Morocco reaps rewards of major changes in its diplomatic strategy

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, (L) walks with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

At a time when the European Union is bemoaning the loss of the United Kingdom, Morocco has rejoined the African Union, ensuring that every African country is again a member.

Morocco has also served formal notice that it will apply to join the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). At a time when there’s a growing northern backlash against free trade areas.Morocco has been actively negotiating with more than one of these in Africa.

What is going on? Morocco is now outflanking and outvoting Algeria, South Africa and their allies.

The main reason is that Morocco has been on a massive diplomatic drive, using both its political and economic muscle. Since his coronation in 1999, the king has led over 40 visits to African countries south of the Sahara. And 85% of Moroccan foreign direct investment is in other African countries.

Morocco is today the second largest foreign investor, after South Africa, in other AU countries. It’s also now in a position to grant foreign aid that swings AU votes in its favour.

Role of history

When the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was founded in 1963, one of its founding principles was to recognise all borders as they existed on the day of independence. Morocco and Somalia lodged objections – a premonition of wars to come. Both considered their precolonial territory, included neighbouring colonies, not yet independent.

When Spain withdrew from Spanish Sahara in 1975, Polisario, which waged an insurgency against Spanish colonialists and subsequently Morocco, proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976.

Simultaneously, Morocco and Mauritania partitioned the SADR between them, with Morocco later occupying it all on the grounds that it had been part of the Moroccan empire two centuries earlier.

The SADR promptly applied for OAU membership. Diplomats resorted to their favourite tactic in cases of deadlock, to stall as long as possible. But after seven years this was no longer possible and the SADR was admitted in 1983 with Morocco withdrawing in 1984.

The Sahrawis waged a 16 year war, ending in a ceasefire. What’s often skated over is that the Sahrawis are outnumbered about sixty to one by Moroccans.

Diplomacy reaps rewards

Morocco is still en route to a constitutional monarchy. Parliament has no say over foreign policy and military affairs, both of which remain controlled by the monarchy.

We can infer though that a nationalist or irredentist policy towards the SADR probably enjoys wide popularity, and that a Moroccan withdrawal from the SADR would be met by some protests within Morocco.

When King Mohammed VI ascended the throne in 1999, he took cognisance of the fact that 16 years of boycotting the OAU had failed because the SADR remained an AU member in good standing. The new king used Morocco’s strengths as both an Arabophone and Francophone country to lobby zealously.

His success can be measured by the fact that Morocco’s application to rejoin the now strengthened African Union was supported by 39 out of 54 votes, with a majority of AU members, 28 out of 54, petitioning to suspend the SADR as a member. The SADR was only saved by the two-thirds rule which applies to suspension.

During these two decades of Moroccan diplomacy, the kingdom had also joined the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), until this became dormant after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s assassination in 2011. It also negotiated, but didn’t sign, a free trade agreement with the francophone UEMOA, the west African economic and monetary union.

Morocco has now formally stated that it will apply to join the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), as “part of the royal vision for regional integration”. (This is also a tacit admission that the Arab Maghreb Union is moribund, and going nowhere.)

If this seems startling, we should note that regional definitions are as much political as geographic, and are dynamic, not static. Rwanda, for example, moved from the central African grouping to the East African Community in 2007. Egypt and Libya have joined the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa, Comesa.

And the AU has urged other states to follow the Tripartite Free Trade Area precedent by amalgamating with Ecowas.

Economic success

We now need to consider the economic dimension. Morocco now has the fifth largest GDP in Africa.

In addition, Morocco has an economy as diversified as Egypt’s and South Africa’s unlike Nigeria and Algeria which are brutally affected by slumps in oil and gas prices.

In addition to tourism and food exports, Morocco has deftly used free trade area partnerships with the EU until it has, for example, built up over one hundred companies that are partners in aerospace global supply chains.

This niche surpasses both South African and Egyptian manufacturing. Morocco is also installing some of the largest solar power plants in Africa, monetising the Sahara sunlight.

The future will tell us what further diplomatic successes Morocco will achieve.