Saudi-Moroccan relations are not helped by silence

Saudi Arabia’s and Morocco’s historical relationship is old and strategic. For decades, the two countries had stayed on the same track.
Sunday 17/02/2019
Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita attends a press briefing at the UN Offices in Geneva, last December. (AFP)
Clarifying matters. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita attends a press briefing at the UN Offices in Geneva, last December. (AFP)

Riyadh and Rabat are giving lessons in the art of diplomacy. The two capitals are being highly professional in managing what was said to be a dispute between them.

Saudi Arabia’s and Morocco’s historical relationship is old and strategic. For decades, the two countries had stayed on the same track.

If one is to draw an analogy, the currently strained relations between the European Union and the United States, an alliance rooted in history and values, can be likened to the nature of Riyadh’s relations with Rabat.

It seems that what happened between Saudi Arabia and Morocco is nothing more than, in the words of the Moroccan ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a “summer shower.” As both countries endeavour to dismiss the controversy and its symptoms, it seems clear that the signs of discord have accumulated to the point they can no longer be hidden from observers of Arab affairs.

Morocco returned its ambassador to Riyadh after the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied reports of his recall to Rabat. Before that, Ambassador Mustapha Mansouri was quoted as saying that “the reason for his recall is related to recent developments in the relationship between the two countries, especially after Al Arabiya TV, the Saudi-owned news channel, broadcast a report calling into question the territorial integrity of the kingdom of Morocco. That was deemed to be a reaction to Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Nasser Bourita’s interview with the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera channel.”

Media reports said that after the Moroccan foreign minister’s live interview with the Qatari channel, Al Arabiya broadcast a documentary that said Morocco had invaded Western Sahara following the departure of the Spanish colonists in 1975. This version is rejected by Morocco because it considers Western Sahara an integral part of its territory.

Apparently, there are other twists in the story.

Morocco had taken a neutral position regarding the boycott by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain against Qatar. Rabat has always maintained a point of neutrality and balance in its Arab relations and Morocco has followed a foreign policy that shows the country as free and independent in its decisions, orientations and foreign options.

Nevertheless, although neutrality was the defining characteristic of the official positions of many countries towards the Arab Quartet’s engagement with Qatar, in the case of Morocco, it was accompanied by a decision to send aid to Doha and that can only be seen as bias towards Qatar.

Logically, Doha does not need Morocco’s aid. Qatar is a rich country with international relations and communication networks throughout the world that have not been interrupted by boycotts. Therefore, Morocco’s decision to send aid to Qatar can only be considered a coded message that Qatar and the boycotting quartet understand only too well.

Morocco may have its reasons and strategies in its relations with Saudi Arabia. However, Riyadh can only take note of the Moroccan position and its tendency to emphasise a position that cannot be considered neutral in the Qatari conflict.

While both countries preferred to observe silence about this problem, it did add to the pile of many other small problems. It seems the Moroccan foreign minister’s interview with Al Jazeera and the ensuing Al Arabiya report on the Western Sahara question were connected with the fact that Morocco was not included in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s tour of Maghreb countries. Obviously, the diplomacy of silence has failed.

Both countries have found the virtue of silence too much to bear but, on the other hand and as their diplomatic wisdom has shown, they do not tolerate the hype either.

It appeared that the so-called recall of the Moroccan ambassador in Riyadh for consultation reflected a reaction to what cannot be tolerated in matters of fundamental principles regarding the Western Sahara issue. One could argue that the report on Al Arabiya does not necessarily reflect Saudi Arabia’s official position but Morocco’s sensitivity about its territorial integrity cannot bear any silence about what Morocco has always considered to be its right since the late King Hassan II’s Green March on the region.

Rabat knows that Saudi Arabia’s position on the question of Western Sahara, just like the position of the Gulf Cooperation Council, was pro-Morocco and supportive of its policies there. Riyadh knows that despite its ups and downs, its relationship with Morocco cannot waver around such a fundamental and strategic issue for all Moroccans, their king and their government. So, both countries wisely suppressed the symptoms of a misunderstanding that cannot be allowed to turn into a controversy.

However, denying the existence of differences in opinions and positions between both countries and trying to conceal their signs cannot be a viable way for building the kind of relations that are supposed to be strategic and old.

Morocco’s position on the war in Yemen has changed. Bourita said Morocco’s involvement in the Arab coalition had “changed.” Morocco, for example, is no longer participating in the coalition forces’ military exercises and ministerial meetings.

Rabat has been showing signs of discomfort and reservation that Riyadh needs to pick up on and understand. The situation in Yemen is now a matter of international attention involving the world’s major powers. So Morocco’s position, in its form, will not affect the international approaches to the matter but, in its content, it expresses Morocco’s confusion regarding coordination, consultation and integration in the relations between the two kingdoms and their behaviour.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed, in October 2017, said “the crisis with Qatar is a very, very small, issue.” By contrast, the Western Sahara question is a very, very big issue for Morocco.

This is why both countries sometimes resort to serious diplomatic tools in their reactions and counter-reactions to each other’s positions. It is true that if talk is silver then silence is gold, as the Arabic saying goes, but Saudi-Moroccan relations can no longer tolerate too much silence.