Morocco Foreign Policy: All Eyes on Syria
By: Ali Ibrahim
Published Saturday, September 8, 2012
Rabat’s surprisingly assertive position on Syria reflects its eagerness to get closer to the Gulf states and their cash.
Casablanca - Recent Moroccan diplomatic moves have not been focused on Western Sahara. It has been striking how the issue that is normally the country’s top foreign policy priority has been overtaken by the Syrian crisis as the foreign ministry’s principal preoccupation.
Foreign Minister Saadeddin Othmani recently called for an international probe into “the violations committed by the regime against the Syrian people.” Next month, Rabat is set to become the third capital after Tunis and Paris to host a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group, which is run by the coalition of Western and Arab states striving to topple the Syrian regime. Since Morocco joined the UN Security Council earlier this year, the only proposal it put forward – at the suggestion of the Arab Gulf states – was about Syria. At the Security Council’s last meeting on Syria, Morocco sent its foreign minister to read out his statement in person. It infuriated Syrian representative Bashar al-Jaafari, who responded with a fierce attack on the Moroccan monarchic regime.
These moves were seen as breaking with Morocco’s established foreign policy. For the past few years, the country has steered clear of the problems of the Arab East. It has sufficed with the symbolic role played by King Mohamed VI as chairman of the Islamic Conference Organization’s Jerusalem Committee. This entailed little more than occasionally issuing appeals to the Security Council or the major powers warning of ethnically cleansing the city. Morocco’s practical contribution focused on a quasi-charitable foundation funded by public donations which supports projects aimed at preserving Jerusalem’s Arab and Islamic identity.
Moroccan diplomatic activity in the region, however, has fallen back sharply since the days when the former king, Hassan II, used his international contacts to forge secret ties with Israel and engage in regional affairs to serve his regime’s interests. When the current monarch assumed the throne in 1999, Moroccan diplomacy became inward-looking. He is said to have told a confidant he believes in “Taza [a town in northeastern Morocco] before Gaza”, i.e. that local concerns take precedence over the Palestine Question, which Moroccan political parties used to consider the country’s number one national cause in the 1970s and 80s.
This attitude was soon reflected in Morocco’s diplomacy in the Middle East. Its involvement, even in Arab summit meetings, became token. The king stayed away from most Arab and Islamic summits, though Morocco used to be famed for hosting such gatherings. Arab involvement in Morocco was meanwhile reduced to business and tourism. Even on the bilateral level, visits to the country by Arab leaders have been mostly routine matters of protocol, or else private visits by Gulf royals coming to the country on holiday.
This changed when the winds of the Arab Spring began to blow. Fearing they would gust westwards, Morocco opted to bend with them, rather than try to resist and be blown over. Although Morocco was one of the first countries in the region to extend a cautious welcome to the Tunisian revolution, it took no stand on the Egyptian revolution, and did not openly declare support for the Libyan revolution until the death Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi was confirmed. It deemed developments in Yemen to be none of its business.
But when the winds of change reached the Gulf kingdoms and emirates, they moved to form an alliance, amounting to a club of Arab monarchies, to resist them. Morocco and Jordan were offered membership of this new club, along with money from the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states to enable them weather the storm. With time, however, it became apparent that the promise of financial support was hollow.
Yet the Moroccan authorities, who had experienced the Arab protest movement first-hand in the form of mass demonstrations in several towns, were aware that money was needed to keep the street calm. The economy was in crisis, as a result of both a drought and the downturn in foreign investment and expatriate remittances caused by the global financial crisis. Morocco was desperate for a lifeline to enable it to survive the tempest, which has yet to die down.
The Syrian crisis and its attendant complications furnished that opportunity, providing the country with a means of cozying up both to the kings and emirs of the Gulf states and the main Western powers. It remains to be seen what rewards will accrue to the Moroccan treasury in terms of Gulf money. But the providers of that money know they need all the help they can get in their quest to redraw the map of the new Middle East.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.