending its territorial interests to the detriment of a vision of solidarity with Africa, the kingdom wanted to demonstrate that the defense of its interests was not incompatible with the expression of this solidarity.”
To complement its diplomatic efforts, Morocco has also put forth its economic potential (as the first largest African investor in West Africa and the second in the continent as a whole) and its worldwide reputation for de-radicalization and religious moderation.
With Africa, and in particular the Sahel region, increasingly on the radar of extremist Islamist militants, Morocco’s “religious security diplomacy” is identified as another key ingredient of its continental success.
According to Aburabi, Morocco’s implication on Africa’s shifting “religious security” front is informed by the country’s “typically African” interest in exporting its proven model and shouldering its continental responsibility in Africa’s new, emerging security frontlines.
But there are other aspects to Morocco’s increasingly feted pan-African story.
Among others, Abourabi cites King Mohammed VI’s numerous visits across the continent and his reputation for being Morocco’s “African King.” She adds to this the overwhelming mobilization of Moroccan ministries, media, and the private sector in developing a keen interest in Africa and adopting a decidedly pan-African discourse.
Added to these, according to the Moroccan academic, are Morocco’s well-documented readiness to provide humanitarian and technical assistance to “fellow” African countries and its long, centuries-old “history of cultural and commercial exchanges with Saharan and sub-Saharan countries.”
By all available evidence, Abourabi appeared to conclude, Morocco is emerging as an audible African actor, a leader on crucial questions of security and economic cooperation, as well as a trusted voice of modern pan-Africanism.