By Enrico Trotta
In the wake of the Arab Spring, a fierce competition between regional powers, from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, started to play out in North Africa. While driven by differing and seldom conflicting motives, these competing actors were equally eager to capitalize on the post-2011 tumults to secure a firmer grip on the region. Crisis-laden countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, where the unrest erupted into full-fledged revolutions, turned into the backdrop against which opposing agendas sought to trump one another in the hopes of shaping post-revolutionary North Africa in the most advantageous way.
A multiplicity of factors contributed to setting in motion such a power struggle, not least the resurgence of political Islam in the Arab world since 2011. Indeed, the ascent of Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and potential repetitions in other areas of North Africa, opened the Pandora’s box of historical differences between the major Gulf actors. Indeed, on the one hand, the rising tide of political Islam augured well for Qatar and its long-standing ties with Islamist movements and organizations. Conversely, the Islamist turn taken by the Arab Spring constituted an ominous albatross for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates due to their avowed repudiation of political Islam.
As a result, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh found themselves on a collision course in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. With an eye toward enhancing its clout in the region, Qatar seized upon the Islamist momentum by cultivating ties with post-Mubarak Egypt and post-Ben Ali Tunisia, where political Islam took the reins. Increasingly perturbed, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi set upon coalescing an anti-Islamist front in order to dilute the meteoric Islamist wave.
As the Gulf actors are still vying for influence and dominance, the North African chessboard has now turned into a no-win labyrinth. Neither the Saudi- and Emirates-led fold nor Qatar managed to piece together a coalition of staunch North African allies capable of furthering their respective agendas, i.e. combatting Islamism and Iranian influence for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, and mitigating the economic and diplomatic fallout of the June 2017 embargo for Qatar. In Libya, the Emirates gambled on Haftar who, to date, has proved to be an integral component of the North African imbroglio rather than its solution. Following the Arab Spring, Qatar managed to entrench itself in Tunisia; however, its position now seems more precarious than ever as the pressure is mounting on the Islamist party Ennahda and the ongoing political showdown between President Essebsi and Prime Minister Chahed is setting the tone for the looming 2019 elections. While Saudi Arabia has already sensed the possibility of steering Tunisia away from Doha’s camp, Tunis’ fluctuations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia epitomize the adversities faced by the Gulf countries in attempting to firmly entrench themselves in North Africa. The North African actors appear unwilling to fully commit themselves to either camp and, as a consequence, nobody in the Gulf seems capable of coming out on top of the intricacies of the North African arena.
However, amid the intractable fluidity of the region, Saudi Arabia’s trump card in North Africa might be the Kingdom of Morocco. More stable than Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya on the political front, Rabat’s long-souring relationship with Iran complement Saudi Arabia’s agenda. Not only relations between the two kingdoms are historically amiable but, in addition, the North African kingdom seems less prone to fluctuate between the rival camps and more inclined to stick to Riyadh. As talks of an Arab NATO are making the rounds, Riyadh could even decide to build up Morocco as the North African linchpin of this embryonic regional military organization.
Saudi Arabia and Morocco bond over the Shia menace
Undoubtedly, the Saudi Royal family places a premium on Rabat’s confrontational posture vis-à-vis Iran. Morocco is the sole North African state having officially severed diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic in May 2018, bringing to a close the attempt started in 2015 to normalize relations.
It is worthy of note that the icy relationship between Morocco and Iran dates back decades and the deep-seated animosity between the two countries might be key in preventing Rabat from mending fences with Iran in the foreseeable future. Historically, the 1979 Iranian revolution produced a first strain in Iranian-Moroccan relations, given the working ties between Rabat and the deposed Shah. Reza Pahlavi had assisted Rabat in quelling the Polisario threat and hence the Moroccan decision to shelter the Shah in the aftermath of the 1979 turmoil. After the dust of the Iranian revolution settled, the two countries temporary found themselves on the same page during the 1990 US-led intervention against Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Morocco deployed a contingent to Saudi Arabia to buttress Riyadh’s security vis-à-vis Iraq. For its part, Tehran breathed a sigh of relief at the curtailment of the Iraqi dictator’s expansionist agenda. The fragility of this rapprochement was quickly brought to the fore by the mass pro-Iraq demonstrations held in Morocco on the heels of the military intervention. The portraits of the Saddam Hussein circulating in the demonstrations couldn’t appeal to Iran, which was still picking up the pieces after the destructive Iraqi invasion of 1980. Interestingly, the magnitude of the protests induced King Hassan II of Morocco to speak out in solidarity with the Iraqi population, signaling a mitigation of Rabat’s hitherto wholehearted commitment to the US-led military effort.
The ascent of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005 further loosened Iran’s ties with Rabat, as Tehran was now being accused of colluding with Sunni extremism in Morocco to ratchet up its influence in the region. The severance of diplomatic ties did materialize in 2009, when the Moroccan government accused Iran of destabilizing the North African Kingdom by spreading Shia Islam through its embassy in Rabat and pro-Tehran missionaries. Furthermore, Rabat’s apprehensions over alleged Iran-sponsored Shia agitation were stoked by an Iranian official’s claim that it was Tehran, and not the Sunni, who had sovereignty over the predominantly-Shia Kingdom of Bahrain. Much to the chagrin of Tehran, Morocco decided to take on the seemingly-looming Shia menace by carrying out a vigorous crackdown on schools and cultural organizations presumed to be part of the Iranian-orchestrated diffusion of Shia Islam in the Kingdom.
According to a leaked US diplomatic cable that surfaced in 2010, Morocco’s showdown with Iran served a double-barreled objective. Internally, the suppression of Shia organizations nipped in the bud a potential threat to the Kingdom’s traditional Sunni identity and, importantly, to King Muhammad VI’s credentials as the highest religious authority in the country. Geopolitically, Morocco’s anti-Shia initiatives paved the way for closer links with Saudi Arabia which, according to the cable, was allegedly ready to reward Rabat’s newfound opposition to Tehran with economic assistance and subsidized oil. At this juncture, the two kingdoms seemed determined to parlay their shared frustration with Shia Islam and Iran into an increasingly robust friendship.
The perks of such a consolidated friendship were to materialize in the upcoming years. In 2015, the Moroccan authorities arrested and jailed long-time Saudi dissident Prince Turki bin Bandar, before handing him over to Saudi Arabia. In the same year, Morocco agreed to participate in the Saudi-led military effort against Yemen. Even the July 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis, which has been described as a source of friction between the two allied kingdoms, didn’t deteriorate their long-standing cooperation. In March 2018, Saudi Arabia Chairman of the General Sports Turki Al Sheikh suggested that Rabat’s neutrality over the diplomatic crisis might cause Saudi Arabia to shun Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup. However, Turki Al Sheikh himself contributed to defusing the incipient tension between the two kingdoms by throwing his support behind Morocco’s bid to host the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
All roads lead to Rabat
In light of its protracted confrontation with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s fortunes in North Africa are inextricably tied to the Kingdom of Morocco. Alternative avenues might turn out to be little more than blind alleys, especially in the Maghreb. Given its recently-renewed state of emergency, building up Tunisia as a bulwark against Iranian influence would most likely be a non-starter. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is expected to loosen ties with Algeria, which has been recently accused by Morocco of teaming up with Iran and Hezbollah in supporting the Polisario Front. To make things worse, Algeria’s political climate remains significantly dicey.
Apparently, Washington has already trodden the path leading to Rabat. To act on Morocco’s face-off with Iran, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the US Congress in September. The bill aims to back Morocco in its recent spat with Iran over the Polisario Front and, from a broader perspective, lay the groundwork for further cooperation to contain Tehran’s inroads in the region. For Washington, drawing closer to Morocco makes a great deal of sense. The proposed Arab NATO might wither on the vine without securing the participation of the most stable actors in the region, especially those that already have a strong incentive to counter Iranian influence. Not only Morocco fits perfectly the mold but, in addition, it has recently embarked on a military buildup of its own, being the second largest importer of weapons in Africa on the verge of reintroducing mandatory military service.
In the ever-precarious North African cauldron, Morocco stands out for being stable, tougher on Iran, less prone to woo Qatar and eager to play a greater role in the region, not only militarily but also in the energy market. Furthermore, while its crisis-laden neighbors tend to look inward to grapple with their domestic issues, Morocco’s internal stability allows it to take the long view in the region. As a case in point, Rabat has taken concrete steps to a long-term strategic cooperation with the US over Iran, which may well culminate into a leading Moroccan role in the embryonic Arab NATO project. The fact that Morocco and the US were the only two non-European countries invited to the EU G6 Summit on terrorism and migration is further evidence that Rabat cannot be left out of the regional equation anymore.
Consequently, if Riyadh is to get the upper-hand over Iran and Qatar, the Moroccan route is seemingly the only one leading to tangible gains. Nevertheless, Rabat is not completely immune to political unrest. Should the simmering discontent erupt, the North African kingdom would find itself in the same boat as its regional neighbors, being compelled to look inward to maintain stability instead of devoting its energy to addressing the outstanding issues plaguing the region as a whole. Such a shift in focus would signify a reduced Moroccan commitment to Riyadh’s regional thrust against Iran. To obviate this prospect, Saudi Arabia will likely step up efforts to provide the North African ally with economic assistance, given that the deteriorating standards of living constitute a recurrent catalyst for demonstrations in the Kingdom. If Saudi Arabia wants to uphold Morocco’s newfound stature in the region, the goal of shoring up Rabat’s economy may now rank very high on the Saudi Family’s agenda.
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