The current Morocco-Saudi Arabia spat illustrates Rabat’s concern about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive policies across the region. It also shows its desire to assert independence and maintain strong relations with as many actors as possible.
Last month, Reuters reported that Morocco recalled its ambassador to Saudi Arabia, reflecting rising tensions between the two allies. Even though Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita officially denied the reports, the confusion surrounding it nonetheless reinforced the perception that Moroccan-Saudi relations have reached a low point. The reports about the recall came after the pro-Saudi news outlet Al Arabiya broadcasted a documentary that questioned Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Such a move threatens Rabat’s number one foreign policy priority: recognition of Morocco’s control over the disputed territory.
The spat illustrates Rabat’s concern about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) aggressive policies across the region. It also shows its desire to assert independence and maintain strong relations with as many actors as possible as it seeks to curry support for its position in the Western Sahara dispute, and to situate itself above Gulf divisions.
FRIEND IN NEED IS A FRIEND INDEED
The current cooling in Moroccan-Saudi relations is unprecedented. The two countries became especially close after the 2011 Arab uprisings, which threatened Arab monarchies to varying degrees. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) even invited Morocco and Jordan to join their regional bloc to shore up support for the Sunni monarchies as protests spread across the region.
After the threat of a full-scale uprising subsided, Morocco and Jordan received an increasing amount of foreign investment from and secured major trade agreements with GCC countries. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates became two of the top sources of foreign investment in Morocco. Military and defense cooperation also skyrocketed after the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces and the Saudi armed forces signed agreements leading to a $22 billion Saudi investment in the Moroccan military.
Family ties also link the two countries. Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s cousins, Moulay Hicham and Moulay Ismail, are the cousins of Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal—one of the wealthiest businessmen in the world. The Saudi royal family owns multiple palaces across Morocco, and Saudi royals have been visited for business and leisure for decades. In 2017, King Salman reportedly spent $100 million on his Moroccan summer holiday.
GCC CRISIS: PICK A SIDE
Despite the history of friendship, the tensions simmering in the Arab world since the 2017 Gulf crisis began has taken its toll on the relationship. Morocco has attempted to remain neutral in the dispute that pits Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain (among others) against Qatar and even offered to act as an intermediary. It walked this tightrope with care, but Saudi Arabia’s aggressive foreign policy under MBS has posed difficulties for Arab states like Morocco as they situate themselves in shifting regional dynamics.
The Moroccan-Saudi spat reflects Rabat’s growing concern about Saudi Arabia’s aggressive policies across the region. The disastrous political and humanitarian consequences of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, coupled with the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year, has amplified the international pressure on Saudi Arabia and opened space for countries in the region to take some distance from Saudi Arabia’s muscular approach to foreign policy.
Thus, Morocco appears to feel more confident in asserting its independence while also attempting to retain good relations with both sides of the GCC dispute, as well as the United States and the European Union. This strategy reflects Rabat’s continued focus on ensuring international support for its control over the Western Sahara.
As the Moroccans attempted not to take sides, Saudi Arabia found ways to express its discontent. In June 2018, for instance, Saudi Arabia (plus the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) voted against Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup. In the traditional tit-for-tat of Arab diplomacy, reports surfaced last November that Moroccan authorities refused to host MBS during his tour around the Arab world in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, and that King Mohammed VI declined an invitation to meet with him. This ostensible snubbing came at the height of international pressure on Saudi Arabia—even from allies like the United States. Such a public rebuff, from another Middle Eastern monarchy and a longtime ally, intensified the cooling in Morocco-Saudi relations.
Finally, earlier this year Moroccan Foreign Minister Bourita told Al Jazeera that Morocco was reevaluating its participation in the Yemen war, pointing to the humanitarian situation. Reports then emerged a couple weeks later that Morocco had ended its participation in the Saudi-led coalition. The announcement likely frustrated the Saudis (not least because it was discussed on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera), but it should not have been much of a surprise. While Morocco was one of the first countries to support the Saudi-led coalition in 2015, it was slowly scaling back its military support as the war dragged on.
THE IRANIAN ANGLE
However, Morocco has not been immune to Saudi pressure. In May 2018, Morocco broke off diplomatic relations with Iran just after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his speech outlining the Iranian threat and a couple weeks before President Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. The Moroccan foreign minister claimed that Iran was supplying weapons to the Western Sahara independence movement (and Morocco’s number one enemy), the Polisario, through a Hezbollah intermediary in Algeria, Morocco’s main regional rival.
However, this move against Iran likely resulted from the need to bolster its relationship with both the United States and the Saudi-led bloc. A recent report also claimed that Morocco’s foreign minister held secret meetings with Netanyahu during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September 2018, even though the two states have not maintained diplomatic relations since 2000, but their commercial ties are an open secret.