London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As the mandate for the UN mission for the disputed Sahara region, MINURSO, comes up for renewal at the end of this month, the negotiating process to resolve a dispute that has lingered in some form since the 1970s has intensified.
In the Sahara region, Morocco is contesting the role of both Algeria and the Polisario Front, an armed group formed as Spanish control of the region ended that declared a state in 1976. The Front is now mainly active, and armed, in a portion of the Sahara region not under Moroccan control. The Kingdom is negotiation a solution to the conflict that the Polisario’s armed presence in the region is illegal under a UN ceasefire agreement dating to 1991—a position that has created diplomatic disputes with some African countries.
Instead, Morocco is turning to what Deputy Foreign Minister Mbarka Bouaida terms “economic diplomacy,” being the only country in Africa with a free trade agreement with the United States and several internationally supported development projects. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with the deputy minister on the two developments in Moroccan foreign policy when she was in London recently.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The second session of the United States–Moroccan Strategic Dialogue was recently held in Rabat. Were you happy with the outcome?
Mbarka Bouaida: Morocco is one of the only countries in the region with a strategic dialogue of this kind with the United States. Dialogue is a priority, especially in light of the existing bilateral relations between Morocco and the United States, and taking into consideration the high level of this dialogue.
The second session of the dialogue was scheduled to be held in November of last year, before the royal visit to Washington at the end of that same month, but due to developments in the global political arena US Secretary of State John Kerry was unable to travel to Rabat.
The results of the dialogue were very positive and can be summarized in four political themes. Today, Morocco is a special priority for America, which clearly supports Morocco’s various policies. America also recognizes that Morocco enjoys security and stability, thanks to its successful social-= economic and political model. Morocco is the only country in North Africa that has understood for decades that the world is changing and has employed policies to cope with these changes. Thus, there is a clear [American] endorsement of Morocco’s leadership and political model.
Within the political framework, we use dialogue to deal with the issue of national unity [the Sahara conflict], as well as Kerry’s new position, which entails a serious and credible proposal for autonomy. The proposal can be considered a basis for research studies with the other parties [Algeria and the Polisario Front].
The strategic dialogue also provides a chance to survey the relationship between Morocco and Algeria, as well as study means to open channels of communications with our Algerian brothers. We can also reduce tension by attempting to explain Morocco’s position toward Algeria and urging them to review their position. Algeria plays a central role in the Sahara conflict, especially at the international level. However, Algeria refuses to enter into direct negotiations; the nation should show some kind of political courage and deal directly with Morocco.
The discussions of the second session of the strategic dialogue also touched on recent developments on the Palestinian issue. It is well known that Kerry places much emphasis on peace initiatives that, at present, have not achieved results. Kerry noted the significant role that Morocco has played through His Majesty King Mohammed VI presiding over the Jerusalem Committee, as well as the kingdom’s Presidency of the Ministerial Council for the Arab League.
The second matter which was discussed relates to Moroccan security strategy. Morocco relies on an integrated, holistic approach in this arena, and not a purely security-based philosophy. Consequently, the possibility of achieving security operation between Morocco and the United States was discussed, especially with the goal of securing the Sahel and the countries of the Arab Maghreb, particularly Libya. We employed this framework in a number of proposals for security cooperation between the two countries, including proposals for security training coordination, cooperation in fighting extremism, and strengthening Morocco’s role in the global community against terrorism.
Q: Did Kerry deliver any messages from the Algerian government to the leadership of Morocco during his visit?
John Kerry came to Morocco for the Moroccan–American strategic dialogue, and did not carry with him any specific messages. He visited Algeria in the framework of political consultations with the country. In all cases, Morocco has always called for its neighbors to work together in order to build a strong Arab Maghreb that is integrated on all levels. This, of course, requires commitment and political will from the governments of the five countries of the Maghreb. I also personally think that Algeria’s reluctance to interact with Morocco is a big mistake, especially as we are neighboring countries that complement each other. Normalizing relations and strengthening cooperation between the two nations would serve the public interest for the Maghreb, the Sahel, and even Europe.
Q: During King Mohammed VI’s most recent visit to Washington last November, a joint statement was issued covering several topics, including development and support for human rights. Are the contents of the statement being implemented, and is the US happy with the progress being made?
On November 22 of last year a joint statement was issued touching on America’s welcoming Morocco’s undertakings in the field of human rights and encouraging us to move forward in this area. Morocco’s strategy in the field of human rights goes back many years. The country has taken a number of important steps in this area, most notably the reform of the military justice system, which was a very bold step. This reform received the full approval of the Cabinet and the government council, as the project will be discussed in parliament within a month.
Morocco has taken a number of other measures to improve human rights on the ground, including advanced coordination between the regional offices of the National Council for Human Rights and the government. It should be noted that two human rights offices in the Sahara were created in the framework of reforms launched more than ten years ago. Morocco has also adopted a new system of coordination between the National Council for Human Rights and the government.
Morocco is cooperating with international human rights missions like International Council for Human Rights. Navi Pillay, High Commissioner of the Human Rights Council, will visit Morocco soon.
Q: Christopher Ross, the UN envoy for the Sahara conflict, recently visited Morocco and the wider region, and you had a meeting with him. What did you discuss?
Ross’s recent visits to Morocco took place as part of his UN responsibilities, which can be divided into two parts: the first is to try to facilitate negotiations between the parties to the conflict, while the second is to improve relations between Morocco and Algeria. During Ross’s recent visit, Rabat reiterated its willingness to cooperate with his efforts to resolve the dispute, but Algeria’s insistence on returning to square one hampered the success of Ross’s mission.
Q: According to some observers of Ross’s mission, the conflict has arrived at an impasse. Do you agree with this? Is international mediation still possible?
Unfortunately, [Algeria] is clinging to a return to square one, and for this reason it is difficult for Ross to achieve satisfactory results. It should be noted in this regard that Morocco has always raced to propose solutions as a means to extract ourselves from this crisis, whether it be through other parties or UN missions.
Q: What do you expect from the UN, and the Security Council in particular, regarding the Sahara issue?
The Security Council will issue a resolution regarding extending the validity of the UN Mission in the Sahara, MINURSO, at the end of the month. We hope the members of the Security Council will acknowledge the quality of the efforts carried out by Morocco on the issue. It does not make sense to repeat the same scenario each year and maintain an atmosphere of tension. We also hope that the members of the Security Council have enough political courage to recognize the other party’s [i.e., Algeria’s and the Polisario Front’s] responsibilities and value the fact that Morocco feels that the relationship is imbalanced. We also feel there is a lack of necessary encouragement for Morocco’s efforts.
Q: Algeria and South Africa have proposed that Morocco be excluded from the forthcoming European–African summit. This has happened before, but it was ultimately avoided at the Cairo Summit in 2000. What is Morocco’s strategy for avoiding attempts to isolate Morocco in Africa or during European–African dialogues?
Unfortunately, if anything, such initiatives show the presence of bad intentions. This initiative is illogical because Morocco is the only African, Arab, Muslim state that enjoys a privileged position on par with that of Europe and serves as a model for other African countries. Thankfully, Morocco takes its relations with Europe and its bilateral relations with African countries seriously. This seriousness is what prompted Europe to adopt the Cairo framework.
It is possible that the issue of Morocco not participating in the African [Union] Summit will be raised in the future, but Rabat has explained its position on the African Union to the major states and all of its partners. We pointed out that the aim of the pressure [on this issue] imposed by some countries is to impose a group or movement, claiming that it is a government or nation, despite the fact that this is not true. Here I would like to point out that the United States played a crucial role in this matter, ruling out the participation of some movements and groups in the African¬–American Summit to be held next August.
Q: Morocco left the organization that became the African Union in 1984 over the Sahara issue, and has not returned. Are there plans to rejoin?
As I said earlier, Morocco’s stance is generally credible, and most of the African countries recognize the sovereignty and unity of its territory. The recognition of the African Union of [the Polisario Front] as a state is not legal. The law is clear in this respect, and Morocco upholds all necessary legal arguments in defending this right. The problem, however, lies in the lack of political will among some member states of the African Union.
Q: Moroccan–French relations experienced a sharp downturn in February due to a couple of incidents. Have these problems been overcome?
It is essential to recall the historic nature of Moroccan–French relations; they are a rock that can overcome any tense situation. Regarding the hostility that these relations have come to know recently, there is constant contact between the two parties in order to find a solution to overcome the tension and prevent its recurrence in the future. The French recognize their error and have expressed their readiness to cooperate with Morocco in order to find a mutually satisfactory solution. I would like to remind you that this was a situation of circumstantial tension and does not affect the strategic relationship between the two countries.
Q: Economic diplomacy has become one of Morocco’s top priorities. What are the main features of this type of diplomacy?
Moroccan diplomacy is newly geared towards economic matters. Morocco is the only country in Africa that has a free trade agreement with the United States, and has also received support from the Millennium Challenge Corporation. We have discussed the possibility of taking advantage of a tripartite free trade agreement with other African countries, especially in light of the fact that America views Morocco as a gateway to the larger African market. This would occur through major free trade agreements that bring other African countries together with Morocco.
As for the Millenium Challenge Corporation, Morocco is preparing to introduce the second paragraph of the group’s platform and aspires to take advantage of their framework and implement it in other African countries.
It is worth mentioning that Morocco will host the fifth session of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit Summit at the end of the year, which usually enjoys the participation of President Barack Obama.
Q: On the subject of the free trade agreement with the United States, there have been calls for it to be amended, on the grounds that it benefits Washington more than it benefits Rabat. What are the latest developments regarding this amendment?
We are determined to sign bilateral agreements between Morocco and the United States in order to achieve a balance between the two parties and complete the free trade agreement. These agreements include the subject of tariffs, coordinating quality standards, and the tax system, and the two countries have agreed to exempt Moroccan investors in America from taxes, and the same goes for their American counterparts in Morocco.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.