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Who needs enemies when you have friends like MBS?

  • Martin Jay
  • 13 Feb 2019

Morocco's spat with Saudi Arabia has been on the cards for a long time, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman can't afford for Rabat to distance itself from the Saudi kingdom.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. ( Reuters )

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer might be an adage for Morocco, as it takes a more sober view of Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

On the face of it, Morocco pulling its ambassador out of Riyadh sparking a feud with Saudi Arabia seems illogical for both countries – especially given that since the inauguration of MBS, Rabat surprised a few in the Middle East by respecting the Saudi Crown Prince and aligning itself both to Riyadh and Washington’s bolder ideas in the region.

Both countries are monarchies which have strong relations with Washington and, more or less, are on the same page with their geopolitics.

Well, almost.

Both Morocco and Saudi Arabia have been allies in the Arab League on the big subjects – Yemen, Western Sahara and Iran – and so pundits are hoping that the gesture from Morocco’s king will be seen as a message to MBS to make the right move now. But what is the message? Get out of Yemen now?

Maybe.

The smart thing now for the Saudi leader would be to make some kind of gesture to Morocco's King Mohammed VI to show that Al Arabiya TV – Saudi Arabia’s own in-house propaganda machine which is hardly known for its journalistic objectivity – stepped over a line when it made a documentary about the incendiary subject of Western Sahara.

But a gesture looks unlikely given that the impetuous Saudi crown prince does not have the wisdom nor self-confidence to make such moves and has yet to develop the thick skin required for international politics.

Own goal

Unfortunately, the row, which appears to be mainly about the film which portrayed Morocco as illegally taking part in Western Sahara when the Spanish pulled out in 1975, goes deeper.

From Rabat’s point of view, the documentary was the straw which broke the camel’s back. The Moroccans have reached their breaking point with MBS and his raucous style of leadership with one royal insider calling the documentary “humiliating”.

But it’s not the first time since MBS became crown prince that he has slapped the Moroccans across the face and questioned whether the ‘friendship’ between these two countries is genuine.

Indeed, how can the Saudis call themselves ‘friends’ of Morocco – despite all of the elite having holiday palaces in Marrakesh and Casablanca – when the Saudis played a dirty game with them over the 2026 world cup and supported the US bid? This, in itself, was a huge disappointment to Rabat which saw the event as a tremendous opportunity to raise Morocco even higher on the foreign investors’ map.

In turn, the Saudis may well argue that they felt let down by Morocco’s relation with Saudi Arabia after King Mohammed VI put a ‘freeze’ on troops he sent to Yemen (in support of Riyadh) and more poignantly refusing to host the Saudi Crown Prince recently.

Few could blame the Moroccan king for the snub given what most observers see (including the CIA) as MBS’s complicity with the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi which would have placed the Moroccan monarch in an awkward position on the global stage, given his advancement on human rights.

In many ways, the murder of Khashoggi made it easier for Morocco to get some distance from the Saudis who were uneasy until that point about Riyadh calling on them to procure more fake reverence for Riyadh’s hegemony.

Here’s the crux of Saudi’s problem with a diplomatic spat with Morocco. It’s only a lose-lose situation for MBS.

Not because almost every international disagreement they usually have mushrooms and then backfires on them (their track record of failure is alarming – Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Qatar, Hariri kidnapping) but because Morocco is a heavyweight player in both Washington and Paris.

The Saudis cannot afford for Morocco to break away and ‘go rogue’ on the geopolitical circuit because it is likely if that were to happen, then the ultimate nightmare scenario for MBS would unfold: Morocco would align itself closer to Qatar and Turkey and Riyadh might find itself being the one isolated.

If the two person team of Turkey and Qatar were to get a third member, this would be a devastating blow to Saudi Arabia which is struggling to put a brave face on a number of PR initiatives aimed at raising its profile around the world.

To lose Morocco would be a grave mistake as it would signal to the whole Arab World that there is, in fact, a third way geopolitically which turns its back on the old, traditional set up of Saudi Arabia versus Iran, Russia and China. Countries like Qatar and Turkey have already done this while others like Egypt, Oman and Kuwait mull the idea but are too afraid to move.

Morocco has had a firm position against Iran since 2014 when it found Tehran to be supporting Polisario fighters in Western Sahara so one would think that Saudi Arabia had a natural ally in Rabat. The truth is that this ancient kingdom on the periphery of the Arab world never truly accepted Saudi Arabia as its big brother and in recent years this has been evident with the GCC’s invitation to Morocco to become a member not quite getting the support from Mohammed VI that it needed.

But Morocco did play its part in showing support to Saudi Arabia where it mattered: Yemen. It had 1500 soldiers there and six fighter jets and fought the Houthis in a clear display of support for Riyadh.

The war in Yemen though is a disaster for the Saudis. Not only has it cost them over $100 billion – which they could have put aside for their 2030 vision to create jobs and not bother with the sell-off of part of the state-owned oil company – but there’s no sign that the coalition is even winning.

Rich pickings

Qatar is also a disaster zone with this tiny rich country actually profiting from a blockade imposed by MBS, and probably the Saudis haven’t quite forgiven Morocco for being the first Arab country to send food aid there, and Mohammed VI became the first world leader to visit Qatar after the blockade.

The problem with the Saudis is that almost every venture they engage in and which has MBS’s stamp, fails and then becomes a rod for their backs. It’s almost a curse.

In the media war with Qatar, they have lost hands down. And it’s as though countries which only pretended to bow to their omnipotence are beginning to worry that the Saudi disease is going to spread.

For MBS and his new government though, there could be so much to gain for them to improve relations with Rabat. Morocco is a success story of how a conservative Muslim Arab kingdom manages to keep one foot in the past and another in the future.

The foreign investment in Morocco is no doubt a subject of great envy by MBS and his people, and with Morocco now positioning itself as a major investor in Africa, there will be rich pickings for the Saudis if they were to smarten their act up. Morocco even has its aerospace industry which is the envy of the Arab World.

But Saudi Arabia is a house of cards. The elite needs a success story for its new young prince, something which would bury the Khashoggi affair and paper over the cracks of a string of poor judgments, which King Salman is finding harder to ignore each day.

In reality, though, most experts are putting money on Riyadh digging another hole which it can’t climb out of while Qatar improves its relations with Rabat and talk of Morocco pulling out of the Muslim NATO plan is the next body blow threatening MBS credibility.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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