I wrote for The Majalla Magazine an analysis of the meaning of Morocco’s apparent return on the diplomatic arena after the convening of the 20th Al Quds Committee in Marrakech in January. You can read the piece here or continue below.
Two weeks ago, Marrakesh hosted the 20th Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), bringing together all countries with Muslim majority populations. But this reemergence of Morocco on the international stage is not fortuitous: it has been steadily unfolding over the last two years.
Upon the accession of King Mohammed VI to the throne in 1999, “Taza before Gaza!” was the iconic slogan widely used across Morocco. Taza, a poor and marginalized city on the southern banks of the Rif mountain range, some 75 miles (120 kilometers) to the northeast of Fez, was the embodiment of Morocco’s daunting economic challenges. Mohamed VI’s predecessor, King Hassan II, had focused his reign on consolidating the monarchy’s power and seemed to scorn petty internal development matters in favor of more grandiose foreign policy issues.
Hassan II’s personality and vast cultural understanding had facilitated the development of an active Moroccan diplomacy that turned the country into a pivotal and essential state in every regional issue. An illustration of this activism can be seen in the seven Arab League summits convened in Morocco—a number surpassed only by Egypt, where the organization has its headquarters.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization was formally recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people during the 1974 Rabat Summit, paving the way for Yasser Arafat’s famous speech at the United Nations General Assembly. At the 1982 summit in Fez the principle of “Land for Peace” was first enunciated and would constitute the basis for the Arab Peace Initiative on Israel twenty years later. Finally, the 1989 Casablanca summit paved the way for the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war.
Despite Morocco lacking any natural resources or financial capabilities, it succeeded under Hassan II in developing a balanced and pro-active diplomacy that allowed it to be one of the very first Arab countries to open direct negotiating channels with Israeli leaders while at the same time cultivating ties with Muammar Gaddafi’s pariah regime in Libya during the 1980s.
But diplomacy didn’t feed the masses. When King Mohamed VI succeeded his father, the new monarch, dubbed the “king of the poor,” promised to reconsider the priorities of the executive. Indeed, the first decade of his reign was marked by various development projects that improved the infrastructure of the country. Morocco’s international reach and prestige quickly receded as the state began to look inward to more pressing matters. Foreign policy objectives and strategies were reduced to the Sahara conflict and Moroccan diplomacy was virtually absent from the different crises that rocked the region, from the Iraq war to the Lebanese and Palestinian struggles against Israel. But it seems that the great changes that have impacted the Arab world since 2011 are also bringing to an end to Morocco’s eclipse on the foreign stage.
The Al-Quds Committee was created during a 1975 OIC Summit following the destruction of the 900-year-old Moroccan Quarter of Jerusalem by Israel and the torching of the Al-Aqsa mosque by a Jewish extremist. Its self-declared aim was the preservation of the holy city’s Arab heritage in the face of Israeli occupation and rampant colonization.
Originally chaired by Hassan II, the organization remained stagnant, with its last meeting having been held more than ten years ago. Mohamed VI, as acting chairman of Al-Quds, called the meeting in January this year after he sent a letter to Pope Francis in December 2013. In it he expressed his concern about a possible agreement between the Vatican and Israel regarding church estates in East Jerusalem, which would be made at the expense of the Palestinians. It would also legitimize Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem.
As the winds of revolt have blown over the region, they seem to have woken Morocco from its isolation. After a decade of assumed retirement from regional events, Morocco has actively intervened in the Libyan and Syrian imbroglios, hosting international meetings as well as several key figures from the opposing sides.
The first explanation of the revival of Moroccan diplomacy in the region is the one that will surely be widely shared and defended by power circles in the country: Morocco’s increasing presence on the international stage is a testimony to its success on the internal front. Namely, after ten years of great infrastructure projects and socio-economic changes, the country is ripe and ready for a bigger role. It looks to be moving from a position of “Taza before Gaza” to one of “Taza and Gaza.” But as alluring as this might be, this thesis has several flaws, one being that Morocco remains a very poor country with daunting challenges in its rural regions and with half of its population unable to read or write.
In reality, the reasons behind Morocco’s current emergence on the regional stage are multiple and complex. This last decade saw the neutralization of three of the traditional centers of influence in the Arab world: Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Iraq is in a prolonged state of fragmentation since the 2003 US-led invasion and has been in effect isolated since its ill-fated adventure in Kuwait twenty years ago. Egypt hasn’t succeeded yet in charting a coherent transition and remains bogged down in its revolution, and Syria’s conflict has turned the country from being a regional player into a regional prize. The demise of these three players has reinforced the already-nascent power void in the Arab system drawing foreign actors such as Turkey, Iran and Israel along with the US to manage the region and giving a greater visibility to the inexperienced and often cash-backed diplomacy of the Gulf States.
As the US is gradually withdrawing from the region and opening new channels with Iran, it needs a relatively neutral participant capable of arbitrating the increasing number of conflicts and mending ties between the various parties. At the far east of the near east, Morocco is not directly touched by the conflicts of the Middle East and appears to be a good candidate. Beyond a probable US push, Moroccan diplomacy is at a defining moment in its history. In an extremely volatile region, Morocco remains an oasis of stability and is the last remaining historical state of the region with a sizable population and a cultural prestige that could build a coherent and constructive action right now.
From West Africa, where the kingdom is building strong economic networks through various investments and partnerships, to Mali, where it recently announced its intention to fight fundamentalism by teaching its more tolerant and cosmopolitan brand of Islam to local imams, Morocco can build a strong basis to project its action and influence towards the Middle East.