fbpx

The Sahara Affair: Missed Opportunities for Morocco, US, and Israel

7 mins read

by Anis El Okbani and Irina Tsukerman

This political complacency opened the door to attacks from proponents of the pro-Iran line in the foreign policy establishment both in the US and Israeli circles.

The American recognition of the sovereignty of Morocco over the Sahara marked an important turning point. This latest development is part of the continuity of the positions of support given by the United States to the autonomy initiative proposed by the Kingdom, and undoubtedly one of the major tipping points in geopolitics since December 10, 2020. It is also the consecration of several months of games of backstage influences, parallel diplomacy and lobbying in the USA.

A turnaround in Moroccan Diplomacy?

A first since the arrival of the new American administration, Tamek, a Saharawi leader dares to openly clash  with Anthony Blinken, the head of the American State Department of Joe Biden and the American ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Was the leaked open letter to the State Department a turnaround in Moroccan diplomacy? Examination of internal dynamics may help decrypt this unexpected message.

Following the meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, April 23, the official line in Moroccan diplomatic and media circles was triumphant and praised US for not deviating from the Trump administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Joe Biden’s diplomatic team was deemed to meet the Kingdom’s expectations, much to the dismay of the Polisario.  On the surface, no tensions or radical moves away from the new policies appeared. But does not seem to match the expectations of Mohamed Salah Tamek, former Sheikh of identification.

Indeed, Tamek judges in a document in our possession amidst others, “THE LAST MEETING OF THE SECURITY COUNCIL AND THE DISAPPOINTING POSITION OF THE UNITED STATES”, “The role played by the United States of America in the negotiations on the Sahara conflict during the annual session held behind closed doors by the Security Council, on April 21, 2021, was not up to the task as we would have logically and legitimately wished ”and ends his letter with an observation that borders on ‘accusation of connivance “It is nonetheless scandalous that a country as powerful militarily as the United States, capable of detecting the slightest suspicious activity carried out by separatists in the region, treats a rogue state like Algeria and its protected mercenaries from the Polisario – who harass their neighboring countries, namely Libya, Tunisia, Mali and Mauritania – on the same footing as a long-standing ally like Morocco”.

Tamek appears not to share the Bourita’s Euphoria

“The decision of the United States to recognize the full and entire sovereignty of Morocco over the entire Sahara and to affirm unambiguous support for the Moroccan autonomy initiative has left no one indifferent. It has surprised some and has confirmed many others in their opinion. Everywhere, it has caused a lot of ink to flow. It has also led some to make ink blood”.

These are the relatively euphoric remarks of Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita published on Wednesday 03 February 2021 in his free column in the London newspaper Al- Sharq Al- Awsat .

Indeed, the Foreign Ministry’s handling of the Sahara issue likewise appears to be a target of underlying criticism in Tamek’s commentary.

A recent op-ed by Ilan Berman cites a litany of national security arguments from the foreign ministry officials, connecting the need for the US support to Iran’s activities in Sahara, and Tehran’s strategy of coopting local separatist movements and organized crime groups as proxies for advancing its own geopolitical interests. These concerns are real but not new. In fact, the Foreign Ministry has been relying on the same arguments and facts since breaking off relations with Iran in May 2018, shortly before then-President Trump withdrew from JCPOA. Morocco’s breakup with Iran at the time strengthened the argument for taking stronger measures to curb Iranian terrorism around the world. However, since then neither new evidence nor new arguments were presented to the public.

This political complacency opened the door to attacks from proponents of the pro-Iran line in the foreign policy establishment both in the US and Israeli circles. Dan Arbell, for instance, dismissed Iran’s contacts with Polisario and the Hezbullah influence in North Africa, alleging that there is no hard evidence to substantiate these security allegations. For whatever reason, Bourita is yet to flesh out the full extent of Iran’s intervention with Polisario. Yet the evidence of Hezbullah’s growing presence and interest in North Africa is not new and it is damning. If anything, recent developments involving the return of Hezbullah to Africa (with a possible view to attacking US interests) and several attempted Iran-backed attacks on Emirati and Israeli targets in other parts of the continent should have been reason enough for high ranking Moroccan foreign policy officials to present the security case in depth and in public.

From the diplomatic standpoint, Bourita’s mild positioning was also a missed opportunity to highlight the benefits of Morocco’s joining the Abraham Accords in terms of open collaboration with Israeli and Emirati security establishment on threat prevention. 

These relationships are likewise not new, but until recently were not a point of open discussion. Instead of strengthening its diplomatic role in Africa as Morocco’s official foreign policy line has been for the last several years, the Foreign Ministry undermined it by failing to underscore its important role in building on the common ground with the Gulf and Israel on that front. To be sure, various Moroccan diplomatic bodies abroad have been instructed to organize joint events with Israeli officials and to issue official greetings and other gestures of goodwill, but the “main course” of presenting joint security concerns and developing a common response to Biden’s pro-Iran agenda, as well as Morocco’s sovereignty priorities has escaped the Foreign Ministry’s attention.

Edward Gabriel, Long considered, wrongly, as Morocco’s number one influencer in Washington

Since its official registration in 2004 with the Department of Justice as an agent working for Morocco, the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MAPC), with an annual budget sometimes exceeding $ 2 million. Better, Edward Gabriel supervised a good part of the other lobbying contracts concluded between Morocco and other firms (the MAPC directly signed a dozen contracts with various K-Street brands for an amount also close to 2 million dollars per year).

Edward Gabriel kept the Moroccan contract until the arrival of the Donald Trump administration and the tightening of lobbying regulations. In 2017, the US president signed an executive order banning former public officials for life from lobbying for the benefit of foreign governments.

The former ambassador recalled in 2001, who had, moreover, made the mistake of betting on the election of Hillary Clinton, can no longer represent Morocco,which did not prevent him from continuing.

This forced withdrawal of Edward Gabriel coincided with Nasser Bourita’s access ion to the position of the head of Foreign Affairs of Morocco. It is Bourita himself who now signs the agreements with his new guide in the intricacies of the Trump administration. He turned towards Republican-oriented lobbyists to do his work for him.

Thus JPC Strategies , created in the fall of 2017, filed its declaration with the American Department of Justice at the same time as it initialed its contract with Morocco, its only client. This change of cabinet inevitably affected the sphere of subcontractors.

These lobbying activities have been billed since January 2018 for nearly $ 75,000 per month, which JPC Strategies and its three subcontractors share. However, rather than using these finances efficiently, the official lobbyists have spent their time organizing op-eds and eeking out toothless resolutions condemning Hezbullah in the House. In the four years of the Trump adminitration, no legilsative initiatives benefiting either the US-Morocco relations, or, after the Abraham Accords, advancing and facilitating the trilateral relationship between Morocco, US, and Israel came forth. The lobbyists seemed happy with providing the appearances of access, without helping either the American or the Moroccan side with building a foundation for the future. In fact, it was King Mohammed VI’s decisive directive that made the Morocco restoration of relations with Israel possible towards the end of Trump’s term, after it became obvious that even with four years of favorable conditions and openings, the lobbyists were not making the push needed to make this rapprochement a reality.

The amount spent by Morocco remains reasonable compared to those disbursed by other countries on the continent, Algeria has signed for 30,000 dollars monthly with the former president of the once powerful National Rifle Association David Keene to hamper Morocco’s efforts in the Sahara affair. This organization works for Morocco for only 20,000 dollars per month.

Since March 2021, Minister Nasser Bourita has terminated the contracts of agencies piloted by JPC Strategies , close to Republican circles. But he has yet to nominate new ones, more compatible with the era of the Biden administration . Meanwhile, Algerian lobby has not stopped for a break and has continued its push to reverse the Trump policy on Western Sahara with the Biden administration.

The Ambassador of Morocco, Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui, Guardian of the Royal Temple in the USA

However, for reasons that we do not want to divulge and unlike her predecessors, the Moroccan ambassador in Washington, in office since 2017, has not affixed her signature to any of the lobbying contracts signed in recent years by Morocco. Better still, even in the past, an “intriguing contract” the object of which is to promote Morocco as a destination for golf and film shootings and which was the subject of an official request at the congress of clarifications by the elected officials of Biden’s party , and which amounts to 40,000 dollars per month, between his embassy and Third Circle , in April 2018, neither the name nor the signature of Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui appear in the archives of the Department of Justice.  The rest remains to be seen.

Conclusion

The Biden administration’s top priority at the moment appears appeasing Iran and luring it back into some form of a nuclear deal. The extensive concessions on FTO liftings for the Houthis, sanctions relief, the rhetoric and action related to Saudi Arabia and Israel, all seem a repeat of Obama’s line in pursuing a deal with Tehran at all political, financial, and economic costs. US performance at the UN Security Council meeting is like other Biden administration foreign policy lines, a half way measure between reversing Trump’s policies in pursuit of Iran’s approval and not rocking the boat too much for which Biden’s sparce diplomatic forceis simply not prepared. Biden may not be in a position to cancel the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, but like in other avenues, his administration may be looking to erase the brunt of the policy through half-measures. This is where effective Moroccan diplomacy is key, given the unprecedented US willingness to sacrifice key relationships that even Obama’s presidency was willing to bypass and which Iran at the time dared not challenge. No wonder Sheikh Tamek was so displeased with all involved.

Irina Tsukerman is a Human Rights and National Security Attorney based in New York. She has written extensively on geopolitics and US foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli, and other international publications. She can be followed under @irinatsukerman.

Anis El Okbani is an entrepreneur based in NY, a Morocco and National Security analyst, and a specialist in geopolitics and strategy.

%d bloggers like this: