When protests in North Africa ousted dictators and began spreading elsewhere in the region, decades-old alliances between the Arab monarchies were strengthened with the common interest of staying in power at all costs. While Morocco’s political and economic ties have historically been predominantly directed toward European markets, Morocco has recently oriented its outlook toward the East, finding common ground with the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula.
Morocco’s relationship with the monarchies in the Gulf is nothing new. When King Hassan II of Morocco prioritized the acquisition of the Western Saharan territory as the principal objective of his reign, Saudi Arabia provided an annual allowance of one hundred million dollars throughout the 1980s. The amount was specifically intended for “anti-Polisario activities.” Hassan II returned the favor in 1990 when he sent over one thousand troops to the Saudi-Iraqi border during the Gulf War. The move was largely a political gesture in support of the Arab monarchies, but one that angered the Moroccan public and fueled widespread protests against the deployment of Moroccan troops.
Morocco’s economic ties with the Gulf were and continue to be crucial to Morocco’s economic development. In 2001, Morocco signed a free-trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and in 2010, both private and public investment from the UAE was the second biggest from any country in Morocco. UAE investment in Morocco’s economy has been especially pivotal in the tourism industry, with the construction of luxury resort projects emerging all over the country, especially in the northern port city of Tangier, the location of a free economic zone. Just a few years into the free-trade agreement between Morocco and the UAE, Dubai-based Jafza International was awarded the contract to manage the logistics of the Tangier-Med Free Zone in 2005. The UAE is also present in Morocco’s energy industry, namely the Jorf Lasfar Project, funded by a subsidiary of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, making up the biggest independent power facility in the region. The funders of the Jorf Lasfar Project are also common sponsors for music festivals, such as the annual international Mawazine Festival, which is partially state-funded. Additionally, in 2011, Qatar and Kuwait pledged to invest three billion dollars in Morocco’s tourism industry to help Morocco meet its 2020 tourism development plan.
The close relationship between Morocco and the monarchies of the Gulf is equally reflected through Morocco’s foreign policy. In 2009, Morocco severed diplomatic ties with Iran on the grounds that Iranian imams were proselytizing, a punishable crime in Morocco. A Wikileaks cable from US diplomats in Rabat dated 12 March 2009 goes into extensive detail regarding the diplomatic riff:
Moroccan policy decisions on this have almost surely come personally from King Mohammed VI, who had injected himself early into the row with Iran with a high profile letter of support for his fellow Arab royals in Bahrain.
The cable also highlights the frustration of Moroccan officials with the growing trade imbalance between Morocco and Iran. Morocco was becoming increasingly dependent on Iranian oil, while Moroccan phosphate exports to Iran were on a decline. This is juxtaposed with the increasing trade and investment between Morocco and Bahrain:
By contrast, Bahraini FDI in Morocco saw a massive increase from 2007 to 2008, shooting from USD 3.2 million from January to September of 2007 to USD 53 million during the same time period in 2008.
Despite Morocco’s geographic distance from the Gulf, Morocco’s foreign policy is heavily driven by its ties with the Gulf monarchies and its decision to embed itself in the geopolitics of the Gulf, even if it comes at the expense of cutting ties with other countries. This would be especially relevant in May 2011 when Morocco was proposed for membership for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The timing of the proposal to include Morocco—as well as Jordan—in the regional organization of the only monarchies in the Arab world, suggested the move was beyond a matter of political interests. Morocco’s inclusion in the GCC was never detailed, nor publicly mentioned much after the initial statement, save for a couple of summits. The May announcement came at a peculiar time in Morocco’s response to its own pro-democracy movement. The spike of police violence against protesters in the month of May contributed to mounting dissent, resulting in some of the February 20th Movement’s biggest marches and demonstrations. Yet, leading up to the 1 July constitutional referendum, followed by the 25 November parliamentary elections, police repression saw a decline. The February 20th Movement’s momentum also hit a stagnant wall. The movement had failed to garner popular support on the scale of the protest movements in other parts of the Maghreb, such as Tunisia and Libya. In order to quell a popular uprising, the Moroccan regime increased public wages at a record thirty-five percent, in addition to food subsidies. It appeared that the GCC announcement was a mere knee-jerk reaction to what appeared to be the rise of a popular uprising, meant to solidify the Moroccan-Gulf alliance under the guise of a relatively vague “membership.” When it was clear that the pro-democracy movement failed in gaining popular support, the urgency of the proposed membership diminished.
Yet, what would have Morocco’s GCC membership entailed for the monarchies of the Gulf? Morocco’s policies for the past years already indicate its interests are in line with the Gulf monarchies and Gulf investors have been flooding Morocco. If Morocco were to join the GCC, the integration of the Gulf rentier economies would undoubtedly clash with Morocco’s weak economy that mostly depends on the volatile tourism industry and remittances. However, the unclear process of membership in the GCC makes evaluating the consequences difficult. The current GCC charter would have to be amended in order to make sense of Morocco’s membership since the only article on country membership is not applicable to Morocco. During a meeting of GCC members, details pertaining to membership were not clarified. Instead, GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani said Morocco must “complete required procedures” in order to join.
Morocco’s alliance with the Gulf has also been redefined through regional politics, namely with regard to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Morocco is the only member of the Arab League to currently hold a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Not only is it positioned as a representative of the Arab League but it also acts as a proxy for Saudi and Qatari foreign policies, both of which support foreign intervention. Further, soon after Jordan’s King Abdullah condemned Bashar al-Assad, Morocco hosted the first Arab League meeting on 16 November, at which officials agreed to send monitors to Syria.
Despite the Moroccan and Gulf monarchies’ similar neotraditionalist policies and close ties with the United States, public opinion on both sides opposed the proposal. One of the reasons for this opposition is rooted in a lucrative underground sex trafficking market that has been a major issue between Morocco and the Gulf, forging many misconceptions. Morocco’s lax policies with regard to job recruitment to the Gulf, has allowed for extensive prostitution rings. Despite Morocco’s ratification of various international treatises and conventions that address sex trafficking, such as the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, Moroccan lawmakers have failed to draft comprehensive legislation that applies these international conventions at a national level. Additionally, while the new Moroccan constitution calls for the precedence of international law over national law, courts have indicated adherence to national law, as was evident in the case of Amina Filali. Aside from the lack of legislation that addresses sex trafficking, high illiteracy and poverty rates, especially in rural areas, have turned the sex industry in Morocco into a lucrative market.
A story of Saudi women accusing Moroccan women of practicing witchcraft and stealing husbands went viral, yet the response to the story overlooked the causes of these views. These misconstrued perceptions went so far as Saudi Arabia banning Moroccan women of a "certain age" from performing umrah. Conversely, in Morocco, the perception of the wealthy, sex-driven, and morally void Khaliji man has also been shaped by the sex trafficking market. The Moroccan government responded to these widely-held views by passing a law that would require Saudi court approval if a Saudi man seeks to marry a Moroccan woman, as well as notifying prior wives of the marriage.
It was also argued the proposal suggesting the flow of goods, services, and citizens that would be facilitated through the membership would have long-term repercussions for human development in Morocco. Although the geographical distance would remain an obstacle to some extent, Morocco, unlike the Gulf, averages significantly lower on the Human Development Index (HDI). The indicators point to a multitude of factors contributing to Morocco’s low ranking, including illiteracy, poverty, income inequality, etc. The looming fear is that Moroccans who struggle to make a living would forfeit the pursuit of education for hard labor work in the Gulf in exchange for a steady income. A sizeable portion of Morocco’s economy already depends on remittances, yet as the remittances have increased over the years, human development in Morocco has consistently remained below the regional average.
The proposal of Moroccan integration into the GCC is most obviously an act of political desperation. Should the Moroccan monarchy have fallen to a popular uprising, the Gulf monarchies would have lost one of their remaining political and economic extensions in North Africa. Even as a nonmember of the GCC, Morocco is already benefiting from its ties with the Gulf monarchies. Investment from the Gulf contributed in placing Morocco at the top of FDI Markets 2011/12 “African Countries of the Future” list, before South Africa and Mauritius. It is imperative to assess the rationale behind Morocco joining the GCC in the context of government-led reforms in response to protests. The Moroccan regime’s response to protests through quick reforms and rushed elections provided a model for another Arab monarchy, namely Jordan. Several months later, Bahrain also played lip service to the idea and announced constitutional reforms of its own.
Economically, Morocco’s European trade partners face significant hurdles, posing a risk to Morocco’s weak economy—one that is plagued by a record high trade deficit and budget deficit. The point of economic integration was a concern for members of the GCC. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan of the United Arab Emirates stated, “We must learn from the experience of the European Union, which at some point accepted 10 countries to its membership and look now what happened with the euro.” The oil-rich states of the Gulf offer a temporary solution to Morocco’s political and economic woes, while allowing for the sustenance of the Moroccan authoritarian regime. About a month after the meeting where al-Nahayan made his comments, it was announced that the GCC would set up a "$5 billion development fund" to be split evenly between Jordan and Morocco. Meanwhile, procedural moves to include them in the GCC remained unclear.
Through a combination of efforts across the political and economic spheres, Morocco succeeded in temporarily postponing the inevitable wave of dissent. The Gulf monarchies provided a comfortable cushion for the Moroccan monarchy, while boosting the confidence of the regime’s allies both within and beyond Morocco’s borders. However, Morocco’s income inequalities remain the highest in the region, along with a staggering 56.1% illiteracy rate. Morocco can seek temporary economic assistance through aid packages from the Gulf, but all this succeeds in doing is nurturing a dependent and weak economy still coping with the obstacles of post-colonial development. Meanwhile, Morocco’s commitment to democratization has stalled with consistent cases of arbitrary arrests, politically-motivated trials, and ongoing protests met with repression. This only shows that the constitutional reforms have done little to change the social reality of Moroccans, and the Gulf monarchies have no intention of challenging Morocco’s approach to addressing popular grievances. Instead, the Gulf monarchies have rewarded Morocco with billion-dollar aid packages, investment, and an increasingly stronger political alliance.