Morocco’s African foreign policy is neither a new nor a recent phenomenon. As a founding member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, the congress that inspired that organization was even held in Casablanca in Morocco in 1961. Under Kings Mohamed V and Hassan II Morocco had strong links with several African states, prominent among which were Senegal and Gabon, as well as Guinea and former Zaire.
At the non-governmental level, Moroccan universities have been hosting students from other African states since the mid-1980s, which has created solid personal and social links between Moroccans and people from those other states. Last, but not least, on the religious level, Morocco has exerted an important influence on Western African Islam, notably in the case of the Tijani branch of Sufi Islam, which has held Morocco in very high esteem.
There are currently three elements that distinguish Morocco’s current African foreign policy from its previous policy. First is the emphasis on the economy. Between 2000 and 2015, Morocco’s trade with sub-Saharan Africa grew by 12.8 per cent, which represented a profit to Morocco of around 1 billion US dollars per year in 2013, 2014 and 2015. With the increasing trade between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa, Morocco’s investments on the continent have also grown considerably during the last decade and in 2015 reached 40 per cent of Morocco’s total foreign investments across many different sectors.
The second characteristic of the new focus of Morocco’s African foreign policy is its reach far beyond the traditional francophone circles in which the country used to play. In this sense, instead of strengthening links with friends, which used to be the dominating approach of Moroccan foreign policy, the new approach is to start with the economy, create strong links, and then use those links for eventual political purposes. The rationale is that it may well be more effective if domestic actors, who have strong economic ties with Morocco, put pressure on their respective diplomats than for Moroccan diplomats to approach their other counterparts.
The third characteristic of Morocco’s new African foreign policy is the dominant role played by King Mohammed VI. The king has spent much time in many African states, with over 51 visits to 26 African states since he acceded to the throne. During his visits he generally holds high-level talks, inaugurates development projects and undertakes trips of a personal or even touristic nature, which grabs the headlines. The king makes a point of visiting for long periods, as well as mixing with the people on the streets. Also interesting is the increase in the number of bilateral agreements between Morocco and other African states: precisely 952, since his accession to the throne. In sum, the thaw in Morocco’s relations with many other African states is the result of the king’s initiatives and personal heavy involvement.
Why has Morocco adopted this new African foreign policy? Is it merely to defend its presence in the Western Sahara, or is it to obtain economic and trade benefits for its public sector and private companies? Historically, the country’s ruling dynasties saw Africa as a natural extension of their own territories. The current Moroccan constitution also gives a prominent role to Morocco’s African heritage and identity and emphasizes the country’s deep roots in the continent. As for the Western Sahara issue, Morocco was very comfortable with the United Nations Security Council being the main, if not, the sole diplomatic player in the dispute. All of this seems to indicate that Morocco’s new African foreign policy is definitely not limited to the issue of the Western Sahara as it aims more broadly at making Morocco a key and influential player in African politics.
‘Morocco’s African Foreign Policy’ – Policy Paper by Nizar Messari – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.