Morocco, more than a summer retreat for the Saudis

Morocco, more than a summer retreat for the Saudis
Comment: Saudi royals like Morocco's beaches. They also value the country's strategic significance - something which Rabat appears happy to exploit, says George Joffe.
4 min read
24 Aug, 2015
Morocco's ruling families have long-established good relations [AFP]
In mid-August, Saudi Arabia's King Salman, who had intended to summer on France's Cote d'Azur, abruptly changed plans and decamped with half his 1,000-strong entourage for his residence in Tangier.

His sudden departure came after a local petition, with 150,000 signatures, protested against a decision to grant the king exclusive use of a beach during his three-week stay in Vallauris.

Salman is unlikely to face the same inconvenience in Tangier, where he owns a seaside villa surrounded by 1,500m of wall, and staffed by 30 members of the Moroccan royal guard.

Morocco has long been a favoured resort for the Saudi royal family. Salman's predecessor, King Abdullah, owned a massive palace at Anfa, on the southern fringes of Casablanca, and others own residences in Marrakesh and Agadir. 

The Moroccan Sahara, too, has long been a favoured hunting ground for Gulf royals.

Links with the Gulf

Morocco, however, is far more than just a holiday destination for Saudi royals. It has long been a close and privileged ally of states in the GCC.

They, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been prepared to help Morocco financially for many decades, especially after it occupied Western Sahara in 1975.

Their private sector companies and, later, their sovereign wealth funds, have invested in Morocco as the country built up a market economy after its debt crisis in 1983.

And although Morocco has successfully managed to avoid too close a political and diplomatic embrace, it has provided significant security support over the years.

A detachment of Moroccan soldiers has been stationed in the UAE since the 1980s to help with domestic security and, in 1990, the Moroccan army contributed to the internal stability of Saudi Arabia during first Gulf war.

Its security services also maintain close ties with Gulf counterparts over regional extremism and Morocco's growing diplomatic engagement with West Africa provides a path for Gulf penetration there as well.

Rabat has also lent verbal support to Saudi fears over Iran's threat to the Middle East, although it has avoided becoming directly embroiled in regional crises.
     Morocco is far more than a holiday destination. It has long been a close and privileged ally of the GCC

Cementing the Saudi-Moroccan relationship

Since the revolutionary events of 2011, the Gulf states have seen Morocco, along with Jordan, as potential allies in their struggle to preserve their conservative hegemony and cement a tangible coalition among natural allies.

Thus, in that year, Riyadh proposed that Morocco and Jordan should become GCC members. Oman and Qatar objected, however, and the idea was shelved.

Nevertheless, GCC states proposed $2.5 billion of loans to both Morocco and Jordan. There was a sudden spate of Gulf investment in Moroccan telecoms, property, tourism and energy.

A year later, another $5 billion was promised to Morocco for the five years up to 2017 and, in November last year, L'Economiste in Casablanca claimed that investment funds of $120 billion up to 2024 were also to be made available.

The Moroccan king, Mohammed VI, toured the Gulf in 2012 to signal his gratitude for the generosity and, in the following year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE persuaded the US not to push its proposal for human rights monitoring in Western Sahara, which had the potential to cause great embarrassment in Rabat.

In return, Morocco agreed to join the new Gulf military pact suggested by Saudi Arabia in early 2014. 

This year, the embrace has tightened. Morocco has used its F16 jets stationed in the UAE to bomb Yemen in support of the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi movement.

Salman fishing in the Yemen: Read Bill Law's analysis here

It is not known whether Moroccan ground forces in the Gulf also took part in the more recent attacks around Aden and Taiz, but at least one Moroccan aircraft has been shot down.

Public concerns in Morocco

Although the Moroccan government was prepared for losses, the country's media has asked if it should be involved in remote conflicts where there appears to be no national interest, and raised fears such action could further radicalise its youth.

After Tunisia, Morocco has the second-largest contingent of recruits to the Islamic State group from North Africa. For the government, however, the dangers of a Saudi embrace seem to be a small price to pay for future financial stability.

George Joffe is a research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor of geography at Kings College, London, specialising in the Middle East.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.