Morocco must rekindle relations with Mauritania

Morocco must rekindle relations with Mauritania
6 min read
30 Dec, 2016
Comment: Morocco's foreign ministry should coordinate with its Mauritanian counterpart to reopen communication channels between the two countries, writes Samir Bennis
The President Of Mauritania Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz [AFP]

Tension between Morocco and Mauritania has recently reached unprecedented levels.

Although the relations between the two countries have been strained since the Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz came to power in 2008, they had maintained the status quo without further deterioration.

However, a turning point was reached in December 2015 when Mauritanian authorities raised the Mauritanian flag on the city of Lagouira, which Morocco considers as part of its sovereignty.

Although Morocco sent a high-level delegation thereafter to meet the Mauritanian president and contain the situation, things did not change and Mauritania persisted in taking measures that Morocco regarded as "provocative".

After raising the Mauritanian flag in Lagouira, the Mauritanian president received delegations from the Polisario Front. He announced a three day period of national mourning following the death of the Polisario leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz, and sent an official delegation to attend his funeral.

The Mauritanian president refused to receive an official Moroccan delegation prior to the African Union summit held last July in Kigali, Rwanda. Furthermore, Mauritania was not among the 28 countries that submitted a motion to the African Union in support of Morocco's return to the organisation.

Tensions brew between Morocco and Mauritania

The situation grew yet more strained when Morocco sent members of the gendarmerie to Guerguerat, located a few kilometers from Mauritania's borders. After the Polisario sent its troops to the area and placed them just 200 meters away from the Moroccan forces, Mauritania did not take any measures to ease tension.

For many observers, it appears that Mauritania seeks to impose a fait accompli, putting the area of Guerguerat and Lagouira under the control of Polisario.

An analysis of Morocco-Mauritanian relations over the past six years shows that the Mauritanian president has adopted a political doctrine that does not consider Morocco a strategic ally.

Over the past six years, Mauritania has not appointed a new ambassador in Rabat for more than five years

It seems, rather, that President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz regards Morocco as a threat to Mauritania and its stability. Indeed, Senegal - Morocco's traditional ally and a supporter of its territorial integrity, also has strained relations with Mauritania.

As a result, Mauritania negatively views the alliance between Dakar and Rabat, and sees the establishment of a state in the Western Sahara as a means of avoiding being surrounded by Morocco and Senegal.

In a clear sign the strained relations between the two countries over the past six years, Mauritania has not appointed a new ambassador in Rabat for more than five years and has reduced the level of diplomatic representation in Rabat to its lowest level.

Perhaps among the factors that have presumably pushed the Mauritanian president to turn his back on Morocco and foster the Algerian agenda, is that Morocco hosts Mauritanian billionaire Mohamed Ould Bouamatou, who settled in Marrakech in 2010.

Diplomacy is not a field driven by uncalculated reactions, but by pragmatism and wisdom

Bouamatou is accused by Mauritanian authorities of trying to destabilise the country and distort its image at home and abroad.

After being one of the closest figures to President Ould Abdel Aziz, and contributing to his election in 2009, Ould Bouamatou became one of his most ardent opponents. Likely to have further angered the Mauritanian president is Bouamatou's participation in the Crans Montana Forum last March in the city of Dakhla.

In addition, Bouamatou hosted a meeting with the participation of various figures of opposition at his palace in Marrakech last May, including Ely Ould Mohamed Fall, who is regarded as one of the biggest opponents of the Mauritanian president, and one of the candidates for the presidential elections scheduled for 2019. 

Chabat's statement

While observers have been unpicking the diplomatic tension between Morocco and Mauritania, the Secretary-General of Morocco's independence party, Hamid Chabat, made a statement saying that Mauritania is "part of Morocco's historical borders". The statement caused uproar in Mauritania, culminating in a fiery statement from the general secretariat of the ruling party.

Chabat's statement is dangerous because it not only fuels tension between the two countries, but also portrays Morocco as a state that does not respect the sovereignty of neighboring countries and does not abide by the United Nations Charter, which prioritises the respect of countries' sovereignty and their independence. It was, therefore, necessary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to clarify Morocco's official position.

The first beneficiary of this lack of communication between Rabat and Nouakchott is Algiers

The deterioration of relations between Morocco and Mauritania requires sensitive handling and leaves no room for improvisation. Diplomacy is not a field driven by uncalculated reactions, but by pragmatism and wisdom.

It is true that the Mauritanian leadership has taken steps that inch it closer to Algeria. However, one must not forget the historical ties between the two countries and the brotherly relations between their two peoples.

Morocco must avoid taking steps that may potentially further escalate the situation, pushing Mauritania's leadership to take measures that would serve Algeria and the Polisario Front.

The first beneficiary of this lack of communication between Rabat and Nouakchott is Algiers, which will do everything in its power to isolate Morocco and thwart its effort to return to its African family. Indeed, the statement of the ministry of the interior clarifying Morocco's foreign policy toward Mauritania was a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, the king's decision to send Morocco's head of government to Nouakchott and his phone call with the Mauritanian president will help defuse the tension between the two countries and, hopefully, bring relations back to normal.

After Benkirane's visit to Mauritania and the letter he conveyed from King Mohammed VI to the Mauritanian president, Morocco’s foreign ministry should coordinate with its Mauritanian counterpart to reopen communication channels between the two countries.

Preparing for a summit meeting between the leaders of the two countries, an official visit of King Mohammed VI to Mauritania, or a visit of the Mauritanian president to Morocco would definitely ease tension between the two countries.

This may help them to rebuild trust and reassure the Mauritanian leadership that Morocco has no interest in destabilising Mauritania, and that its stability lies at the heart of Moroccan foreign policy, based on the preservation stability in the region and non-interference in the internal affairs of neighboring countries.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a PhD in international relations from the University of Provence in France and his research areas include relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil.

He has published more than 150 articles in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and authored Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News and lives in New York.

Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.