Morocco's non-vote on UN condemnation of Putin's war raises controversy

Morocco's non-vote on UN condemnation of Putin's war raises controversy
Moroccan analyst argues that taking side in a territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine would reignite the debate on Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
3 min read
04 March, 2022
141 of the 193 UN member states voted in favor of the resolution, condemning the Russian invasion. [Getty]

The Moroccan Kingdom chose not to participate in the UN vote that condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday, raising questions about Rabat’s silence on a deadly war that threatens the lives of some 8,000 Moroccans stranded in the conflict-torn country.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted to demand that Russia stops its offensive and immediately withdraws all troops, with world powers and small states alike condemning Moscow.

141 of the 193 member states voted in favor of the resolution, including Egypt, which has developed significant military and economic ties with Moscow, and historically neutral Switzerland. Besides Russia, four other states voted against and 35 abstained. Meanwhile, 11 countries did not vote at all, including Morocco.

The Moroccan ministry of foreign affairs said that Rabat’s decision "cannot be the subject of any interpretation regarding its principled position on the situation between the Russian Federation and Ukraine".

A diplomatic move praised as "wise", "witty" and "out of the box" by some Moroccan international relations experts, who argued that Rabat’s non-vote would safeguard the kingdom's economic ties with Moscow.

“The kingdom’s position is valid as it reflects its categorical refusal to take a stance in favour of one... party, and remains attached to the principles that characterise its foreign policy, namely international peace and security,” Mehdi Rais, a Moroccan international relations expert, told The New Arab.

Morocco has made no secret of his desire to strengthen economic and diplomatic ties with the Russian Federation. Moroccan King Mohammed VI visited Moscow twice in the last decade. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Rabat in 2006, the first visit by a Russian head of state since 1961.

Recent data shows that Rabat is Moscow’s third trade partner in Africa. Exports from Russia to Morocco increased by 20% during the first half of 2021. 

This Machiavellian understanding of the kingdom's position was not appealing to those Moroccans who believe that there’s no place for neutrality in a war that violates international law and threatens the lives of millions of civilians, including 8,000 Moroccan students stranded in Ukraine. Rabat has evacuated 3,000 Moroccans from Ukraine via repatriation flights, according to official sources.

The reasons behind Morocco’s surprising refusal to take a stance against Washington's main rival remain unclear and open to different interpretations. Rabat is a key US ally in the MENA region. 

Considering Russia’s close ties with Algeria and its condemnation of the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in 2020, many observers would have expected the kingdom to support a UN resolution against Moscow. The Algeria-backed Polisario Front has been fighting for the independence of Morocco's Western Sahara region since 1975. The UN considers the area a "non-self-governing territory" with legitimate aspirations to self-determination.

Some experts argue that taking side in a territorial dispute would reignite the debate about Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara though.

A Moroccan political expert who requested anonymity told The New Arab that “Morocco is claiming control over Western Sahara through the pretext of historical belonging, which is the same thing Russia is doing now with Ukraine. Therefore, in this case, Moscow and Rabat are standing on the same ground and fighting relatively similar battles.”

Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Although Moscow officially supports only the independence of breakaway eastern regions in Ukraine, prominent Kremlin-linked Russian figures openly called for the annexation of these areas.