Morocco’s involvement in Decisive Storm highlights kingdom’s GCC alliance
Casablanca - The Moroccan king’s latest Gulf tour consolidated the North African country’s military commitment to help Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in the Saudi-led military operation against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces ended their silence about military operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen when they posted a video on April 26th showing their F-16 fighter jets during a visit of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince to a Saudi air base in Dammam.
Morocco has placed six US-made F-16 warplanes under Saudi command as part of Operation Decisive Storm. The jets previously took part in military operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.
Analysts say Morocco is not threatened by Iranian-led Shia expansion in the Arab world despite its participation in Saudi-led war on Houthi rebels, but Rabat is divided over whether its involvement would bring economic benefits to the North African kingdom.
Ali Bahaijoub, chief editor of the London-based North-South magazine, said the Shia expansion was not threatening Morocco despite the existence of small Shia pockets in the north of the country.
“The role of King Mohammed VI as commander of the faithful constitutes a deterrent to any religious leadership challenge in the kingdom,” said Bahaijoub.
“Iran cannot and will not threaten Moroccan religious authority or community. This is due partly to the distance between the two countries and lack of religious competition between them and partly because of the uniqueness of the Moroccan religious concept of Imarate al Muminin (the emirate of the faithful).”
Anthony Shaker, visiting scholar at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, said Morocco’s government was clearly unconcerned.
“Neither ‘Shia ideology’ nor even Wahhabism figure at all in the real world of international politics. Rather, Morocco has to calculate the geopolitical worth of any involvement in Yemen,” said Shaker.
Risk of full-blown sectarian conflict
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of sowing sectarian strife through its support for the Houthi rebels. GCC states have condemned the takeover by Shia rebels as a coup.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the United States of supporting the “immense crimes” of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and denied Tehran was arming Houthi rebels, who have seized large areas in Yemen, including the capital.
The Saudi-led air strikes on Shia rebels risk transforming the military intervention into a full-blown sectarian conflict like those raging in Syria and Iraq.
“The sectarian card is the equivalent of a small, hand-carried dirty bomb,” Shaker said. “But Iran has consistently refused to use or even recognise it. Why should it? It has too many Sunni friends across the Islamic world to bother with it. And it takes two to tango. Putting a Shia label on one of the parties to the conflict in Yemen only obscures the nature of the conflict.”
“Fortunately, the mere fact that the Ansarullah Party’s leadership and cadres are predominantly Houthi, an ethnic group that happens to be of the Zaidi branch of Islam and not particularly close to the mainstream Twelver Shia Islam, has not been of serious practical interest to Morocco’s foreign ministry or to the king himself,” he added.
Morocco’s military support of the GCC is likely to generate economic and strategic benefits to the North African kingdom, especially after King Mohammed VI’s recent tour to the region.
However, Shaker warned against GCC money being poured into the Moroccan economy as a reward to its military support.
“Artificial infusions of money from the GCC only aggravate the age-old problem of economic underdevelopment and inertia. This has always been the main drag in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is very hard to absorb monies parachuted like this into local economies, except to line pockets. The corruption levels they would entail could easily shatter the otherwise calm political atmosphere in Morocco,” said Shaker.
“Morocco’s trade ties with Saudi Arabia are only third in order of importance. Those with the EU are the most extensive. Will this order be suddenly reversed? This is doubtful and not very advisable,” he stressed.
NATO-like Arab force?
Arab foreign ministers agreed in March to form a united Arab force for immediate action in a bid to preserve Arab security. The joint Arab defence force is to be twice the size of NATO’s Response Force at 40,000 men and will mainly utilise forces from Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, according to an Arab League source.
“If the Arab united force is formed and marches on Yemen with foot soldiers, it will constitute a first in the Arab world and may become a force to be reckoned with. It will also transform the strategic partnerships in the region,” said Bahaijoub.
But Shaker argued the Arab League does not have the organisational resources or technical means to raise an effective army of 40,000 soldiers, nor does it have the strategic depth to deploy it.
“Any development along those lines would, at best, be purely for show; at worst, yet another destabilising factor,” said Shaker.
What if the Saudi-led military operation fails to defeat Houthis?
“If the Saudi-led military operation fails to defeat the Houthis, it will have dire consequences for the region and will diminish the Saudi military supremacy and increase that of Iran. It will also have a profound impact on the GCC, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan,” said Bahaijoub.
“If the Saudi-led military campaign fails, the rivalry with Iran will simply continue in other, possibly deadlier forms. Saudi Arabia has so far refused even to contemplate détente with Iran, despite repeated overtures and local initiatives emanating even from inside the GCC,” pointed out Shaker.
Bahaijoub said, however, that scenario was rather far-fetched because of the military supremacy of the coalition and the logistic and intelligence assistance the coalition receives from the United States and the West.
“Yemen is now more broken than Iraq. The severe bombing has fractured its society. So, famine is a distinct possibility for the first time in this conflict, even supposing war ends tomorrow. Compounding the situation for the Saudis is that even a ground invasion would settle nothing,” warned Shaker. “There will be a huge price to pay for this intervention whatever it does next. I have no doubt about this.
“Saudi Arabia can put on a show of American-style bravado but it lacked minimum understanding of the consequences it was about to unleash when it launched this air war,” he added.