ISSN 2330-717X

Moroccan-American Relations: A True Test To Time – Analysis


Recently I had a discussion with a group of officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and they seemed worried stiff about the US not sending an official ambassador to Morocco, two years into the mandate of President Donald Trump. While their worry is quite legitimate because often the presence of an ambassador means, in modern political tradition, good relations and the recalling of an ambassador, for consultations, means there is a problem, yet in the case of Moroccan–American relations none of this is true.

The Bandit Menace

Morocco recognized the United States in 1777 and Formal U.S. diplomatic relations with Morocco began in 1787 when the United States Senate ratified a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations which had been negotiated earlier in 1786 1 and was never broken since even when the Moroccan bandit Moulay Ahmed Raissouni (1871-1925)2 kidnapped a Greek-American expatriate businessman and playboy Ion Perdicaris and his stepson Cromwell Varley, from their Tangier home on May 14, 1904 and demanded a ransom of US$ 70,000 and official posts from the Makhzen3. The incumbent US President Theodore Roosevelt whose re-election campaign was running out of steam, at the time, brandished the slogan “Perdicaris Live or Raissouli dead!”4 and instructed his State Department Secretary John Hay to take action and, thus, seven warships of the US Atlantic fleet were sent to Tangier to put pressure on the Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz to resolve this diplomatic crisis. Actually, only a dozen marines landed in Tangier, with side arms only, to protect the American Legation and the residence of Mrs. Perdicaris.5

Moulay Ahmed Raissouni (1871-1925)
Moulay Ahmed Raissouni (1871-1925)

Like in a good fairytale everything had a happy ending: Raissouni got the ransom from the Sultan and was appointed Pacha of Tangier and Governor of the Jbala region, Theodore Roosevelt got reelected for a second term, Perdicaris freed, and Sultan Moulay Abdelaziz pacified temporally the northern part of his kingdom.

This fairy-tale like story was made into a highly fictionalized Hollywood film in 1975 by director John Milius, whereby the virile Sean Connery played masterfully the highwayman Moulay Ahmed Raissouni, the last of the Barbary Pirates,6, 7 but, the bearded hostage Ion Peridicaris was replaced by his beautiful wife Eden played by Candice Bergen8. To make the story romantic, of course, she falls in love with the highwayman: the film was called “The Wind and the Lion”. However, to be true to history, Ion Perdicaris, himself, kind of fell in love with the gangster and outlaw Raissouni. He, indeed, wrote later on9:

“I go so far as to say that I do not regret having been his prisoner for some time,” and went on to say: “He is not a bandit, not a murderer, but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny.”

The American Legation in Tangier10, is an elaborate Moorish-style building of stuccoed masonry straddling a street in the Medina. It was the official American embassy to imperial Morocco that officially opened in 1821 and played a major role in the preparation of the American and Allies Normandy landings of June 6, 1944 codenamed “Operation Neptune” and commonly known as “D-day” to give the blow of death to the Nazi Third Reich on the western front.

Indeed, on the top floor of the consulate there is a secret room used by Allies’ spies of the Anglo-American “Operation Torch”11 to eavesdrop on German communication network in Africa (German Africa Corps of Erwin Rommel active during the period February 12, 1941 – May 13, 1943) and Europe altogether prior to the Normandy military operation.

Today the legation has moved from political business to become a wonderful cultural platform of the Moroccan-American good relations. Indeed, it is now a very active museum and cultural center.

Military Cooperation

Recently Morocco and the United States held the yearly military exercise named the “African Lion” to which are often invited some NATO nations, as well as, other African countries with in mind military preparations to counter enemy menace in the Sahara desert and elsewhere and preserve peace and induce development in the African continent.

Morocco and the US are allies since the 18th century when the Moroccan navy protected the merchant ships of the young American republic from Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean and offered them graciously refuge in Morocco ports as well as supplies thanks to active diplomacy between President George Washington and Sultan Mohammed III 12:

“In 1794, the government of President George Washington offered as much as $800,000 to the Barbary regents in ransom and protection money. Not incidentally, the United States also decided to build a navy. Diplomacy brought the emperor of Morocco to a settlement on easy terms. But the Dey of Algiers demanded $2.5 million—more than the entire federal budget. Tunis then sought a similar settlement, and Tripoli demanded cash, presents, a naval vessel, and supplies. The Americans eventually paid something to all three, but gave Algiers pride of place and demanded that the dey keep the other regencies in line.”

This year the Americans celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the creation of their country, but also 242 years of Moroccan-American friendship, Morocco is a faithful and reliable partner for the United States in the region, particularly in terms of security. The “African Lion” military exercise is part of a wide range of cooperative efforts between the two countries, be it in the military, education, security, or agriculture and science sectors.

African Lion 2019: Joint US-Morocco Military Exercise
African Lion 2019: Joint US-Morocco Military Exercise

The activities carried out in the framework of the “African Lion 2019” exercise, which is in its 16th edition, set as objectives to improve the interoperability at the different levels with the optimization of the tactical, technical and employment capacities of the procedures of participating forces, and to deepen the exchange of expertise and experience between the parties.

With regard to the military aspect, these exercises, the annual quintessence of the Moroccan-American military cooperation, were articulated around aeronautical exercises with the US Marines, maritime exercises between the Moroccan Royal Navy and the US Navy and, last but not least, air exercises between the Moroccan Royal Air Forces and their US counterparts, including refueling exercises in combat airplanes.

In addition to the US and Moroccan detachments, military personnel from partner countries representing Canada, Spain, Great Britain, Senegal and Tunisia took part in the activities programmed as part of this exercise.
Among the objectives set for this synthesis exercise is, also, the assessment of the reactivity of the US army and FAR (Force Armée Royale) to cope with a crisis situation that could occur throughout national territory, and to test their ability to deploy by air.

“African Lion” military exercise is part of the major exercises organized jointly by the United States Command for Africa (AFRICOM) and the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces (FAR), aimed at consolidating the level of cooperation and training, as well as, the exchange of experience and knowledge between the various military components to enable them to reach their full operational capability.

Moroccan-US military cooperation focuses on logistics, training, exchange of experiences and the promotion of partnership links between the FAR and the United States Armed Forces.

Actually despite the successes achieved against the Islamic State in the Levant (Da’esh), its affiliated groups of the Maghreb and Sahel are still finding refuge in under-governed and remote areas with poorly equipped and under-trained security services, as in Libya, Mali and Niger. US and Moroccan military policymakers have consistently stated that the fight against the spread of violent extremism will remain a priority for both countries, for the time being.

Political Alliance

The visit of His Majesty King Mohammed VI to the United States in November 2013, during which the Sovereign was received at the White House by the, then, US President Barack Obama, was the occasion to reaffirm the solidity of relations and increasing cooperation between the two countries, recalling in this sense that in 2004, the United States granted Morocco the status of non-NATO member “major ally” and that two years later, in 2006, a free trade agreement was signed between the two countries, making the Kingdom the only African country bound to the United States by such a commercial agreement.

King of Morocco Mohammed VI and US President Barack Hussein Obama. Photo Credit: MAP and White House.
King of Morocco Mohammed VI and US President Barack Hussein Obama. Photo Credit: MAP and White House.

The United States appreciates the stability enjoyed by Morocco in a troubled region and its openness and religious moderation. In this context, the autonomy plan for the Sahara, presented by the Kingdom, is described by Washington as “serious, realistic and credible”. The United States also supports the efforts of the United Nations to achieve a “fair and sustainable” solution to this issue in a “spirit of realism.”

A good example of this political alliance is the latest visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Nasser Bourita, in Washington DC where he had talks with several US officials focusing, among other things, on the “support and help” that Iran brings to the “Polisario. This, consequently, resulted in members of the US Congress introducing recently a bill lambasting the collusion between Iran and the separatists of the “Polisario”.

Economic Exchange

The free trade agreement between the United States and Morocco entered into force on January 1, 2006. Customs duties on more than 95% of products were immediately eliminated. The duties on most other products will be eliminated over a period of 9 years from the date of entry into force of the Agreement. For a limited number of products, duties will be eliminated over a period of 15 years from the date of entry into force of the agreement.

A banknote celebrating the post-independence Moroccan monarchs makers of modern Morocco
A banknote celebrating the post-independence Moroccan monarchs makers of modern Morocco

In addition, the agreement provides access to services, protection of intellectual property, legal instruments of guarantee and security for US investors, open procedures and measures of transparency, moralization and competition in the public procurement, as well as labor and environmental protection. The Market Access and Compliance Office of the US Department of Commerce oversees the implementation of the agreement on the US side.

The free trade agreement signed between Morocco and the United States 13 years ago has not, however, benefited Moroccan exporters because of the size of the US market and the complexity of procedures that Moroccan companies are not yet accustomed to.

Indeed, Moroccan exports recorded a volume of 9.8 billion DH in 2017 for Morocco against 29.9 billion DH for US. That is a commercial deficit of 20.1 billion DH. Among the proposals put forward to boost bilateral relations, that of the development of a program of support and referencing of Moroccan exporters from major US companies according to a program of aggregation.13

Announced at its signature as a pioneering deal in the Moroccan free trade network, the FTA with the US is, somehow, a disappointment to Moroccan commercial actors. Trade barely exceeds the 33 MMDH and remains largely dominated by US exports (26 MMDH in 2016).

Moroccan exports to the US market were expected to reach $ 3 billion (28 billion dirhams) by 2016. To date, they hardly exceed 900 million dollars (8 billion dirhams). A statement of failure for the Moroccan export to this destination. Moroccan exporters must deal with draconian conditions on sanitary and phytosanitary rules, the lack of direct shipping line and difficulties on the rules of trade origin are more and more pronounced.

These questions were raised during the 5th session of the Joint Committee for the Follow-up to the Free Trade Agreement on October 2017 in Washington. A committee that has not met since 2015 and has been able to meet only 5 times in 11 years when it is supposed to hold annual meetings.14

On another level, on April 2, 1957, the United States and Morocco signed an agreement in which the United States undertook to provide Morocco with a program of economic and technical assistance. Since then, the American people, through USAID, have invested in the human, economic and institutional development of Morocco.  Over the past 50 years, the U.S. government has invested over $2 billion in Morocco.

USAID partners with the people and Government of Morocco to enhance social and economic opportunities for all citizens 15:

“In the early 2000s, USAID continued to support improvements in economic governance, labor productivity, and water efficiency through activities designed to leverage public and private sector resources and spur broad-based growth.  USAID was focused on improving the capacity of teachers and school administrators to provide better learning environments for students.  USAID also supported efforts to improve citizen participation and government responsiveness, transparency and accountability at the national and local level.”

Peace Corps: A Successful Cross-Cultural Exchange

Since 1963, Morocco has received 5165 Peace Corps volunteers that have come to work and live in the most remote areas of deep Morocco providing expertise in such areas as: education, health, fishing, agriculture, forestry, renewable energy, etc… Currently there are 271 volunteers in service in the country.

One of the current projects of Peace Corps Morocco is “Youth in Development” which is introduced in the following terms 16:

“Volunteers work to increase youth leadership, strengthen youth networks, build capacity of professionals who work with youth, and promote girls’ education. They work with local professionals and youth to promote volunteerism and youth leadership through activities such as sports, study of world geography, libraries, exercise classes, environmental projects, project management training, thematic English teaching, and self-esteem activities for girls.”

But probably the most important contribution of these young people is the strengthening of ties between the two countries thorough intercultural and religions dialogue.

Amazigh berber morocco desert

Peace Corps in Morocco has been and still is a true success story of human exchange, human courage and human sacrifice. These volunteers spend two to three years in remote localities of the Moroccan periphery among local people who have never had any contact with foreigners albeit the French colonial power whom they resisted during the initial stages of the colonization and despised afterwards for their proverbial haughtiness and arrogance.

Peace Corps volunteers communicate with local people in their local languages, be it Moroccan Arabic or Tamazight. Their knowledge of the local tongues and silent language (culture) opens for them the doors of hearts and brings them right into the center of local cultures of which they become active actors instead of being mere spectators. Their volunteer contributions to local development and their cultural contributions to understanding and brotherhood of men outlive their experiences and become almost kind of local fables 17.

It might be that the idea of voluntarism abroad is a tradition that goes back to the time of President John F. Kennedy in the 60s of the last century, yet it is still a wonderful initiative that renews itself constantly and contributes greatly to the much-needed dialogue of cultures and creeds. Peace Corps is about the constant building of bridges, to reach out to other ways of life and philosophies, especially at a time when many countries surround themselves with walls, to supposedly protect their cultures, but cultures wither, when in imprisonment, from lack of revitalization.

More American Youth Coming To Morocco To Build Cultural Bridges

Since the unfortunate events of September 11, 2001, more American young people come to Morocco, but this time from high schools and universities to do a semester abroad to learn about other cultures and indulge in exchange.

Morocco mint tea-drinking ceremony
Mint tea-drinking ceremony in Morocco.

These students learn Classical and Moroccan Arabic, stay with Moroccan families and study topics in history, anthropology, religion, culture, sociology, economy, politics, etc to get a better understanding of the country and its people.

In their short stay, they duly establish long-lasting relationships with their host families, teachers, and other acquaintances and many of them end up coming back to do doctoral work or travel around and that is the hidden secret attraction of the Moroccan sweet mint tea, according to a Moroccan tourist guide who jokingly says: “drink Moroccan sweet tea so that sweetness can lure back over and over…”

The Semester Abroad or Study Abroad programs are offered by American institutions such as Amideast located in Washington DC, and IES in Chicago.

Amideast (America-Mideast Educational and Training Services) is a U.S. non-profit organization that works to strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation between Americans and the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, and to offer opportunities for learning and training. Established in 1951, and based in Washington DC, AMIDEAST provides English language and professional skills training, educational advising, and testing services to hundreds of thousands of students and professionals in the Middle East and North Africa. It supports, also, numerous institutional development projects in the region and administers educational exchange programs. As such, it introduces its program of Education Abroad in the Arab World in the following terms 18:

“AMIDEAST Education Abroad Programs in the Arab World help develop mutual understanding through programs for young people to learn about the Middle East and North Africa, study Arabic, and interact with the peoples and cultures of the region. The programs are academically rigorous, intellectually free, personally challenging, and focused on intercultural learning.”

In its semester/academic year program in Rabat, AMIDEAST offers students 12-17 credits per semester and they have the option of both Arabic and Area Studies courses. The elective Area Studies Courses taught in English, include a Community-Based Learning option, in addition to: History, Political Science, Religion, Sociology, Women’s Studies, and Amazigh/Berber Studies. Students live with host families in Rabat and have the possibility to go for multiple excursions per semester, to Fez, Marrakech and various other localities of the hinterland. The fall semester starts in late August and runs until mid-December. The spring semester begins in mid-January and runs until early May.

Casablanca, Morocco.
Casablanca, Morocco.

The Institute for the International Education of Students, or IES Abroad, is a non-profit study abroad organization that administers study abroad programs for U.S. college-aged students. Founded in 1950 as the Institute of European Studies, the organization has since been renamed to reflect additional offerings in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America. IES Abroad highlights cultural immersion through the use of home stays and field trips to promote the development of inter-culturally-competent leaders.

IES introduces its study abroad program in Morocco as follows 19:

“You’ll further dive into the fascinating culture of this North African nation as you learn Modern Standard Arabic with courses at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. Learn Colloquial Moroccan Arabic to communicate with Moroccans, and if you have already taken advanced French, you can take French-taught area studies courses at the IES Abroad Center or at our partner institution, Université Mohammed V. You can also add international work experience to your résumé while earning credit by participating in an internship placement and accompanying academic seminar.

Rabat will be your classroom. Rich in cultural heritage and diversity, Morocco has been influenced by many different ethnic and religious groups that have settled in the country throughout its long history. Visit historic treasures like the Rabat Archaeological Museum, the Hassan Tower, and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V to see ancient artifacts and learn more about the Islamic cultural influences.”

Doctoral And Post-Doctoral Research For A Better Mutual Understanding Of Each Other

In the 60s of the last century, Clifford Geertz, his wife Hildred and Lawrence Rosen accompanied by the photographer Paul Hyman landed in the city of Sefrou to do research on the bazaar economy of this small town20. One, however, wonders what makes this town an interesting focus of world-famed social scientists. Firstly, Sefrou is much older than Fes. It used to be the gate to the trans-Saharan trade that flourished from the 11th century till the colonization of Morocco by the French in 1912. During all these centuries the caravans of the trans-Saharan trade started in Sefrou and ended up in Timbuktu, Mali.

Sefrou was a city in which dwelled in total harmony Arabs, Amazighs/Berbers and Jews. For many Moroccan Jews, it was known as “Small Jerusalem” because of its famed mellah or Jewish quarter which had the highest concentration of Jews in Morocco. The city has a grotto known as Kaf al-Moumen (the grotto of the believer) where a saint is buried and is venerated by both Muslims and Jews.

The Amazighs/Berbers practiced agriculture and cattle-raising, the Arabs local trade and the Jews, banking and trans-Saharan trade. For the city dwellers there were two kinds of Jews: the Sitting Jew who held a shop and practiced money-lending and trans-Saharan trade financing and a Walking Jew, who was the trusted Jew that led the caravan from Sefrou to Timbuktu in 40 days through the Territories of many Amazigh/Berber tribes and was called azettat.

Marrakesh, Morocco.
Marrakesh, Morocco.

And since the independence in 1956, many American researches flocked to Morocco to undertake research in various areas like Geertz and consorts and the adventure continues today unabated.

In the area of cultural exchange between Morocco and the US, The Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE) located in Rabat aims to promote academic and cultural exchanges between American and Moroccan citizens since its creation in 1982 and has been, undoubtedly, instrumental in providing scholarships to Moroccan academics and students to go to America and Americans to come to Morocco.

This very useful and rewarding institution introduces itself as follows21:

“For over thirty years, the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE) has been working to promote the spirit of traditional friendship between the peoples of Morocco and the United States of America by facilitating academic and cultural exchanges between American and Moroccan citizens.

The Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange was established in 1982 by agreement between the two governments. As the principal organization entrusted with this mission, it enjoys financial, managerial and administrative autonomy. It is managed by a binational board of commissioners and receives its primary funding from the governments of the Kingdom of Morocco and the United States of America, as well as from the private sector. The Commission administers a wide range of research, study and teaching grants, chiefly within the context of the worldwide Fulbright Educational Exchange Program.”

Hail To The Many American Ambassadors Present In Morocco Today

If Trump has not appointed a political ambassador to the kingdom of Morocco that is no problem at all because the two ladies in charge of the US embassy today are certainly doing a fine job, to say the least and, in addition, dozens of US social ambassadors are at active in the remote villages, in the medinas, in small towns, etc. busy working, with much love and passion, on lasting Moroccan-American relations and their extra-diplomatic work is what makes Moroccan-American friendship a test to time, undoubtedly.

You can follow Professor Mohamed CHTATOU on Twitter: @Ayurinu


1. “In contrast to the dispute with Algiers, U.S. negotiations with Morocco went well. Moroccan Sultan Sidi Muhammad had seized a U.S. merchant ship in 1784 after the United States had ignored diplomatic overtures. However, Muhammad ultimately followed a policy of peaceful trade, and the United States successfully concluded a treaty with Morocco in 1786. However, Congress was still unable to raise enough funds to satisfy the Dey of Algiers.”

2. Cf. Woolmann, Rebels in the Riff (Stanford: University Press, 1968), 46

3. Cf. Forbes, Rosita. The Sultan of the Mountains: The Life of Story of Raisuli (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1924), p. 29

4. Cf. “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead!”, American Heritage August 1959; later republished in Tuchman’s compilation book Practicing History: Selected Essays (1981), pp. 104-117

5. Porch, Douglas. The Conquest of Morocco (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Company, 2005), p. 107



8. Cf.  ‘Wind and the Lion’–a look behind MGM epic: Comments from its ‘superstars’ and its writer-director Deliberate distortion? False image? By David Sterritt. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file) [Boston, Mass] 28 July 1975: 26.












20. Cf. Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz, Lawrence Rosen Meaning and order in Moroccan society : three essays in cultural analysis with a photographic essay by Paul Hyman. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1979. 


Selective Bibliography:

  • Forbes, Rosita. The Sultan of the Mountains: The Life of Story of Raisuli (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1924).
  • Porch, Douglas. The Conquest of Morocco (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Company, 2005).
  • Woolmann, Rebels in the Riff (Stanford: University Press, 1968).
  • “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead!”, American Heritage August 1959; later republished in Tuchman’s compilation book Practicing History: Selected Essays (1981).

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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