Game of Arab Thrones

            Much of Middle Eastern politics, especially between Arab states themselves, can often seem as pity bickering or some foolish game between children. Like this part of the world is still primarily driven by personal feelings and spontaneous emotional decisions. And that is even worse, when the matter concerns the monarchies, where royal power still seems to be absolute. One tries to dig into it without years of events piled up in the archives can really see things as a low budget sci-fi, or a comedy, when things just cannot be that silly. And indeed much of these inter-Arab struggles are in fact full of funny nuances. Yet, at the same time they are shockingly serious. Just like the series related to by title, the show might have been intended for entertainment, yet it can consume a lot of our time to sit it through and we would definitely not show it to our children.

            Big stories often endeavor from little, seemingly insignificant events, just like great wars many times erupt from pathetic little incidents. But for that to happen, for the struggle to last, just like we will see here, it needs all the tension piled up for many years. The tension that had it granted for long, that it will explode one day. And than it happened, on 7 February 2019, that Morocco announced its withdrawal from the international coalition in Yemen, lead by Saudi Arabia. A coalition, that namely fights against terrorism, officially aims to restore the government of former Yemeni President – and Saudi protégée – ‘Abd Rabbuhu Manṣūr al-Hādī, openly strives to restore Saudi power on Yemen by enforcing the deal of power exchange, which was reached by the so called Arab Spring, but realistically has only proven successful in devastating a nation without any sensible reason, or tangible goal and have been humiliating for Riyadh for years. Than, only two days later news appeared, that Rabat went even farther, and recalled its ambassadors from both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. But the very same day Moroccan foreign minister, Nāsir Būrīṭa denied the recall of the ambassadors, only affirming the withdrawal from the coalition, blaming the American Associated Press for the false claim. What is comic, however, is that this time Rabat managed to step out from a coalition, which it left more than two years ago, in June 2016. Which, one knows the infamous story of Tāzmāmart prison[1], seems as a weird Moroccan custom to announce the cessation of non existent things. This comic incident may not mean much, but in fact there is much behind it and the random sorties are by now getting common between the two edges of the Arab world. Once again, this seemingly little quarrel reveals a much bigger rift, which by now polarizes the Middle East in general.

Kings and dreams

            But before we go too far, let us first stick to the point. Relations between Morocco and Saudi Arabia, partly due the great distance and the absolutely different local conditions have always good, though not particularly warm. The present conditions were greatly reset by the so called Arab Spring, when by Western initiatives the GCC countries strived to change the governments in the region. Under the pretext of democratization, or the promotion of the so called Turkish model – multi-party parliamentary democracy in a Muslim country integrated to the Western conditions – they promoted fundamentalist forces. What an irony! The only truly open autocracies promoting democracy, with the full support of the West would worth a study on its on, but what really happened, is that the Gulf states through their proxies moved to create a new equation in the Middle East. An equation under the indirect influence of the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia, opening space for economic infiltration. The later mostly meaning the Emirates and Qatar. Morocco was hit by this regional event by protests asking for the limitation of royal power and recognition of Tamazigd[1] as official language. Rabat moved tactically, and put most of the claims to a royal referendum, which was accepted with an overwhelming majority. That, at least seemingly, saved Morocco from turmoil, but the result was a significant shift from royal overpower in favor of the elected political bodies. That brought about the election of Justice and Development Party (PDJ) – a name painfully familiar from Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Syria, or Tunisia all representing a form of Muslim Brotherhood ideology – to the government in 2011, the first time in their history. And they are winning all elections ever since. Though this is a party loyal the the monarchy, patriotic in spirit, and one of the mildest forms of the Brotherhood, it is still a major shift in the traditionally leftist oriented Moroccan politics.

            The reward, which probably played some role in subsequent PDJ victory that year, was that in May 2011 the GCC announced the acceptance of Morocco and Jordon into the union. With the clear aim of economic cooperation. That was very curious from the beginning, as Morocco is so far away from the GCC. And not much came from it, as even in 2014 the GCC showed its ongoing desire to accept Rabat in the club. Thought by this time the military aspect seemed more dominant. Than, however, there were major cracks in the GCC ranks, as we shall see. When Riyadh moved in at the head of an international coalition to promote its own objectives in Yemen, and started its still ongoing and destructive war Morocco joined the Gulf ranks. That came particularly handy for the Gulf countries, since regardless of their immense military spending, they simply lack capable military power. Which was very clear as Yemeni forced many times inflicted humiliating losses to them. Therefore Riyadh relied heavily on allies with real military force, like Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, and amongst them Morocco. That was not extremely surprising, since Rabat generally has good relations with Western powers and their Gulf allies and it was not the first time it joined a war party. But it is noticeable that Moroccans just had no aim the war. Therefore they looked for the easiest way to get out of a quagmire, which seemed endless and costly with no benefit. The excuse came quite early in July 2015, when a Moroccan warplane crashed in Yemen, though the Saudis rushed to confirm, that it was not the Yemenis, who took it down. A year later, at least officially, Morocco left the scene.

             By that time, there was a full blown struggle between the Qatar-Turkey axis in one hand, and the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian block on the other. Morocco, just like all Arab countries east of Egypt try not to take side, but for most, that is simply not possible. Since 2011, there was a tremendous economic infiltration by the Gulf and Turkey in North Africa. As Egypt proved it well –  being under Qatari influence first, and after the 2013 summer cue came under Saudi-Emirati dominance – a shift in friends has unmeasurable economic affects. Morocco at least since 2016 slowly tries to distance itself from the inter-Gulf struggle, but it was steadily on the Saudi side. One reason is its traditionally stronger ties with Riyadh than with any other Gulf country, and an other is that the main rival Algeria is closer to Turkey, and therefore Qatar. The first possible major distancing step was the withdrawal from the coalition in Yemen, but the next, even more aggravating for Riyadh came in the summer of 2017. When Saudi prepared for a major showdown with Qatar, it tried to gather as much support as it could and openly asked other Arab countries to break their relations with Doha. Morocco was surely counted on, yet it refused to join the blocked. Tensions were still high as Saudi closed its border with Qatar, which threatened to choke Doha as most of the basic food supplies came through that border. Rabat made a surprising step. By direct royal order, on June 12 2017 Morocco sent planes with food supplies to Qatar. Though the main countries, which supplied and Qatar with basis needs – and saved it militarily and diplomatically from occupation – were Iran and Turkey, it was a black mark on Moroccan record from the Saudi point of view.

            The next major cause of tension was Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 football World Cup. The last two contestants were Morocco and the Canada-USA-Mexico joint bid. Though it was somewhat unlikely, that right after Qatar another Arab country could be the host, Rabat had reasonably good chances. That decision came in the summer of 2018, and Morocco lost. What was upsetting for Rabat was not that only 48 countries supported it – including most Arab countries – but that most Gulf countries – except Qatar – did not. Since March 2018 Saudi officials openly humiliated Morocco and expressed that they are not willing to give support. Rabat on its behalf was understandably hurt and harshly criticized Riyadh for betraying a fellow Arab state. There was already enough between the two, when the next chance came to return the favor. Right after the infamous Hašoqğī case, in which Saudi Crown Prince – and practical ruler by than – Muḥammad ibn Salmān was explicitly named as the main culprit, he went on a PR tour to North Africa. The aim was to have a face saving set of visits with Arab leaders, so to prove, that his standing is still high in the region. After the crude purges within the royal family, the sadistic yet humiliating war in Yemen, the destructive yet backfiring struggle with Qatar, the Hašoqğī case, and Riyadh’s total failure in the Syrian case, he badly needed some achievements. So in November the Crown Prince set out to visit Bahrain, the Emirates, Egypt – so far strong allies -, Tunisia, and Algeria. In Tunisia already huge crowds were protesting against him, but at least he was welcomed by the president and some economic negotiations did take place. Then Algeria came up in the schedule, which was surprising since Algiers, though has no animosity with Riyadh, has a much better – though far from cordial – relations with Turkey, Qatar and even Saudi nemesis Iran. One possible reason for Algerian acceptance to the visit was the Algiers traditional policy to leave every doors open, but the other is the huge Saudi economical bid to squeeze out Qatari presence from North Africa. Only in 2018 Saudi export to Algeria grew with some 29%, therefore it is understandable Algiers was ready to listen. The trip ended in Mauritania, without visiting Morocco, which was particularly puzzling. Even Gulf sources admitted, that Morocco was on the agenda, but Rabat cancelled the meeting, only suggesting a possible visit between ibn Salmān and the Moroccan king’s brother, Prince Rašīd, who in fact has little power. Such a relatively low level meeting would have been humiliating for ibn Salmān, achieving quite to opposite what he desired.

            Riyadh was prompt to return the favor. From early February Saudi state owned news channel al-Arabiyya started to air documentaries and reports about Western Sahara. In debate programs the channel openly took a stance against Morocco. This topic is a highly sensitive one for Morocco, and Rabat felt extremely uneasy by the fact this attempt aimed to reopen Moroccan-Algerian disputes in the matter right at the time of negotiations between the two. And that is how we arrived to the second – and hopefully last – Moroccan withdrawal from the Saudi lead intrusion into Yemen, and the possible – if it indeed happened – recall of ambassadors.

But simply just why?

            Now whether or not Rabat really severed relations with Saudi and the Emirates is hard to know, since as we can see Moroccan announcements are just not always reflecting the reality. At least not the final one. So things can still chance and it might just not be the end. Yet few things are significant. Would Morocco get into this struggle with Riyadh simply for one cheap media provocation? Or for a failed World Cup bid? Or even from Riyadh’s increasing presence in Algeria? None of these worths the fight. And some gestures by the Moroccan monarch in the last few years were very positive. As we saw two weeks ago, Morocco broke diplomatic relations with Iran. Was there Saudi pressure in the matter or not is hard to know, but it surely came handy for Riyadh, and there as well, the reasons have not much to do with the claims. Also, one of bin Salmān’s outrageous moves the practical kidnapping of Lebanese PM Sa‘ad al-Ḥarīrī on 4 November 2017, when he visited Riyadh, but right away announced his resignation and disappeared for almost two weeks. Only to leave Saudi Arabia after French mediation. Yet half a year later on April 2018, the same Sa‘ad al-Ḥarīrī tweeted a picture with ibn Salmān and Moroccan king VI. Muḥammad, when the Saudi Crown Prince was visiting Paris. The picture shows them as best friends. The Moroccan king gave his face to such a gesture, after a Hašoqğī level violation of international norms. At a time, when relations – as we saw – were already not the best. How can we understand these seemingly contradicting moves? Are all these are just small nuances, which mean little and only analysts read to much into it?

            What is significant now, is that for the first time the Emirates are mentioned in the quarrel. Just why would Rabat recall its ambassador from Abu Dhabi? It can be noticed, that we hear this mostly from Emirati sources, which would indicate, that they want to get on board. Yet, knowing, that it is Abu Dhabi behind the whole GCC internal struggle, it would be a logical step to wage the conflict against it as well. Either way, there seems to be a much bigger rift, than it would show from the first rather comic barrage of announcements. It is less likely, that the “war” would go much farther as neither sides have much to gain from it, but by now Morocco has less to lose either.

            In one hand, the promised incorporation into the GCC, which was puzzling from the beginning is by now surely of the table. Not simply because its inherent contradictions, but because – as before it was reflected upon – there is not much left to be incorporated into. The GCC by now is losing all its significance, as Qatari statements clearly indicate that. There is no point anymore to conduct any sort of negotiations of GCC level, and all economic deliberations are on bilateral terms anyway. Yet there is another, internal reason, why Rabat simply doesn’t mind a clash with Riyadh now. As it was mentioned before, the current PJD government is tied to the Saudis in many ways. Most significantly they are moral-religious supporters. Now, that there is a fear in North Africa, that the region is heading to a major crisis, it is understandable, the the royal palace tries to distance the country from this, otherwise corrosive mental interference. Right at the time, when Riyadh and ibn Salmān himself seems to head to bigger and bigger failures. It is quite plausible, that now, after the World Cup bid and the Hašoqğī case Saudi reputation is simply just bad enough in Morocco, that now the time is ripe for the palace to undermine the moral background of the PJD government, and their whole mentality. Which, if weakened enough, can bring about the return of left wing parties to the government, more cooperative with the monarchy. And that the palace tries to curb PJD was very visible after the 2017 election, when after five months the partly just could not form a government. Yet after the king dismissed the previous PJD Prime Minister Bin Kīrān, the new government took office almost immediately. But by than headed by a much less capable leader.

            So the whole conflict has as many internal reasons, as regional and inter-Arab dimensions. The Middle East after all, is en immense puzzle. But there is a major rift in the region now, which is the main driving force behind all these pithy full clashes. Along that fault line manifest all the other conflicts.

The valley below

            Many assessment have it for granted by now, that the Arab world turned upside down by the so called Arab Spring. And the whirlwind never really settled, that is why we still see an ongoing, though somewhat milder crisis. While it is true that the so called Arab Spring completely reset the board, the real crisis is caused by a struggle between the two mentioned camps. That in fact has little to do with the Arab Spring, as they were walking hand in hand. Only in the case of Syria, Saudi Arabia was coordinating between the partners, while Qatar run the forefront and arranged operations on the ground. The same was true to almost all Arab Spring stricken states. So how come that now they turned against each other? Here I would simply refer back to a previous study, which somewhat explains how the original envy between Qatar and the Emirates evolved into this almost open conflict. But the point is, that in 2017 Abu Dhabi managed to push Riyadh into a state of almost war with Qatar and could recruit some Arab states, like Egypt to this dubious cause. Riyadh counted on an easy victory, but Doha was much more resourceful in evading the economic war, and by the time the Saudis understood this, they already missed their chance for a military invasion. Since then there are two powerful camps. On one hand we have Qatar and Turkey, which mutually help each other by now, even against American pressure. Behind them the silent friend is Iran, which might not love either, but has to cooperate with Turkey both in Iraq and Syria, both in Chinese and Russian regional plans, therefore some favors can come handy later on. While for Qatar, Tehran can be happy as long as the GCC states bog down each other. The other camp is built on the Saudi-Emirati axis with Bahrain also on board. Yet in the latter’s case we talk about an occupied country. They have Egypt on their side – at least for the moment – mostly against Turkey. And there are a number of regional actors swinging back and forth between the two. Where one stands can be measured on two key questions. Whether they joined the Saudi war on Yemen or not, and how do they treat Qatar.

            One interesting example is Pakistan, which is traditionally counted as a close ally of Riyadh. Saudis desperately needed help in Yemen, so they asked former Pakistani Chief of Staff Raḥīl Šarīf to lead the Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC)[3]. But in May 2017 – when tensions were raising with Qatar – Šarīf resigned and Pakistan announced that it pulls out of all Saudi operations. Not much later, when military invasion was imminent in Qatar, Pakistan sent 20 thousand troops to defend it. At the time, when the much stronger friend Turkey only sent 3000. Which would mean that Pakistan switched sides. Yet recently, in exchange for a 6 billion $ bailout from Riyadh, Pakistan returned to the coalition. Which is apparently still lead by the same Raḥīl Šarīf, as if he never left. So this swinging back and forth is not peculiar to Morocco, as it happened with many others.

Changing times

            But why are countries so hesitant to decide which side to choose? Simply because the world is edging closer to a new Cold War, if not greater conflict. If anyone has any doubts, he simply has to read the headlines about the Warsaw and the Sochi summits right at the same time. Any Middle Eastern country could choose to be neutral in the Riyadh-Qatar match, but the stakes by now are much higher. Most of the regional players would naturally belong to the Western, consequently the Saudi lead block. But as this block dives ever deeper into blind dependence on Washington, that has now two unmistakable result. A probability of war with Iran, for which the USA drives the Saudis, and a complete alliance with Israel. By now Emiratis have secret meeting with Israeli government officials, and as it was noticeable in Warsaw, Bahrainis and Emiratis are busy facilitating a deal.

            If that would ever to happen, former recognition of Israel by the Gulf and even an alliance with it, it would have great consequences to each countries in the region. Having a low profile role in a futile war in Yemen is one thing, but alliance with Israel – which has to be explained at home as well -, and being plunged into war with Iran is a very different thing. And the Saudis already proved their military credentials in Yemen, so what could be expected against a real military force like Iran? This new alliance is forming with Israel, when even the Saudi-Emirati axis started to show signs of cracks. Because in Yemen, the Emirates try to gain influence by sidelining the Saudis.

            Indeed, the whole scene is grotesque. The Saudis being the best partners of the US, they lead an anti-terror coalition and struggle to lead the Arab nation, yet at the same time they want to build an alliance with Israel and wage a war against Iran. While they failed in all their major endeavors in the last seven years miserably. These are clear signs of panic and erratic behavior, therefore no wonder many states are distancing themselves. Morocco is just one example, which reveals, that there is a great divide in the region and some states just don’t want to rush doomsday. Comic as these little clashes, they in fact reveal a lot.


[1] Tāzmāmart Prison was the main Moroccan political prison, secret facility in remote location. From its existence around the ‘70s Rabat categorically denied the very existence of the facility. Until 1991, when it announced that it is already closed and demolished.

[2] The most spoken Berber language of North Africa with well established literature.

[3] This coalition is formally not identical with the coalition fighting in Yemen, but was intended as a diplomatic maneuver and a recruiting pool for the Yemeni coalition.