When the King of Morocco addressed Gulf leaders in Riyadh recently and denounced foreign powers’ double standards in the region, the US State Department’s annual human rights report was already online. It came out ahead of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) meeting in April, to signal a spectrum of US changes towards North Africa. Reactions to the report surfaced when the conflict over Ban Ki-moon’s occupation remarks or the US draft resolution’s harsh measures seemed to fade, temporarily at least.

The official reaction from Morocco was twofold. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the US Ambassador in Rabat twice, while the Ministry of the Interior, which is customarily accused of human rights abuses, rejected the report’s allegations as a list of lies. The latter’s intervention was explained by a need to rectify the wrong claims, and free Abdellatif Hammouchi, the kingdom’s intelligence chief, from responsibility for transgressions that had occurred before he took office.

Morocco’s reaction helps to explain some of King Mohammed VI’s phrases in his Riyadh speech. He stressed the provision of opportunities and protecting interests for its key allies in economic and security measures. Yet, as a warning to current allies, the monarch also mentioned that Morocco is shifting towards new strategic partnerships. A month later, a delegation of senior Moroccan officials visited China. Despite the considerable success of the visit, Moroccan commentators were surprised at the participation of the controversial Ilyas Elomari, the secretary general of the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), whom they link to despotism. Even more surprising was his announcement that he had signed a contract with a Chinese company to provide jobs for 300,000 workers.

Is the outcome of the strategic shift guaranteed? Before China and the Gulf summit, the king had visited Russia in advance of the MINURSO meeting. Russia, faithful to its traditional position, abstained from voting either for or against Morocco. With this avowed change of loyalties, the fear is that the kingdom risks hanging in limbo between competing international powers.

Principally, the US report focuses on whether “the lack of citizens’ ability to change the constitutional provisions [were] establishing the country’s monarchical form of government, corruption and widespread disregard for the rule of law by security forces.”

Given the recent escalations in Morocco-US relations, very few analyses and discussions tapped into the reasons behind the growing misunderstanding.

It is possible that Morocco, through its foreign policy moves, is trying to trace its unique experience in the relationships between foreign powers and the MENA region. For example, despite the numerous economic joint ventures with France in Africa, Morocco has also launched its own projects in the continent, in line with the 2011 Constitution’s call for diversifying foreign partnerships and cooperation opportunities. While Morocco-France cooperation continues, the former is extending its strategic depth in Africa through culture, education and religion. Examples in this respect include the annual Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira and providing scholarships for African students. Most importantly, in the fight against terrorism in the region, Morocco has a diverse approach. The authorities do not depend solely on internet surveillance and security measures. They also provide training for Imams, receive pilgrims to the Tijani shrines in Fes and tolerate the presence of African non-Muslims.

In the same spirit, Morocco has cooperated with the US on security issues, especially in the so-called war on terrorism. While George W Bush branded Morocco as the most important ally outside NATO, a report accused the kingdom of hosting detention and torture camps for international terrorism suspects.

Nevertheless, in the context of post-2011 changes, Morocco destroyed an international detention camp near Rabat and refused to host AFRICOM, the administrative headquarters for US military relations with African countries. The arms-length relations that Morocco has maintained with AFRICOM, despite non-stop participation in the Desert Lion joint military trainings, has allowed it to lead the region in security measures. In times of need, even Belgium reached out for Morocco’s help.

Meanwhile, this has triggered Moroccan civil society to denounce internet surveillance and infringement on user privacy. The Ministry of the Interior immediately axed Hicham Mansouri’s investigative report on surveillance technologies in the country. The president of the Association for Investigative Journalism was then sent to jail after allegations of adultery. That is why foreign powers find it easy to accuse the Moroccan authorities of human rights abuses.

Notwithstanding what path that the tension with its partners may take, Morocco’s foreign policies necessitate equal prowess in the internal fights against illiteracy, poverty, corruption and signs of despotism. The strategic narrative of the kingdom’s exceptionalism will be more legitimate, then, especially since the countries that level criticism at Morocco’s human rights abuses have their own weaknesses in that respect. This may, in the long run, deprive foreign powers of the ammunition to twist Morocco’s arm over the Sahara situation.

Abderrahim Chalfaouat

Abderrahim Chalfaouat is a Morocco-based researcher in media and MENA politics.

27/05/2016