The relationship between Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, and their long-term partner the Moroccan monarchy has undergone notable changes in recent years. Diminishing oil revenues, a Saudi leadership that is more hard-nosed in how it spends its money, and shifts in Morocco’s foreign policy strategy have all played a role. The result is a relationship increasingly grounded in pragmatism as opposed to what was once an ideologically based, mutually supportive relationship.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states saw the Moroccan kingdom’s fate as closely tied to their own until just a few years ago. In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 protests, Gulf states pledged $5 billion in financial aid and political support to Morocco, even inviting the North African monarchy to join the GCC. In 2015, Saudi Arabia also signed a defense cooperation agreement with Morocco, which has long played a role in providing security in the Gulf, and made a reported $22 billion investment in Morocco’s military industries. It is not clear whether all the aid ever materialized.
In terms of investment, Gulf states until recently were major investors in the country, particularly in real estate, construction, and tourism. However, diminished oil revenues and the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman brought about new priorities. Saudi direct investments in Morocco declined by 69 percent in 2018 compared to 2017 and by 78 percent compared to 2015.
The crisis within the GCC was an inflection point in this transformation. Morocco’s relations with Gulf leaders—old ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and burgeoning ones with Qatar (which by 2016 had emerged as the fifth-highest investor in the country)—made Rabat unwilling to pick a side in the 2017 dispute, irritating Saudi and Emirati leaders. Meanwhile, Morocco has gradually shrunk away from supporting key initiatives of the mercurial Saudi leadership, such as the military intervention in Yemen.
Even in North Africa, Morocco appears uninterested in blindly following its formerly close partners. Local news outlets close to the security services have been open in their criticism of the UAE. A rumor has been circulating that Morocco rejected a proposal from the UAE to recognize its Libyan patron General Khalifa Haftar in exchange for cheap access to Libyan oil and lucrative deals for Moroccan companies. Morocco has been supporting the UN process in Libya and helped broker the Skhirat agreement in 2015 that established the Government of National Accord—which is currently battling Haftar’s forces in western Libya.
Morocco has been adjusting to the decrease in Gulf support, adopting a more active and self-reliant approach that includes asserting its influence in Africa and reaching out to a new set of partners including China and Russia. An example of this is the current coronavirus pandemic crisis. Saudi Arabia’s support during the crisis has gone to global institutions rather than bilaterally to friends and supporters. Morocco has not benefited from any Gulf support so far. Instead the country is relying on its own resources, creating a substantial fund of $1 billion to manage the crisis, and on support from the International Monetary Fund in the form of a precautionary liquidity line it unlocked to deal with longer-term economic impacts.