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Mar 21, 2019 | 20:34 GMT

5 mins read

Saudi Arabia, Morocco: Riyadh Sets Out to Bury the Hatchet With Rabat

(Stratfor)
The Big Picture

Morocco has been able to remain relatively neutral in the spat between Qatar and its larger neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Rabat's decision has not played well in Riyadh, hurting ties between the two most populous monarchies in the Arab world. Since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has been trying to shore up its international image through actions like its overtures to Morocco — but there are limits as to how successful its charm offensive will be. 

One of the westernmost countries in the Arab world, Morocco is far from the Arabian Peninsula, yet even Rabat is finding that the Gulf Cooperation Council's internal tug of war is never far away. On March 20, Saudi King Salman phoned Moroccan King Mohammed VI to discuss the ties between their monarchies — the two largest in the Arab world. According to the Saudi media, the pair discussed ways to improve the relationship, the economic component of which largely comprises energy imports from Saudi Arabia, bilateral tourism and Saudi investment in Morocco. The countries' political relationship, however, has hit a rough patch in recent years, as Rabat has refused to fall into line with Riyadh's regional policies. Most significantly, the Maghrebi country has insisted on remaining on the fence on Saudi Arabia's campaign to isolate Qatar. In fact, King Salman's call comes a week after Morocco's national energy regulator announced that Qatar Petroleum — Qatar's national oil company — had entered an agreement to farm into 13 offshore exploration blocks in the country. 

A Wounded Relationship

For the last two years, Saudi Arabia's relationship with Morocco has become complicated. Riyadh had entertained hopes that Rabat would reduce its economic and political ties with Doha by toeing the Saudi line on regional affairs, but Morocco instead refused to take a side. King Mohammed VI, in fact, even chose to visit Doha on an official trip in 2017 instead. Morocco was also one of the few Arab countries that did not firmly back Saudi Arabia after Saudi operatives killed dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October. What's more, Rabat opportunistically withdrew its forces involved with the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. 

Morocco's decisions have not been without repercussion. Last year, Saudi Arabia voted against Morocco's bid to host the 2026 World Cup, while King Salman also declined to take his annual holiday in the country, which typically boosts Saudi spending in the Moroccan tourism sector, particularly around the Saudi palace in Tangier. In 2016, Saudi Arabia also promised $22 billion in investment in Morocco's military, but it is unclear how much money it has delivered over the last two years. And just last month, Saudi news network Al-Arabiya aired a documentary suggesting that the Algerian-backed Polisario Front had legitimate claims to Western Sahara, a territory that Morocco controls. As a result, Rabat withdrew its ambassador to Riyadh. 

Riyadh might have calculated that the cost of continued escalation with Rabat is not worth the bother.

Morocco's Independent Streak

Despite the pressure, Morocco has not — and will not — cave to Saudi pressure entirely. Accordingly, King Salman's phone call is likely intended to control the damage in the pair's frayed relationship. Morocco, after all, is a country that does not closely rely on ties with Saudi Arabia for economic and political support, as it boasts one of the Arab world's most diversified economies and enjoys strong economic and political links to Europe and the United States. It has also spent the last decade trying to pivot toward Africa and boost ties with sub-Saharan African countries, particularly in Francophone Africa, meaning it has required fewer Saudi energy imports in recent years.

This gives Rabat a degree of independence from Riyadh that some of Saudi Arabia's closer neighbors, such as Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman and Jordan, lack. Riyadh might therefore have calculated that the cost of continued escalation with Rabat is not worth the bother.

Why the Wounds Will Heal 

While the relationship between the two has hit new lows, the two monarchies have a long and close history of collaboration, suggesting that relations are unlikely to ever truly plumb the depths. If either kingdom faces a significant threat, the other will put aside differences on minor issues and offer support. Ultimately, Morocco remembers how Saudi Arabia offered steadfast support in the 1970s and 1980s during its bloody war against Polisario and is well-aware that it might again require assistance if Algeria becomes more assertive in the 2020s. 

It's too early to say whether King Salman's decision to call his Moroccan counterpart will start to mend the ties between the countries. But given Rabat's preference for a more independent foreign policy — which includes amicable ties with Doha and a refusal to stand shoulder to shoulder with Riyadh on all issues — the two kingdoms are unlikely to ever quite see eye to eye, even when they're on the best of terms.

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