The Day After Tomorrow in Morocco

Delegates debate at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco, November 10
Delegates debate at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco, November 10 (UN Climate Change)

Amid the election victory of the intensely pro-coal, global-warming denier Donald Trump, the United Nation’s annual Climate Change Conference is underway in Marrakech, Morocco and is aiming to build on last year’s Paris Agreement.

The conference began on Monday and will run until the end of next week. Read more

Western Sahara: An Unlikely Key to American Strategy in Africa

Moroccan flags on the outskirts of El Aaiún, the capital of Western Sahara, September 4, 2012
Moroccan flags on the outskirts of El Aaiún, the capital of Western Sahara, September 4, 2012 (Flickr/Eunheui)

Africa, once the forgotten continent in American foreign policy, has rather abruptly become important again. US Africa Command has been front and center as a result of operations in Libya, Somalia and elsewhere. Terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are active and spreading and Chinese economic expansion into the continent makes it strategically interesting almost by default. It is time, now rather than later, for Western policymakers to consider the place of Africa in the world.

The first and most important way of engaging with an entire continent is developing regional allies. In the case of Africa, these can often be identified by what they oppose. Al-Shabaab may run rampant in Somalia but neighboring Kenya is ready and willing to listen to Western advice and aid. Boko Haram, a key substate actor in Nigeria, is counterbalanced by American diplomatic and economic engagement with the Nigerian government. And AQIM, arguably the most important of Africa’s major terrorist groups, is countered in some areas by a Moroccan constitutional monarchy that has shown great willingness to cooperate with the West on matters of counterterrorism and regional strategy.

None of these regimes are entirely blameless. But they are convenient allies and a realist approach to international relations requires doing business with imperfect people whose interests nevertheless align with the United States’.

Credibility, though, has a lot of different sides. The image that the United States want to project in Africa is a simple one: speak softly, carry a big stick in one hand and carry a lot of aid money in the other. That image is somewhat complicated, in the case of American-Moroccan relations, by the issue of Western Sahara.

Western Sahara is a chunk of desert roughly the size of Colorado and has a population of around half a million. Morocco, a little less than twice that size, has a population of 33 million. The territory has been called the last colony in the world; it may well have been that in 1975 when the Spanish withdrew and Morocco abruptly occupied and annexed it. Sixteen years of often brutal insurgency followed, pitting Moroccan security forces against Western Sahara’s inhabitants, the Saharawi, who do not see themselves as Moroccan and have limited interest in joining the kingdom. A ceasefire in 1991 nominally ended the violence, on the condition that a referendum be held to determine the future of the territory. More than two decades later, that referendum has yet to occur.

Occasional protests in Western Sahara are still often handled violently and a substantial portion of the population lives behind a 1,700 mile long militarized wall, complete with millions of landmines. No country in the United Nations recognizes Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara but the issue tends to attract very little attention outside Africa.

Though it does not much trouble the United States, Western Sahara has been a contentious issue for Morocco’s neighbors. The border between Morocco and Algeria remains closed, partially as a result of Algeria’s support for an independent Western Sahara. The Moroccan government has taken considerable flack for its stance on the territory and the Saharawi people have been a minor magnet for activists and journalists, although much of the territory is technically closed to reporters.

It is not hard to make the argument that no ally is perfect, of course, and maybe Moroccan cooperation on other issues is worth being, as they say, diplomatic over Western Sahara. Maybe Morocco is headed in the right direction on enough fronts that it makes no sense to be picky just now. And certainly, the cancelation of a joint American-Moroccan military exercise last April — in conjunction with an American proposal for human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara — may have made the point succinctly enough for politicians, though probably not for Saharawi activists. Or maybe not.

Nevertheless, it bears thinking about: how far does pragmatism go? If the logic underlying diplomatic alliances with unsavory regimes — of which Morocco is not really one; as far as African countries go, it is doing extremely well in all dimensions — is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, what does that mean for the Saharawi? If the Saharawi see Morocco as the enemy, and the United States as Morocco’s friend, what does that mean about Saharawi cooperation with, say, Al Qaeda? What does that mean about the relationship between Afghan villagers and the Taliban? Or postwar Iraq and newly conciliatory Iran?

The Saharawi, despite the harshness of their natural environment and the unpalatability of their political environment, are not going anywhere. They were living in the desert when Gaius Suetonius Paulinus marched a Roman army south from the Atlas Mountains to what is now Mauritania. They were still there when Islam arrived several hundred years later. They were there for the Almoravid Empire, for the Spanish protectorate and for the post-1975 insurgency. And, like all marginalized peoples, they will still be there when the geopolitical order shifts once again.

The question of what to do about them isn’t really a question about the Saharawi, or Morocco, or any particular group in any particular place. For America, it is a question of reputation. It is a question about how it wants to look to future historians — and future allies. It is a question about whether a cohesive global strategy for the world’s only superpower requires that superpower to compromise on the moral high ground. And if compromise is required, when is it required? How far need it go before the price of doing business starts becoming too high to justify the sometimes unappetizing but wholly necessary moral grey areas that have always characterized robust foreign policy?

This article was published as the winning entry in an internship competition at Wikistrat, the world’s first massively multiplayer online consultancy.

Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Arab Spring Models

While violence rages in Syria and Yemen, two other key players in the broader Middle East are paving the way toward modest political reforms that the West can herald as a proper response to the aspirations of young Arabs emboldened by the Arab Spring.

Morocco and Saudi Arabia have been both able to stay ahead of the popular uprisings that have swept the Middle East since the start of this year with reforms that defuse internal tension even if the opposition remains unsatisfied.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco held a referendum this summer about several constitutional reforms which forced him, among other things, to appoint a prime minister from the largest parliamentary faction and cede the power to dissolute the legislature to the head of the government. His Saudi counterpart increased college, housing and social security benefits in February and announced a raise in government salaries before protests could erupt in his oil kingdom.

Last week, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in local elections in 2015 and serve on his advisory council. The changes should help to at least somewhat lessen discontent among the Saudi youth without jeopardizing the monarchy’s support of conservative Islamists.

Western powers have struggled to respond to the Arab Spring as their interests and values are often at odds in the region. According to the strategic consultancy firm Wikistrat, the solid middle ground that was found in Morocco and Saudi Arabia could be embraced as a model that the West can push other allies, including Bahrain and Jordan, toward implementing.

“Their strategy can also incrementally empower the liberal elements of society instead of Islamists,” according to Wikistrat’s Middle East Monitor for September, “by allowing increased openness without rushing into elections that non-Islamists would be unprepared for.” That is especially true for Egypt where the secular opposition, after decades of oppression, is disorganized and altogether ill prepared for parliamentary and presidential elections whereas the Muslim Brotherhood, a political as well as a religious organization, is expected to perform when the country strill struggles with democracy.

There is, on the other hand, the chance for more brutal dictatorship like Iran’s and Syria’s that concessions could hasten their demise. If the regime is perceived as conciliatory and weak, it will strengthen demonstrators in countries where the government has little legitimacy to begin with. In the region’s monarchies, by contrast, the king usually enjoys great authority and popularity, enabling him to reform without undermining the ruling family’s position.

An Expanded Gulf Cooperation Council

In a surprise announcement by Gulf Arab leaders last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council welcomed proposals by Jordan and Morocco to enter into the alliance. The GCC, consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has been wracked by internal protest against monarchial rule since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last January.

The Al Khalifa Sunni ruling family of Bahrain is still experiencing its most extensive period of civil unrest since earlier in the decade when Shiites rose up against the monarchy for an extension of political rights.

Saudi Arabia, the most powerful state in the GCC, continues to dispatch police to its restive Eastern Province where the bulk of its oil reserves are located, in order to crackdown on Shia protests there. UAE authorities have launched arrest raids against human rights defenders and civil society activists, most of whom come from the emirates’ wealthy clientele. Oman under Sultan Qaboos bin Said has been relatively peaceful  compared to demonstrations that have turned violent elsewhere yet residents in the quiet Gulf sultanate are taking to the streets. Oil rich Kuwait is dragging its feet on providing citizenship to thousands of people who, although not Kuwaiti in origin, have moved to the small Gulf state to improve their lives.

The monarchies of the Persian Gulf are thus nervous about the type of political developments occurring around them, and in some cases, within their own borders. Saudis and emirates, who are preferably on the side of regional stability, have already acted in concert with the GCC to quell Bahrain’s protest movement. The offering of a GCC bid to Jordan and Morocco could be another tact to add new members and defend the alliance.

Why Jordan and Morocco? Like the GCC overall, both are pro-Western regimes boasting strong intelligence and military relationships with the United States. Both are indeed monarchies, which would suit them well in a club that is composed exclusively of kings and sultans. Both also happen to be countries with large Sunni populations, which would undoubtedly help Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners unite the region’s Sunni community against encroaching Iranian influence.

But if Jordan and Morocco are welcomed to join, why not Egypt, Iraq or Yemen? Geographically speaking, Iraq and Yemen would be far more preferable than Jordan, which is not even considered a Persian Gulf nation to begin with. Iraq also happens to sit atop the region’s second largest pool of oil, a product which would fill the pockets of the GCC with billions of dollars more in revenue.

While Yemen’s oil production is scheduled to dry out completely in the next decade, Yemenis still possess more oil than the Jordanians, who rely almost completely on foreign aid to sustain their infrastructure and fund their government.

Post-Mubarak Egypt, still in its infant stage of democracy and trying to reassert itself as an independent power, was notably absent as well, straining ties between Egypt and its traditional Gulf backers. Yemen, with all of its domestic problems and a nationwide protest movement of its own, remains the ugly sister on the outside looking in.

The Jordanian and Moroccan bids should therefore be seen as a political strategy rather than an example of economic unification. Surrounded by an ascending Shia government in Iraq and the loss of a strategic ally in Hosni Mubarak, Gulf royals are nervous.

How the United States and Europe fit into this equation is still to be determined. Indeed, it is important to remember that just because Jordan and Morocco are encouraged to apply doesn’t mean that both will find a new home in the GCC. Yet if their applications are accepted, the regional balance of power will be tilted more toward the Sunni states.