Is the diplomatic gap between Morocco and Saudi Arabia widening irretrievably or is it only just a foggy day?

International observers are closely monitoring the evolution of relations between Saudi Arabia and Morocco. While some guess that the tension means only temporary dark clouds, others suggest that Morocco should completely reconsider its diplomatic ties with the Saudi government.

Relations between Morocco and Saudi Arabia are expanding day by day. The Moroccan king at the Morocco/Gulf Cooperation Council summit in 2016 had already made his remarks, which in the light of recent events can obviously reflect the current growing tension between the two kingdoms.

« Morocco is free in its decisions and choices and is not the preserve of any country.»

In order to a best understanding the extent of the friction between Morocco and Saudi Arabia, I propose below a brief history.

November 2017: «The boycott over the boycott» of Morocco undermines Saudi hopes

When Saudi Arabia and three allies decided to impose a harsh boycott on Qatar in June 2017, Morocco’s refusal to support the Saudi-led coalition angered the Arabian Peninsula.

Morocco remained « neutral » throughout the Gulf crisis. King Mohammed VI even flew to Qatar on 12 November 2017.

Upon his arrival in Qatar from the United Arab Emirates, the Qatari media welcomed the monarch, calling him the « first boycott breaker ».

The King of Morocco has also ordered the Moroccan Government to send food aid to Qatar. The Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs justified this gesture by religion as a reason « especially during the month of Ramadan when solidarity among Muslims is required ».

Saudi Arabia felt « betrayed » by Morocco’s « neutrality », especially since it shares strong historical ties with Morocco.

March 2018 : Saudi Arabia’s interests at the forefront

It all started with a tweet….

Indeed, when a councillor of the Saudi Royal Family indirectly attacked Morocco almost four months before the vote on the host of the World Cup2026.

This adviser, head of the Saudi sports authority, Turki Al Sheikh, has made himself known for his unfriendly comments towards Morocco throughout the 2026 World Cup bid process.

On March 18, 2018, Al Sheikh began « politicizing the bid for the 2026 World Cup » by publishing a tweet to announce his country’s indirect position… In his first tweet, Al Sheikh stated that none of the World Cup candidates had requested Saudi Arabia’s support, but in which case Saudi Arabia would vote for the country that would best serve its interests.

« If anyone asks, we will first look for Saudi Arabia’s interests.»

Al Sheikh also gave some interviews, highlighting the strong diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States and describing the Trump administration as their « strongest allies ».

In another interview with a Saudi sports newspaper, Al Sheikh said: « Friendship and fraternity have been very damaging to the Saudis… what really matters to me is that the Cup 2026 is organised under the best conditions, which means that these conditions were not met in Morocco…

… «Convenient pretext» but the truth would be about Qatar

Al Sheikh’s proximity to the Saudi Royal Family, in particular Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, makes it more than likely that the monarchy was aware of the tweets and its position against Morocco…

This first Al Sheikh tweet was not the last, indeed: The second tweet arrived four hours after the first and clarified its position against Morocco. « Some have gone astray. If you want help, you should ask for it to Doha. What you’re doing is wasting your time. Now ask the pseudo-state to help you. A message from the Gulf to the ocean.»

The message is quite clear and refers to Morocco’s neutrality in the Gulf crisis, between the Al Thani government in Qatar and the Saudi Arabian coalition.

The tweet also coincided with the final campaign to collect votes for the 2026 World Cup organizing rights. Indeed, Morocco has submitted its application to host the 2026 World Cup facing the joint North American United2026 bid (United States, Canada and Mexico).

Moreover, Al Sheikh considers Moroccan neutrality in the Gulf crisis as a threat to diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The neutrality of the Moroccan kingdom has clearly still not been digested by the Saudis.

Morocco has taken up a neutral position due to its close ties with Qatar but also with Saudi Arabia.

April 2018: A purely political approach

Shamelessly, Al Sheikh posted a picture of him with the president of the joint North American bid for the 2026 World Cup.

To « drive the last nail in the coffin », the picture of Al Sheikh and the president shaking hands and smiling loudly spoke for itself.

From left to the right : Mr. Carlos Cordeiro with Turki Al Sheikh

« I was pleased to meet Carlos Cordeiro, President of the United States Football Association and President of United 2026, » said Al Sheikh.

Before that, Saudi Arabia had not expressed direct support for the bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

A selfie yet full of hop

Al Sheikh’s comments faded away when a selfie of King Mohammed VI with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad El Hariri was shared online.

On April 9, 2018, from left to the right, Saad Hariri, Muhammad VI and Muhammad Bin Salman gathered in Paris

This selfie, caught and shared by Hariri on April 9, 2018 in Paris, made observers forget the Saudi and Moroccan tensions, thinking that the image was worth « more than a thousand words ».

But two months after the selfie, Morocco will be amazed by Saudi Arabia’s behaviour in Moscow…

The month of June 2018, the month of settling scores?

June was the decisive month for Moroccan and American applications. However, Morocco was shocked to learn that Saudi Arabia had officially put pressure on the Moroccan Candidature.

On June 4, Saudi Arabia announced its decision to officially support the United States.

« We weighed up the pros and cons and ultimately chose what was in the best interest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, » said Al Sheikh, saying the country had given its word to the Americans.

Saudi Arabia launched a last-minute campaign on June 11 and 12, pressuring countries to vote for United 2026.

On June 13, Morocco was eliminated from the race with only 65 votes, or 33% of the vote. United 2026 won the right to host the World Cup at the 68th FIFA Congress in Moscow with 67 per cent of the vote.

Several Arab countries voted against Morocco, including Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Several African countries also voted in favour of the North American bid, including Namibia, South Africa and Liberia.

Morocco considers the votes of African and Arab countries as a betrayal.

Then another alleged crisis broke out between Morocco and Saudi Arabia. 

Known as his extravagant summer holidays in Morocco, Saudi King Salman chose to spend his summer holidays in the new city of Neom, Saudi Arabia, in 2018, for « commercial reasons ». This decision brought about media speculation on both sides. Moroccan and international analysts also noted Morocco’s absence from meetings took place in Saudi Arabia and joint military symposia.

On 15 June, the Moroccan Minister of Culture and Communication, Mohamed Laaraj, said he would not attend the Coalition’s meeting of communication ministers on Yemen on 23 June in Saudi Arabia because of «his busy agenda».

Rumours that Morocco would withdraw its troops from Yemen have also been widely reported. Morocco avoided a joint naval exercise « Red Waves 1 » in Saudi Arabia from 30 December 2018 to 4 January 2019.

October 2018 : The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi as seen by Rabat

Arab countries and the Saudi coalition have given their full support for Saudi Arabia after the international media accused the Crown Prince and the Royal Family of being involved in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Several countries have condemned the journalist’s murder and his potential connection to Mohammed Bin Salman. Some countries also reported that Saudi Arabia had crossed the « red line ».

Unlike other Arab countries, Morocco has not expressed support for the Saudi royal family.

November 2018: Morocco « Snubbed » Prince Bin Salman

In the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, Bin Salman announced a world tour with a stop in the Maghreb countries, including Tunisia and Algeria.

Several political observers then questioned his decision not to include Morocco on its agenda. But the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita, confirmed that Morocco was on the Crown Prince’s list…Confusion has been taking over!

In addition, a government source told « Maroc World News » that the visit could not take place because King Mohammed VI claimed that he could not receive Crown Prince Bin Salman personally, suggesting that his brother Prince Moulay Rachid should meet him.

However, Saudi Arabia (upset) has refused Morocco’s alternative.

The second Saudi attack on Morocco: The territorial integrity of Morocco

This last episode, so far, represents a new crisis in addition to those underway between Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The two countries are fighting each other through the media: The Saudi channel Al Arabiya broadcast a report on Western Sahara, which did not present the facts by accrediting the Moroccan thesis as usual. This report provoked the anger of the Moroccan press close to the government. The 360ar who replied by accusing the Saudi kingdom of blackmailing the Moroccan kingdom about what he considers to be « its territorial integrity ».

Rabat recalled, for example, his ambassador in Riyadh, citing this report by the Saudi channel Al Arabiya on the wrangled region of Western Sahara («part of Morocco»). Although Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have traditionally supported Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony until 1975, which is also claimed by the Polisario Front (Political and Paramilitary Group fighting for the independence of Western Sahara) supported by Algeria.

This decision to recall the Moroccan ambassador was taken just days after Morocco decided to withdraw from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Two Moroccan researchers told Anadolu (Turkish newspaper) that Rabat’s decision to withdraw from the coalition was « expected », especially in light of what they called the « obstacles » that have recently characterized relations between the two countries.

The disclaimer of any official opinion by the two countries held a future of bilateral relations, open up to all possibilities…

…Western Sahara having obviously increased tensions

Certainly the Western Sahara issue is at the root of the tense relations between Saudi Arabia and Morocco. This situation has been aggravated by Morocco’s neutrality in the Gulf crisis in which Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed an 18-month blockade on Qatar, but also by the fact that Morocco did not receive Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman during his last tour in the Maghreb.

Morocco’s position was also reportedly influenced by the international repercussions of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last October.

The future of relationships?

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Muhammad Bin Salman (left) and King Mohammed VI of Morocco (right)

Saudi Arabia has not yet officially reacted to this ongoing crisis. The researchers consider that the future of relations between the two countries is open up to all possibilities, especially in the light of the persistent tensions underlying the current crisis. Al-Hayat (Saudi Paper) predicts that Saudi Arabia will continue to target Moroccan interests, particularly in an unofficial way, through researchers, officials or the media.

Al-hayat added: « It is difficult to believe that relations between the two countries will be back to what they were in the past »

By Alexandra Allio De Corato

Alexandra Allio De Corato
A propos de Alexandra Allio De Corato 85 Articles
Traductologie, Linguistique & Géopolitique Analyste, Spécialiste du Moyen-Orient.

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