In Morocco, Diplomacy Hints at Broader Ambition

4 MINS READJul 23, 2016 | 14:50 GMT
King Mohammed VI, who wants Morocco to take a more prominent role in Africa, has asked to rejoin the African Union, a group his country left in 1984. But standing in the way is a dispute over the status of the Western Sahara.
King Mohammed VI, who wants Morocco to take a more prominent role in Africa, has asked to rejoin the African Union, a group his country left in 1984. But standing in the way is a dispute over the status of the Western Sahara.
(FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

A flurry of diplomatic activity over the past week has revealed Morocco's renewed focus on pursuing its interests in Africa. But Rabat's complicated relationships on the continent and its claims over disputed territory in the Western Sahara will make the realization of its goals neither easy nor uncontroversial.

To meet its goals, Morocco will have to contend with Algeria, its powerful eastern neighbor and one of its top rivals. For decades, the two states' relationship has been marred by hostility and mutual distrust; they even fought a short war in October 1963 known as the Sand War. Today, Morocco and Algeria remain at an impasse over the status of a disputed slice of land: the Western Sahara.

The two still cooperate on certain matters of shared interest. In fact, on July 17, a Moroccan delegation that included the country's head of foreign intelligence signed an agreement with Algiers to strengthen collaboration on counterterrorism and to increase information sharing on extremist groups and drug traffickers. It was the highest-ranking Moroccan envoy to have visited Algeria in over two years. Even so, Morocco's relations with Algeria continue to be heavily constrained by their conflicting strategic imperatives.

Algeria's rising regional and military power alarms Morocco, which has built up and secured its relationships with external powers that could counter Algiers if need be. In particular, Morocco has sought out ties with France and the United States as well as with the Gulf Cooperation Council. Now Morocco is looking continentwide in an effort to secure its interests beyond simply constraining its prickly neighbor. On July 18, Morocco announced its intention to rejoin the African Union, a bloc it left in 1984 in protest of the union's recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic — the Western Sahara — as a member state. 

Morocco is the only African country that is not a member of the African Union.

Having heavily invested in bolstering its economic and diplomatic ties with other African nations over the past two decades, Morocco finally feels compelled to return to the continental bloc and to boot out the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic at the same time. Several African Union members have already withdrawn or suspended their recognition of the Western Saharan state as their relations with Morocco have improved. These states include Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Benin, Togo, Swaziland, Madagascar, Chad, Seychelles, Burundi and Guinea-Bissau.

Morocco's return to the bloc would have to be approved by a vote among the African Union's members — something that normally would be virtually guaranteed. But the country's push for the simultaneous removal of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, potentially even as a precondition to its own return, has divided the bloc. At the most recent African Union summit in Kigali, 28 of the bloc's 54 members reportedly voiced their support for Morocco. The remaining states, led by Algeria and South Africa, welcomed Morocco's return but insisted that the membership of their Western Saharan peer was nonnegotiable. A round of high-stakes talks will undoubtedly follow in the coming weeks as Morocco maneuvers against Algeria and its allies to gain the votes it needs.

Whether or not Rabat is successful, its renewed diplomacy hints at its broader ambitions: to expand its influence in Africa and cement its claims over the Western Sahara. Morocco has been laying the economic and diplomatic groundwork to extend its reach into the continent for decades, and its efforts might soon pay off. But as Rabat seeks to regain a seat in the African Union, Algeria — its primary rival — could yet keep it from meeting its aspirations in the region.

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