Morocco's strategic alliance with the Gulf insulates their monarchies

Morocco's strategic alliance with the Gulf insulates their monarchies
8 min read
25 Apr, 2016
Comment: Rabat and Riyadh are looking to create a new axis of regional support that transcends the Arab League, writes Samir Bennis.
The GCC-Morocco partnership is guided by common interests [Getty]

King Mohammed VI travelled to Saudi Arabia to participate in the first Morocco-GCC summit last Wednesday.

Ever since its independence, Morocco has striven to build privileged personal relations with its Gulf counterparts. Over the years, the bonds of brotherhood built between Morocco and the six Gulf monarchies have born their fruit and immunised the monarchies against generational change.

Since his ascension to power in 1999, King Mohamed VI has followed the policies adopted by his late father King Hassan II.

Despite the privileged personal ties between the Moroccan royal family and its Gulf counterparts, at the institutional level these strong relationships have not translated into genuine integration of the economies of Morocco and the Gulf countries. For far too long, these relations were limited to the provision of financial assistance by the GCC to Morocco or the provision of security assistance from Morocco to the Gulf states.

However, since the start of the Arab Spring, observers have noted a real willingness in the leaders of both to take relations to a deeper level. This eventually translated into a call by Saudi Arabia to include both Morocco and Jordan in the GCC bloc.

Towards building a strong strategic alliance

This first Morocco-GCC summit gives substance and form to all previous attempts made in the past to breathe new life into the partnership linking these countries.

Its timing indicates a real willingness on behalf of Morocco and its GCC allies to build a new win-win strategic partnership.

The questions observers might ask are: why hold this summit now and what price will Morocco have to pay to strengthen this partnership? Will this be a win-win partnership? Will this summit result in a more resolute involvement of the GCC in Morocco's structural projects aimed at creating jobs and lifting large sectors of the population out of poverty?

An essential element of influence in the relations between Morocco and its Gulf counterparts is, unlike other relationships, the strong personal ties between their leaders. As King Mohammed VI said in his speech during the summit, these relations are not subjected to narrow calculations or transient interests that may fade away with the coming of a new ruler, a new generation, or a new administration. 

'Committed to GCC stability'

As clearly stated by King Mohammed, Morocco has every interest in preserving the stability of its Gulf allies. Any instability in these countries would have serious repercussions in Morocco. A steep increase in oil prices would have devastating effects on Morocco's economy, for example.

Instability in the GCC might limit Gulf investment in or financial assistance to Morocco. As these countries would likely devote more domestic resources to their defence budgets in the event of unrest, little money would be left to invest in countries such as Morocco.

It is this common destiny that explains why the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have never failed Morocco when the kingdom has faced major political or economic problems.

Few remember the role Saudi Arabia played in saving the Moroccan economy from bankruptcy in the early 1980s, when the government was short on the funds needed to pay its employees. Saudi Arabia also helped Morocco build the wall of sand in the Sahara in the 1980s at the height of its war against the Polisario Front.

Neither side feels they can longer rely on their long-time strategic allies in the West

In light of the unprecedented instability rocking the Arab world and the Arab League's inability to give a strong voice to its member states, Morocco and Gulf leaders have decided that the time has come to give their privileged partnership a more institutionalised impetus.

Morocco's decision to forgo its right to host the Arab League summit last March must be understood in this context. As King Mohammed put it, what the Arab world and its peoples need are not monotonous meetings and grandiloquent speeches that never translate into reality.

Rather, they need leaders who have a vision and are willing to lay the groundwork for a better future for their citizens.

Shared interests and threats 

The GCC-Morocco partnership responds exactly to this need for coordinated action guided by a sense of common interests and destiny. Gulf countries and Morocco share the same interests and face the same destabilising threats.

Neither side feels they can longer rely on their long-time strategic allies in the West, and that time may be ripe for them to forge ahead with new strategic alliances more likely to preserve their stability.

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With the new role that Iran will be allowed to play in the Middle East, thanks to Washington's decision to thumb its nose at its Gulf allies, the GCC needs a country such as Morocco to help it face the destabilising effects of Iran's resurgence.

Morocco's participation in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen merely constitutes the first step in this bourgeoning partnership between Morocco and the GCC.

In the absence of an American umbrella, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours are in need of a trusted strategic partner they can resort to in times of major crisis. Given the privileged strong relationship between Morocco's king and his Gulf royal counterparts, Rabat is viewed as one of the major players in the GCC future security equation.

Morocco will also play a major role in helping the GCC avert the "terrorism" threat posed by the likes of the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda, and the Iranian-backed Hizballah, in addition to other proxy groups operating in Syria and Yemen.

Over the years, Morocco has come to play a leading role in the global fight against terrorism. This was evident in the role Morocco played in thwarting major terrorist attacks in Europe and in locating Abdelhamid Abaaoud, one of the figures behind the Paris attacks last November. Given the expertise gained by Morocco's intelligence services in information sharing and in tracking terrorists, the GCC countries are keen to learn from Rabat's experience and secure their borders.

Additionally, with the leading role it has been playing in Africa in recent years, Morocco can also serve as a catalyst for the GCC's investments on the African continent. In this regard, Rabat has a great deal of experience to offer the GCC.

On the other hand, Morocco needs its Arab allies to solidify the strides it has made in recent years in terms of infrastructure and economic development.

With the many major economic programs Morocco has launched in recent years, such as Green Morocco and its ambitious green energy policy, the country needs a steady flow of cash in order to sustain its projects. Given the strong ties between the Moroccan royal family and its Gulf counterparts, Morocco is aware that it can no longer rely on its traditional economic partners, such as the European Union and the United States.

Investments made by the GCC come with few strings attached

Morocco is no longer ready to abide by the unfair conditions that these allies impose every time they provide the country with a loan or make any investments.

While these financial contributions come often with interference in Morocco's domestic affairs and seek to serve loaning countries' narrow interests rather than strengthening Morocco's economy, investments made by the GCC come with few strings attached.

The impetus given to the Morocco-GCC partnership since 2012 is already bearing its fruit, with Morocco being among the highest recipients of GCC investment and financial aid. The cash provided to Morocco has not only helped the country sustain its economic projects, but also to ease social tensions.

Additionally, Morocco also needs the solidarity of its GCC allies in its long-standing diplomatic battle to secure sovereignty over Western Sahara. The economic leverage the GCC countries enjoy thanks to oil has long enabled them to intercede in Morocco's favour with the influential members of the Security Council - especially the United States.

While in the past, the GCC's support was tacit, with the Morocco-GCC summit, the Gulf states' support has been made public for the first time. Their backing will enable Morocco to be more assertive in dealing with the United Nations and other influential players. 

With the Morocco-GCC partnership, this axis of monarchies will speak with a common voice and unified leadership that will help advance respective agendas and defend strategic interests.

Given the nature of relations linking the leaders of these countries and their belief that they share a common destiny and face common threats, this new grouping may supersede the ineffective role that has been played hitherto by the crippled Arab League. In light of the threats facing the Arab world, giving form to the Morocco-GCC alliance has become a pressing necessity.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. 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.

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