Moroccan king plays up business, religious ties on African tour
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Moroccan King Mohammed VI is due to arrive in Gabon late on Wednesday for the last leg of a long visit to West and Central Africa marked by dozens of trade agreements.
Reports from Libreville describe the same display of giant royal portraits and Moroccan flags as on the previous steps in his itinerary, where enthusiastic crowds gathered to welcome him in the regions’ capitals – a sign of Morocco’s growing influence in the region.
"This makes us proud because most Western leaders have avoided Guinea in recent months, favouring Mali and Senegal," said Mouktar, a caller to Radio France Internationale’s (RFI) show 'Appels sur l’actualité'.
Yet the trip's success is simply gloss on the hard economic reality, which Mohammed VI described in very direct terms in Ivory Coast. “Diplomacy used to serve the strengthening of political relations. Nowadays, the economic dimension comes first, and it forms the basis of diplomatic relations,” the king told a meeting of around 500 Ivorian and Moroccan business leaders in Abidjan on February 24.
Mohammed VI’s record in the past two weeks would put the best sales reps to shame: he has signed an average of 20 trade agreements in each of the three countries he has visited so far and opened Moroccan-contracted projects ranging from social housing to fishing ports, fibre optic links and cement factories.
“At a time when Africa is seen as the next business frontier and Europe and the US are hit by the crisis, Morocco is pushing its banks and free-trade agreements to open commerce with countries forming a 250 million-inhabitant market,” said Bakary Sambe, a political scientist at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis, Senegal and the author of a book on Morocco’s diplomacy in sub-Saharan Africa. “Some Moroccan companies now beat French ones for tenders in the region, thanks to such lobbying,” he told FRANCE 24.
Business on the one hand, religion in the other
The Moroccan King’s status as a traditional Muslim leader in West Africa is another sign of Rabat’s influence in the region. “In the Middle Ages, the Moroccan empire used to spread all the way to Timbuktu and Senegal, and the Tijaniyyah brotherhood still recognizes the king as their spiritual leader,” Ismaïl Régragui, the author of “Moroccan public diplomacy: a religiously branded strategy?” told FRANCE 24.
During his tour, Mohammed VI donated hundreds of Korans and signed several agreements to train African imams in Morocco. His Maliki school, a moderate branch of Sunni Islam, is particularly appealing to governments struggling to contain rising radicalism in the region.
“Faced with the rise of Wahhabi and Salafi Islam on the one hand, and Iranian Shiite Islam on the other, the king is trying to create a sort of holy alliance around moderate Maliki Islam, with Morocco at its centre,” said Bakary Sambe.
This has allowed Mohammed VI to become a mediator in the Malian crisis between Bamako’s central government and Tuareg and radical Islamist movements in control of much of northern Mali – a job for which he trumped Morocco’s arch-rival in the region, Algeria.
Mohammed VI gains support on Western Sahara – at Algeria’s expense
Algiers and Rabat are in open conflict over the fate of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony claimed by Morocco. Algeria has always supported the territory’s independence. By strengthening ties with sub-Saharan African countries, Morocco, which left the African Union in 1984 in disagreement over its recognition of the Western Saharan Polisario movement, wants to break its 30-year-old isolation.
“Morocco was feeling surrounded: to the North by Spain, with whom relations are difficult over the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla; to the east by Algeria, which supports the Polisario movement. Its foreign policy is to open up towards the south as the regional diplomatic landscape is being rejigged,” said Sambe.
The king’s effort seem to have yielded some results: Mali’s new president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita departed from his country’s traditional support for the Polisario movement by acknowledging Morocco’s “credible and serious efforts” to find a solution for Western Sahara.
This week’s final leg of Mohammed VI’s visit in Gabon, a longstanding ally of Morocco, can only confirm the king’s growing influence in the region. “Africa needs a popular, democratic leader whose country has economic credentials,” said Youssoufa, a caller to RFI’s 'Appels sur l’actualité'. “That space was left empty by Colonel Gaddafi and Morocco has the economic potential to play that role.”
Yet Bakary Sambe warned that Mohammed VI had one more thing to do at home if he wanted to become truly popular with sub-Saharan Africans: change Morocco’s image as Europe’s “anti-immigration policeman” – a perception that recent immigration reform has so far failed to alter.
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