Morocco-Saudi relations: Trouble amongst royals?

Morocco's Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri (R) and his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal sign an agreement during the 11th Moroccan-Saudi joint Commission in Rabat February 10, 2011. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz is alive and in "excellent shape," the Saudi foreign minister said on Thursday after Rumors about the king's health triggered a spike in the price of oil. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal (MOROCCO - Tags: POLITICS ROYALS) - GM1E72B057701

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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.

Western Sahara: Unresolved as Ever

Morocco’s more conservative foreign policy is primarily shaped by shoring up international support for its claims to the Western Sahara territory, which Morocco considers its “southern provinces.” This series of events in 2018 took place in the backdrop of renewed U.N. and U.S. interest in the Western Sahara dispute.

Since John Bolton joined the Trump administration in March 2018, the United States has amplified the need to resolve the conflict. Bolton told the New Yorker that “he was eager to end the conflict,” and pro-state media in Morocco view him as sympathetic to the Polisario movement—a worrying development for Morocco. Nonetheless, for the first time in six years, negotiations between Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria, and Mauritania took place in December 2018. Another round of talks are expected to take place this month.

Now What?

With this backdrop in mind, is there a likelihood for a major shift in Morocco’s foreign policy that would more fundamentally align it with the Qatar-Turkey regional alliance, in more direct opposition to the Saudi-bloc? The answer is probably not. Bourita recently downplayed the reports of strained relations. Morocco has a long history of strong relations with Saudi Arabia, and even with the current tensions, it doesn’t seem to symbolize a major break in ties.

Current Saudi-Moroccan tensions are extraordinary, but it’s unlikely they signify a major shift in Moroccan foreign policy. While Arab monarchies have had their differences over the years, and continue to do so, in the end they have come to each other’s aid when it mattered, with the understanding that the fall of one Arab monarchy would set a dangerous regional precedent in contemporary times (the last Arab monarchies to fall were Egypt in 1953, Iraq in 1958, and Libya in 1969). The GCC’s whimsical invitation of Morocco and Jordan to join the group amidst the Arab Spring; Saudi military support of Bahrain during its 2011 uprising; and Saudi, Emirati, and Kuwaiti economic support of Jordan’s economic challenges all attest to the fact that Arab monarchies ultimately stick together. But in the meantime, we should expect the coolness in Moroccan-Saudi relations to continue.