Morocco rarely figures into international news headlines these days, something of a virtue in this restive part of the world. The term Maghreb, which translates as “land of the setting sun,” eventually came to denote a stretch of land starting in the Western Sahara and running through the Atlas Mountains and ending before the Nile River Valley, encompassing modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. However, the Maghreb originally meant the lands that define Morocco, where the setting sun marked the Western frontier of the Islamic empire.
This evening in Tangier, I watch as ribbons of intense red and orange weave through plum-tinted clouds and settle behind the mountains on the Spanish coastline. Those mountains that almost seem a stone’s throw away are where a Moroccan general, Tariq ibn Ziyad, massed his troops for a conquest ordered by the sixth Umayyad caliph in the early 8th century to expand the frontier of the caliphate to the Iberian Peninsula. Jebel al Tariq, Arabic for “the mountain of Tariq,” eventually came to be known as Gibraltar, the highly strategic narrow strait where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet. When the light is just right, you can see cerulean waters of the Mediterranean sharply contrasting with the dark moody waters of the Atlantic in a strategic aqua-hued borderland.
Tangier and the Spanish-controlled city of Ceuta slightly to the east are the closest Africa gets to Europe. Consequently, this prized tip of the Maghreb was rarely held by Morocco’s local inhabitants, who were too weak and outnumbered to compete effectively with the seafaring powers of the Mediterranean that were more interested in building trading outposts en route to Iberia than in venturing into the Maghrebi hinterland. But Morocco is also much more than its coastline. The country is defined by its mountainous spine, flanked by the coastline to the north and the Sahara Desert to its south. The Atlas chain starts south of Marrakech and runs northeast into Algeria, breaking only at the Taza Gap, a narrow access point to the Atlantic.
The highlands are inhabited by Morocco’s local natives, given the name Berbers by Greeks and Romans who regarded them as “barbari,” Greek for “barbarians,” who refused to adapt to their ways. In contrast, Berbers often use the term “Imazighen,” which translates as “freemen,” to describe their tribal community that is defined by their fighting prowess and raw, independent spirit. Stuck between entrenched and defiant Berbers in the mountains and a coastline that frequently fell prey to the Europeans, early Muslim settlers focused on the plains and mountain passages in the interior, where the ancient cities of Fez and Marrakech developed as the political and cultural hubs of the Maghreb and linked trans-Saharan trade with maritime commerce in the Mediterranean.
The Virtue of Distance
Unlike in many of its ill-defined neighbors to its east and south, there is a geographic logic to Morocco’s boundaries that has allowed it to develop a strong identity over the centuries. With Islamic power centers far away to the east in Baghdad and Damascus, Morocco was able to cultivate a much more experimental relationship with Islam. The territory’s large Berber population was slow to adapt to the religion when it arrived in the 7th century, eventually developing their own heterodox interpretation of Islamic teachings. Early Moroccan dynasties meanwhile swung between dry literalist and philosophical Sufi interpretations of Islam. In the 12th century under the Almohad dynasty, Muhammad ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in Europe, founded a philosophical movement in the Maghreb that both popularly and controversially infused rational Aristotelian philosophy with Islamic theology. This tradition of liberalism in theology continues to this day as contemporary religious-political movements in Morocco espouse a postmodern Islamist model to attract youth who are semi-fluent in Western philosophy but who, out of frustration, are searching for an alternative to the current system.
Indeed, distance is a virtue for Morocco. Overstretched politically, financially and militarily, the Ottomans, nominal overlords from the 16th to 19th century, fell short of claiming Morocco as part of their empire and attempted instead to outsource control of the Maghrebi coastline to seafaring pirates. Not surprisingly, that strategy had its limitations and Turkish influence over the centuries failed to penetrate Morocco.
Distance also enabled Morocco to develop a uniquely cooperative relationship with Israel. As one older Berber man with leathery skin and kind eyes told me over mint tea, “You cannot dance to music that you cannot hear.” In other words, enough land lies between Morocco and Israel to insulate Morocco from the more vitriolic relationships Israel has with its Arab neighbors. Jews came after the Berbers and remain an influential community today. Even as contemporary Moroccan leaders have given token support to Pan-Arab conflicts with Israel, they relied on Moroccan Jewish links to the Israeli government to maintain a quiet and cooperative relationship behind the scenes.
The Peril of Proximity
While Morocco enjoys the distance from the main Muslim power centers to its east, it sits uncomfortably close to powerful European neighbors to the north. With no navigable rivers to facilitate inland development, Morocco has been and remains a capital-poor territory. The religious community compounded the fiscal restraints on the sultans, limiting their power to tax. And the risks of triggering unrest from raising taxes were too great in any case.
Moroccan leaders instead tried to consolidate control over the corsairs, whose piracy along the Mediterranean generated substantial profits. But that drew the wrath of the Spanish, French, Italian, English and Austrians, among others, who saw an imperative to control the Maghrebi coastline to secure their own wealth from sea predators and rival Mediterranean powers. As Morocco fell more and more in debt to the Europeans, it saw its sovereignty erode, a trend that culminated in the French and Spanish protectorates of the early 20th century.
Morocco’s vulnerability to Europe marked the foundation of its relationship with the United States. While the Europeans were busy fighting among themselves, Morocco looked eagerly across the Atlantic at 13 colonies developing along North America’s eastern seaboard. Morocco was desperate for a patron and ally with enough power, strategic interest — and enough distance from Morocco — to effectively balance against its European neighbors, and it found one in the United States.
As a sign of Morocco’s geopolitical foresight, the sultan ensured that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States in December 1777, allowing American troops to dock at Moroccan ports without paying duties or tariffs. By 1797, the U.S. government had set up a consulate in Tangier, at the mouth of the Mediterranean, to ensure safe passage for American ships to and from the Mediterranean.
A Strategic Relationship
The world will be reminded of this strategic relationship when Morocco’s youthful King Mohammad VI makes an official visit to Washington on Nov. 22. With Libya overrun by militias, the Egyptian military reverting to repression to control its Islamist opposition, Tunisia in political paralysis and Mali and the surrounding Saharan region trying to fend off jihadists, Morocco stands out for its relative stability. As one of the last standing monarchies of the region, Morocco enjoys strong support from the Gulf Arab monarchies that are deeply unnerved by the U.S. pursuit of a strategic detente with Iran. Morocco does not have a significant Shiite population and is far enough away from Iran that it doesn’t need to form an opinion on the issue at this time. And with a healthy, albeit quiet, relationship with Israel, Morocco is one Arab country that the United States can look to in trying to demonstrate that its politics in the region are anything but zero-sum as it tries to simultaneously negotiate a deal with Iran and an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
Morocco is also a country that the United States can look to as a political model for managing the stresses of the hangover from the Arab Spring. Morocco’s Alaouite dynasty, dating back to the late 1600s, claims descent from the Prophet Mohammed, a legacy that gives the current Moroccan monarch a strong base of religious legitimacy as the Amir al Mu’minin, or Commander of the Faithful. At the same time, Morocco’s historically flexible interpretation of Islam engendered a more dynamic relationship between Moroccan rulers and their constituencies. Moroccan sultans were subject to removal by the religious community if they were unable or unwilling to impose the religious community’s definition of justice. The idea that sultans were not invincible laid the groundwork for constitutional monarchy in Morocco. Though Morocco’s constitutional monarchy is still very much a work in progress, something to which the number of constitutions Morocco has had attests, the country is much further along than its royal counterparts in Jordan and the Gulf in trying to negotiate a balance between maintaining an outdated monarchy with demands for representative government.
After a power vacuum that lasted three months, Morocco’s parliament is now split between the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party and the National Rally of Independents, a party that was created by the monarchy in the 1970s and can be expected to pursue policies in line with the king’s wishes. While the king appears able to manage the parliament, he knows Morocco shares many of the economic problems plaguing much of North Africa.
Youth unemployment is believed to be as high as 30 percent, and the government has succumbed to economic pressure to cut subsidies and raise energy and food prices to cope with slowing growth in Europe. At the same time, Morocco’s bloated state bureaucracy and a burgeoning illicit economy help cushion the economic blowback. Morocco’s occupation of a strategic transit point between Atlantic and Mediterranean commerce applies to the drug trade as well. As taxi drivers and local officials alike quietly comment, many of the newly built yet uninhabited condominiums that line the main avenue along the Tangier coastline are financed by drug money as a vehicle for money laundering. European businessmen looking for low-wage labor to maintain competitiveness are meanwhile increasingly eyeing Morocco as a place to send their manufacturing plants at the same time that North African immigrants and Syrian refugees continue attempts to cross illegally into Europe in search of a better life. Morocco cannot escape its economic pressures, but it does retain the tools and legitimacy to manage them, unlike many of its neighbors.
One tactic for managing these pressures is to employ nationalism, and for Morocco, the pre-eminent nationalist issue is Western Sahara. King Mohammed VI will be looking for U.S. backing for Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara when he visits Washington. In a fervently nationalist campaign that distracted from the country’s political and economic pressures, Morocco annexed the former Spanish colony in 1975, setting off a 12-year insurgency led by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.
As economic stresses are redeveloping in the Maghreb, it is little wonder that the Western Sahara issue is experiencing a revival along with Algerian-Moroccan tensions. Morocco recently withdrew its ambassador from Algeria after Algiers called for a U.N. observer mission in the region to include human rights monitoring. A Moroccan man made the news when he tore down an Algerian flag from the Algerian Consulate in Casablanca amid cheering crowds. The state-owned Moroccan press is meanwhile issuing articles that allege Algerian imperialist ambitions in the region. As Algeria tries to simultaneously insulate itself from militancy on its borders and to project influence into neighboring Tunisia and Libya, distrust will grow in Morocco over Algiers’ intentions, and the Moroccan leadership will look again to Washington for support.
This is where the Moroccan strategic relationship with the United States faces limitations. Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara do not figure into Washington’s priorities for the region. Taking sides in this issue now would only complicate the U.S. relationships with Algeria and other African countries without providing any clear benefit in return. As Morocco will learn from this visit, Washington is trying to avoid precisely these kinds of localized entanglements in pursuit of a broader balance of power in the region.
At the same time, Washington will learn that Morocco’s example cannot be easily replicated in the more restive parts of the region. Morocco is a strategic and oft-overlooked ally of the United States that embodies many of the traits that Washington hopes to engender in the Middle East. The view from Tangier is a reminder, however, that this country’s slow-developing liberalism and insulation from the region’s hottest conflicts stem from a geographic reality unique to Morocco.
Editor’s Note: Writing in George Friedman’s stead this week is Reva Bhalla, vice president of Global Analysis.