Why is Morocco Reaching Out to Africa and Asia?

In his speech on August 20, King Mohammed VI of Morocco continued his country’s campaign to highlight its political and economic ties to Africa.

The occasion was the commemoration of the People’s Revolution Day, the beginning of the struggle against the French Protectorate. The King spoke on a number of topics including Morocco’s historic ties with Algeria, the need for overseas Moroccans to oppose extremism, and the centrality of Africa to the Moroccan identify and national strategy.

Morocco has been working very hard for a decade to cement relations with African countries to gain their support for Morocco’s efforts to join the African Union. Morocco’s strongest tool are the economic and commercial benefits that come with strong bilateral relations with the kingdom, amply demonstrated by the fact that, according to the African Development Bank, 85% of the country’s foreign direct investment is in Africa.

And like any other smart policy, these efforts do not come unconditionally. As the king said in his speech, in a clear reference to the AU effort, “Our decision that Morocco should take its natural place, once again, within the African institutional family clearly illustrates our commitment to continue supporting the causes of African peoples.”

He went on to point out that “For Morocco, Africa means more than just being part of a geographical area, or having historical bonds with the continent. Africa also means sincere affection, appreciation, close human and spiritual relations as well as tangible solidarity. Furthermore, Africa is the natural extension of Morocco and the embodiment of the country’s strategic depth.”

Morocco’s friendship has many benefits

Morocco’s efforts are multi-dimensional, involving the private sector; large state corporations such as OCP, the phosphate giant; government health, social, and education agencies; counterterrorism cooperation; and cultural exchanges. Moroccan telecoms companies serve more customers in a dozen African countries than they do at home; and Moroccan banks play a significant role in eight West African countries. Additionally, OCP, on its own and in an innovative partnership with Gabon, is producing fertilizer specifically tailored for African needs and is funding a distribution program for small landholders.

The king noted in his speech that “I believe what is good for Morocco is good for Africa – and vice versa. Theirs is one and the same destiny. I also believe there can be no progress without stability: either the two go together, or they do not exist. We see Africa as a forum for joint action, for promoting development in the region, and for serving African citizens.”

The efforts are making a difference. At the recent AU Summit, Morocco was able to secure 28 countries on a letter promoting Morocco’s admission to the AU after its withdrawal from its predecessor organization the Organization of African Unity (OAU) over the admission of the Polisario-run government Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director, Africa Center, the Atlantic Council

Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director, Africa Center, the Atlantic Council

In his commentary on the speech, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, remarked that “The monarch’s remarks reaffirmed a strategic orientation with significant implications not only for Morocco and other countries of the African continent, but also their global partners, including the United States.”

And the story has been carried over into Morocco’s growing relations with India, Russia, and China. The king had a retinue of 400 business representatives and government officials when he attended the India-Africa Forum in October 2015. Five pacts were agreed and two signed during the Forum.

Following on the heels of the India excursion, King Mohammed visited Russia March 15-16, 2016 during which a number of agreements, protocols, and memorandums of understanding, some 14 in number were highlighted as well as the continuation of the Strategic Partnership agreement that has been in effect for 10 years, since the king’s last visit in 2006.

It was a similar story in China during the state visit that began on May 11, 2016. The two countries inked 15 bilateral agreements, accords, and memoranda covering the education, economic, cultural, tourism, and technical sectors. Most importantly from the king’s perspective was the signing of a Strategic Partnership similar to that with the Kremlin.

While there is much speculation about the timing of these visits, many pundits say these Moroccan initiatives are not surprising considering the US’ reluctance to fully endorse Morocco’s autonomy proposal for the Western Sahara, calling it serious, realistic, and feasible, but not calling it out as “the” solution to the conflict. However, Russia and China have not called for its unqualified endorsement either.

Morocco is playing the long game. Whether with the AU or the Security Council, the kingdom knows it needs friends and the US’ fickle behavior gives Rabat pause, promoting a fuller, more strategic vision of how to gain friends and influence others.

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