A row is brewing between EU countries and even Brussels itself and Rabat over Western Sahara. Rabat needs to now rethink both diplomacy and media as it can’t afford the consequences.
Just recently Morocco’s foreign minister, a man who usually shies away from the media spotlight, gave an interview with a Spanish news agency berating Spain’s recent decision to admit the leader of the Algerian-backed Polisario to one of its hospitals.
The interview itself raised few eyebrows in Morocco itself as many commented that Nasser Bourita is just parroting what the Rabat elite and the palace itself would have seen as a betrayal by Spain, Morocco’s largest trading partner and by far most important neighbour. Indeed, there is some logic to questioning why Madrid would take such a move, especially given its special relations with Morocco and not to mention the irony of the number of legal cases against Brahim Ghali being lodged by victims in Spanish courts.
But what is even odder is Morocco’s almost Icarus-like approach to handling this particular spat and others with its EU neighbours. There is an almost auto-self-destruct mode which Rabat goes into when handling problems with EU countries which, for international observers, shines a spotlight on Morocco’s weakness, rather than its strengths, around the world.
For Bourita to instigate such an interview where he delivered his bellicose messages, means a shocking contempt for two professions which would have served his intentions better, if put to good use: diplomacy and public relations.
The fact that Mr Bourita bypassed these two ancient institutions completely signals that Morocco has got some real problems coming up in the future over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
The recent spat with Spain followed one with Germany, a heavyweight in the EU. The subject is always the same: Western Sahara.
Germany has spoken openly since the Trump decision in December which officially made the U.S. acknowledge Morocco’s sovereignty there – dismissing it and underlining that the only process to a solution is the UN one. This, plus one or two other minor rows with Berlin last year, was enough for Rabat to throw a massive tantrum and suspend diplomatic relations in early March.
Any yet, perhaps if Rabat had better diplomatic relations with Germany via its ambassadors and better rapport with German journalists, the overreaction by Rabat might have been avoided.
Or even if it had skills at how to manipulate media, rather like the British government using Bellingcat to stoke a row between the EU and Russia, which we’ve seen lately, Rabat might have a shot at winning over EU governments.
However, in recent years Morocco’s ambassadors, like their ministers in Rabat, have retracted within themselves with the dark art of self-censorship being their main raison d’etre. These days, to reach a government minister over the phone in Rabat as a foreign journalist is impossible. Ministers are just too scared to talk, fearing reprisals from the revered business elite (called the ‘Makhzen’) which is really running the whole show. So, it is hardly surprising that Morocco’s ambassadors have really anything important to say or do around the world, muted by their masters who keep the leach tight. To say that Moroccan ambassadors are hardly important is an understatement. Indeed, Mr Bourita’s previous communications guru who he fired in 2020, was given an ambassador’s job as a severance package.
Equally in recent years, since 2010, Rabat relations with its own foreign journalists has receded with some special privileges removed for those who live in the country and a new mentality akin to contempt, similar to what it has for domestic journalists. While it’s true that international media is less interested in Morocco due to penny pinching, it is also true that Morocco has adopted a new treatment towards its dwindling, remaining few foreign hacks who have to jump through more and more hoops just to get a press card. In 2011, there were over 150 foreign correspondents accredited in Rabat. Now there is barely 80 and in future years, I estimate this will fall to just a handful. The last British correspondent of a UK broadsheet, The Guardian, left last year. There are no salaried correspondents of any British newspaper in Morocco presently, as just one example – a remarkable achievement by Rabat’s elite which no doubt would consider this as a triumph.
But sometimes you need foreign correspondents to oil the wheels.
Pick your fights
Trump’s decision to back Morocco was really all about serving Israel’s interest and in many respects has given Rabat a poisoned chalice. A recent, well overdue, telephone call from Antony Blinken to Mr Bourita, may have assured him that the U.S. will always be a good friend to Morocco, but this friendship will be strained in the coming months when it is clear to Rabat that Biden is uncomfortable about the position he has been put in, over Western Sahara – with Bloomberg even going as far as to call it a “mess”.
Biden will not revert the decision by Trump, but Rabat should brace itself for the U.S. position to remain opaque and lean towards the UN itself to find an amiable solution, even on a token level – and towards the EU to beat the drum.
The problem for Morocco, is that the EU and many of its big guns like Germany, are less likely to be so patient with Rabat over Western Sahara and will happily take up this role. Picking a fight with any EU country is unwise during these delicate times when Morocco should be working overtime to woe journalists in EU countries and bolster existing relations with their countries. But to try and teach Germany a lesson is foolish at best, given that it more or less runs the EU and holds key posts in places, like the prestigious European Parliament foreign affairs committee, just to mention one.
Mr Bourita is going to have to set quite a few interviews with EU news agencies if a new, smarter approach is not cultivated by Rabat as the recent debacles with Germany and Spain are only going to get worse, when the EU finally gets round to developing a policy on Western Sahara which puts the Trump decision in the long grass and finally reigns in Morocco on its human rights record. I don’t envy the role of Mr Bourita’s new attractive press mandarin when she has to explain how prestigious EU news agencies have declined his offer of an interview, refusing to be used as an extension of Morocco’s blundering PR endeavours.
Moreover, the new relations with Israel and in turn the GCC countries should be put into context. A opportunity for Morocco to whip up a foreign investment theme, of course. But the reliance on Israel in the first place to be the choice for outsourced lobbying and public relations comes with a heavy price as the same country might be the only option to continue the theme, given Morocco’s near zero influence in Washington, London and Paris. Heaven forbid that the Makhzen which is running the government now and has reverted back to the period of Hassan II in terms of domestic suppression of liberties and human rights, actually goes back to those days on how it treats foreign correspondents.