Morocco-Israel Normalisation: A Geopolitical Shift with Far-reaching Consequences for the MENA Region

Anna Murphy

Research Assistant
Anna Murphy is a research assistant at the TRT World Research Centre. Prior to joining the Research Centre, Anna was a Fulbright Scholar in Ankara, Turkey. She has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Brown University. While at Brown, she was an Undergraduate Research Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Her research interests include political communication in the UK and EU, Middle Eastern politics, and US foreign policy in the MENA region.

On December 10th, 2020, the United States announced that it would recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. This policy shift, a product of years of covert diplomacy, was to be exchanged for Morocco’s ‘normalisation’ of ties with Israel. This quid pro quo, a signature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, has far-reaching consequences that will continue to unfold in Israel, Palestine, Morocco, and throughout the MENA region.

This policy outlook analyses some of the events that led up to this announcement and aims to establish what this crucial moment may mean for the future of Western Sahara, Morocco-Israel relations, and the role of ‘normalisation’ as a tool in regional diplomacy.

Palestine and Western Sahara

Amid global debate over what the normalisation of ties between Morocco and Israel may mean for future Mo- rocco-Palestine relations, the Kingdom has insisted that the deal is, in fact, primarily focused on securing Amer- ican support of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sa- hara. It is undeniable that the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara is a major victory for the Kingdom. However, the nature of the quid pro quo exchange of the establishment of official ties with Israel for this recognition is less of a certainty. In other words, while this transactional diplomacy has come to define the Trump administration’s foreign policy, the trading of these two particular policies has introduced a strange di- chotomy in regional relations. And while the actors most involved in the formation of this agreement may have grown accustomed to this exchange over the years it took to come to fruition, its sudden public announcement has somewhat perplexed the Moroccan public.

The Moroccan public categorically opposed the previous normalisation treaties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. According to one study, only 9% of the surveyed Moroccan public supported these deals. As previously mentioned, Morocco and Israel’s previous relationship has involved extensive cooperation in the security field for decades. While this relationship has not always been pub- licised, it was also not a strict secret. However, the attitudes of the public — which have always mirrored the support of the Palestinian people vocalised by King Mohammed VI — do not align with the historical security measures tak- en by the Moroccan state. Nevertheless, popular opinion of the treaty aside, this normalisation deal has perplexed the Moroccan public because it introduced the idea that international recognition of Western Sahara is a topic that is somehow connected to the Israel Palestine conflict. This concept — created as an exchange by the diplomat- ic leadership of the US, Morocco, and Israel — has left the Moroccan public surprised that the fate of Morocco’s sov- ereignty over Western Sahara could somehow be tied to their country’s relationship with Israel. Rabat has respond- ed to this by focusing on the idea that this diplomatic deal is a landmark victory for claims over Western Sahara, and that the sentiments of the public should reflect that. While the positive benefits of this announcement for Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara is, as previously stated, quite clear, the idea of exchanging two fundamentally unrelat- ed, yet very public components of Morocco’s policy frame- work set an unusual precedent, particularly with regards to regional stances on Israel. The idea that foreign powers like the United States can orchestrate deals between states in the MENA region based on their own goals could lead to a harmful disconnect between their transactional-based diplomacy and the reality of these ‘bargaining chips’ on the ground. Of course, the consequences of this particular exchange remain uncertain, but the potential implications of the United States’ recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara will be explored later in the policy outlook.

Culture and
Diplomacy: Other
factors in the
normalisation deal

In order to fully analyse the potential implications of fu- ture Moroccan-Israeli relations, one must not only under- stand the nature of their previous security partnership but also their common cultural history. Prior to the cre- ation of Israel in 1948, Morocco was home to the largest Jewish population in the MENA region. In the 1940s, the Moroccan Jewish population made up roughly 10% of the total Moroccan population. Today, there are an estimated one million Jews of Moroccan origin living in Israel and thousands of Jews still living Morocco. Demographic connections between the two states are supplemented by touristic, cultural, and business ones; Moroccan and Israeli businesses have invested significant amounts of money and energy into promoting cultural events in Mo- rocco that aim to foster connections between the Jewish Moroccan community and Israel. Each year, up to 70,000 Israeli citizens visit Morocco for vacation, despite the fact that there were no direct commercial flights between the two countries until the recent normalisation deal. Many of the tens of thousands of Israelis who visit Morocco each year participate in heritage tourism. The Moroccan tourism ministry has funded and supported this trend. In 2010, King Mohammed VI announced a new initiative to restore Jewish cemeteries throughout Morocco. In addi- tion to cemeteries, synagogues, tombs of saints and Rab- bis, and historical Jewish quarters of cities (mellahs) have received funding for renovation and tourism initiatives. In 2016, the King also personally attended the rededica- tion ceremony of the Ettedgui Synagogue in Casablan- ca. Moreover, Casablanca is also home to the Moroccan Jewish Museum, which was founded in 1997 and is the only museum exclusively dedicated to Jewish culture and history in the Islamic world. These trends in funding and the public appearances of King Mohammed VI or his senior advisors — including Andre Azoulay, an advisor to King Mohammed VI and member of the Moroccan Jew- ish community — at these sites, shed light on Morocco’s growing focus on the promotion of its Jewish heritage, and with it, the future connections found from its diaspo- ra in Israel.

Meanwhile, AFP reported on December 13th, three days after the normalisation announcement, that the Moroc- can school system would begin teaching about Jewish history and culture. Serge Berdugo, the Secretary-Gen-eral of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco, explained how this decision is a first for North Africa and reflects an effort from the Kingdom to integrate its Jew- ish history into the national curriculum. This initiative closely involved two US-based Jewish organisations, the American Sephardi Federation (ASF) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations (COP).

Moreover, the economic relationship between the two states is growing. Between 2014 and 2017, for example, Morocco and Israel participated in over $149 million worth of trade. That classifies Morocco among the top four of Israel’s trading partners in Africa. These cultural and economic connections, in contrast to the aforemen- tioned security one, have not existed in secrecy. The Is- raeli and Moroccan leadership have often referenced the cultural ties between the states, including in the recent normalisation deal. In fact, this commonality has emerged as a prominent rhetorical tool utilised particularly by the Moroccan monarchy to explain the shift in official policy. This connection differentiates the normalisation agree- ment between Israel and Morocco from the three other states with which Israel also recently established ties. However, the historical ties between Israel and the Mo- roccan Jewish population have not been alluded to solely to justify this deal, but rather, may be part of an overar- ching effort to paint Morocco as a logical arbiter in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. While Morocco’s security and cultural connections to Israel have been outlined thus far in this paper, the Kingdom’s longstanding connection to the Palestinian people and active role in the mediation of the conflict should also be emphasised.

In addition to decades of officially supporting the Pal- estinian people and leadership, Morocco has played an active role on the international diplomatic stage as an advocate for the Palestinian cause. For example, King Mo- hammed VI is the Chairman of Al Quds Committee in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The Al Quds Com- mittee was organised to support the Palestinian people, specifically in relation to rights over the holy city of Jeru- salem and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Thus, as Morocco and Is- rael move forward in their relationship — despite the fact that the details have yet to be finalised — questions will emerge with regards to how the Kingdom will navigate its nuanced position, and if it will use its unique relationship with both communities to centre itself as a principal ac- tor in any future resolutions. At the heart of this decision is King Mohammed VI. As the public and practical head of Morocco’s foreign policy, the King’s future actions will shine light on if and how normalisation with Israel will impact the future of Morocco’s role in the conflict. Yet, understandably, there is no clear road map for operating within this new dynamic, and so relevant parties will have to wait and see if the Kingdom’s future actions confirm or dispute this intention.

Western Sahara

Morocco has claimed official sovereignty over Western Sahara since Spanish colonial forces withdrew from the territory in 1975. Following Spain’s exit from the region, the Kingdom and the Frente Polisario (Polisario Front) en- gaged in violent conflict over claims to the territory until a 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire that, at the time, also called for a referendum within the territory. This official UN stance has since changed. Today, Morocco has de facto control over about 75% of the territory known as Western Sahara, with the remaining land largely a UN buffer zone, which has been used by the Frente Polisario to mount attacks. The United States’ recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the entire territory marks a significant moment for the Kingdom for several reasons. First, it officially supports the historical claims the Kingdom has made over the territo- ry, and with it, the promise of future American diplomat- ic presence. Second, it offers a green light for Morocco to further invest in the region and utiliae some of the natural resources and economic potential that it has to offer.

Washington’s recognition of Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara supports a major effort to advance Morocco’s eco- nomic position in the region and throughout the world by becoming an invaluable player in global trade. There is a strong foundation for this role, prompted by both Moroc- co’s strategically advantageous geographic location and the previous openness of the Kingdom to global financial partnerships. For example, Tanger-Med port, the creation of which was largely funded by Chinese investment, is al- ready the largest port in the Mediterranean and in Africa. However, specific projects planned by the Kingdom stand to specifically benefit from American diplomatic support, including a $1 billion effort to build the Dakhla port, which is located in Western Sahara. The focus on investment in ports, particularly the latter, emphasise the Kingdom’s push to build infrastructure around natural resources, namely phosphate and shale gas, that are located in the waters off the coast of Western Sahara. While the full ex- tent of these resources has, up until now, been relatively unexplored due to the disputed claims over the territory, the United States’ recognition of Moroccan sovereignty could signal a future opening to both exploration and in- vestment.

However, the Kingdom’s development of its ports is only one part of an overarching effort aimed at attracting a di- verse set of foreign investment, an effort that could stand to benefit not only from Washington’s recognition of Mo- roccan sovereignty over Western Sahara but also from Mo- rocco’s normalisation of ties with Israel. The latter-prompt- ed investment could stem largely from an increased global financial appetite, particularly from GCC (Gulf Coopera- tion Council) states such as the UAE and Bahrain, to invest in Morocco following their own normalisation of ties with Israel. An almost symbolic example of Morocco’s foreign investment profile comes from its al-Boraaq high-speed rail. While Morocco contributed 27% of the financing for the project itself, France offered 51% of the required funds, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait endowed the rest. The idea of collective investment in key infrastructure projects throughout Morocco reflects both the Kingdom’s openness to development projects and the overwhelming outside interest in these endeavours. However, from both an investor standpoint and a trade-route focus, there are three main focuses of Moroccan foreign investment, all of which stand to benefit from Washington’s recognition of Western Sahara and the normalisation of ties with Israel.

The first and most advanced point of investment is the West-African to Western Europe trade route. France has provided the vast majority of foreign financing along with this route, a reality reflective of the significant investment the country has made in Morocco. This economic corridor is the most advanced and well-funded in the region and a significant amount of its success, according to a report published by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, stems from the unique level of investment — both foreign and domestic — in modern infrastructure, namely trains and ports. For example, the Kingdom’s Rail Maroc 2040 initiative aims to update existing rail infrastructure and build an additional 1,500km of rails across the country. Projects like these are significantly more advanced in both extent and funding that comparable plans in the region, a reality that signals the extent of global interest in an Africa-to-Europe indus- trial chain that heavily includes Morocco. However, these investments are included within the parameters of this report because they not only shed light on the Kingdom’s immediate investment priorities but also showcase how this investment has notable strategic implications. Includ- ed in the Rail Maroc 2040 plan is the establishment of rail lines that connect Tangier to Lagouira, the latter of which is located in the south of Western Sahara region. Washing- ton’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, therefore, can only stand to support Morocco’s de- velopment goals. The public backing of the United States in advance of the actual construction of this line could encourage further financial support and diminish future public opposition to the project.

Second, as the example of al-Boraaq high-speed rail in- dicates, GCC states have also turned their attention to in- vestment in Morocco. In recent years, several GCC coun- tries, including the United Arab Emirates, have ramped up investment in North Africa. However, amid a variety of projects across the region that could represent sound investments for the GCC states’ goals, including ongoing development in Algeria and Egypt, Morocco has drawn particular attention. One reason for this financial focus in the past was the aforementioned favourable investment conditions in Morocco given the advanced stage of these projects relative to comparable nations. However, moving forward, the aligned timing of the UAE and Bahrain’s es- tablishment of formal economic ties with Israel with Mo- rocco’s own pivot to Israel could stand to make the coun-try a more appealing site of investment. In other words, as certain states decide to normalise ties with Israel — a deci- sion heavily influenced by the United States — they form a growing group of regional actors with similar financial and strategic goals. Support from GCC states such as the UAE and Bahrain could aid the infrastructural and financial de- velopment associated with the natural resources located off of the Western Saharan coast in a globally competitive manner.

Third, the financial benefits from international recognition of Western Sahara, as well as the normalisation of ties with Israel, assists Morocco in its efforts to secure advantageous positioning with respect to the African continent. Over the last few years, the Kingdom has made a public shift towards involvement in African economic, diplomatic, and cultural institutions. For example, in 2017 Morocco re- joined the African Union. It is worthy to note that the King- dom originally left the African Union — or as it was called at the time, the Organisation of African Unity — because the institution recognised Western Sahara as an independent entity. As Morocco re-joins the institution now, with the external backing of its claims to Western Sahara from the United States, it may do so with the leverage of being an active member in these circles in order to secure econom- ic and diplomatic advantages, while remaining confident that its sovereignty over Western Sahara is supported by a powerful foreign power. Moreover, Morocco is currently aiming to join the Economic Community of West African States, an organisation headquartered in Nigeria. Member- ship in organisations such as these, alongside the potential future foreign investment outlined above, may position the Kingdom not only as a regional player in Africa but as a po- litical and economic leader.

UN Action in Western Sahara

The 1991 UN-brokered ceasefire between Morocco and the Frente Polisario initially called for a referendum in Western Sahara to determine its future political status. However, in the thirty years since the internationally mandated end to the fighting, no referendum has taken place — as the King- dom has consistently expressed concerns over alleged in- flation of the reported number of refugees in the territory — with relatively few external actors exerting substantive pressure to do so. In contrast— as some Moroccan media and political outlets have suggested — recent events may indicate that this official policy has changed, or at the very least, been removed from the UN’s priorities.

In early November, the Frente Polisario announced a formal end to the 1991 ceasefire after Moroccan troops launched an operation towards the southern border of Western Sahara. The incident sparked momentary con- cern of wide-spread or violent escalation. Both the Moroc- can government and Frente Polisario were also incredibly quick to condemn the other and reiterate their respective policies on the territory. However, one body that was no- tably absent was the United Nations. Despite the fact this event marked the termination of a major UN-brokered ceasefire, the UN failed to offer any significant public re- action. Moreover, the United Nations found itself once again notably silent following the announcement of the United States’ recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Saharan territory, an unquestionably conse- quential policy shift. Sources in the Moroccan media have been quick to notice this and have drawn attention to the UN’s silence not as a moment of quiet negligence, but rath- er, as a resounding statement in and of itself. While some analysts may feel that the UN’s absence from recent events was a reflection of a deliberate change in policy in favour of Morocco, others simply believe that the silence reveals that the UN has settled into an acceptance of Morocco’s de facto control over the territory.

This shift, of course, did not come out of nowhere. As po- litical analyst Samir Bennis noted in a piece for Morocco World News, at several points in the past 30 years the UN Security Council has passed updated resolutions that have clarified the UN’s position on Western Sahara. The most recent resolution pertaining to Western Sahara was actually adopted on October 30th, 2020. Resolution 2548, which officially contains the most updated UN language on the situation, reaffirms support for past UNSC resolu- tions. However, Resolution 2548 notably lacks explicit calls for a referendum in Western Sahara, and instead favours a peaceful and diplomatic solution that addresses the needs of all relevant parties. While not a momentous shift in pub- lic attitude, these subtle changes in the UN’s stance on Western Sahara — particularly at a time when momentous events regarding the territory are occurring — indicate a gradual inclination towards Morocco’s de facto sovereign- ty over the territory in the long run.

Furthermore, regardless of the nuances of official reso- lutions, it is important to highlight that the reality on the ground in Western Sahara has favoured a de facto state of Moroccan sovereignty with significant levels of autonomy. This is where the United States re-enters into the discus- sion. While President Trump is the first American President to publicise support for total Moroccan sovereignty over the region, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all expressed varying degrees of support for Morocco’s push to make Western Sahara a semi-autonomous region. These policies were based on the growing belief that they repre- sented the most viable method for any UN-led peace pro- cess. Moroccan policymakers, therefore, also grew to ex- pect this pattern from US policy and could act accordingly. This starting point — supplemented by the negotiations described earlier in the policy outlook and the sudden na- ture of President Trump’s change in opinion — offers far greater insight into the motivations and outcomes of the US policy on Western Sahara.

Of course, prior to the United States, several governments outwardly supported Morocco’s claims to the region. Yet, potentially of greater note are the examples certain states’ quiet acceptance of Morocco’s sovereignty over the terri- tory as the de facto norm, and the subsequent deals they have made with the Kingdom based on that acceptance. In other words, over the years, several states have launched economic ventures with Morocco that may contradict their official stances on Western Sahara. In 2019 the Eu- ropean Parliament officially consented to a Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement between Morocco and the EU. Included in the contents of the partnership are wa- ters off the coast of Western Sahara, coastline previously deemed non-Moroccan waters. Many EU countries have expressed opposition to Moroccan sovereignty over West- ern Sahara in the past, however, their most recent actions seem to suggest that the economic benefits of supporting Morocco’s claims to the territory and investing in a Moroc- can Western Sahara far outweigh the benefits of refuting its claims. The United States’ official endorsement of Mo- rocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara, therefore, can only serve to further Morocco’s claims to the territory and the silent economic support that will come with it.

In contrast to the subtleties of the positions of some of its European counterparts, France has been a long-term ally and a major foreign investor in Morocco, a reality drawn largely from the nation’s colonial past. While France does not officially endorse Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, it has significantly contributed to long-term proj- ects — including the Kingdom’s train line that they hope to build through Western Sahara — that acquiesce Morocco’s de facto control over the territory. These investments have a long historical precedent. For example, during the 1975 Western Sahara War, France officially remained neutral but covertly supplied Morocco with large arms shipments.1 At the time, this support for the Kingdom was far from a well-kept secret; outside parties knew that France clearly favoured Moroccan forces over the Algerian-backed Sah- rawi forces. France backtracked on this favouritism in the following years over increased financially motivated inter- ests in forming closer relations with Algeria. However, the country’s stance on Western Sahara has waxed and waned in accordance with its relations with both of the formerly colonised states. Today, France claims neutrality on the matter, but, like the United States, has also been a propo- nent of Morocco’s proposal for autonomy in the region. Thus, the greatest evidence of its stance can be drawn from investments in the area and its deep stakes in a num- ber of significant projects — including ones that take place in Western Sahara — that promise to bring Morocco to the forefront of regional development.


Washington’s announcement that it would publicly back Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara sent waves through the international diplomatic community. This policy shift, a product of years of covert diplomacy, was to be exchanged for Morocco’s normalisation of ties with Israel. This quid pro quo, a signature of the Trump admin- istration’s foreign policy approach, has far-reaching con- sequences that will continue to unfold in Israel, Palestine, Morocco, and throughout the MENA region. However, as Morocco now wields a strong international backer in its claims to Western Sahara, a new $1 billion arms deal, and the promise of future economic cooperation with a num- ber of countries, including France, the UAE, and Israel itself, the Kingdom has undoubtedly secured a major vic- tory. Yet, the formal normalisation of ties also raises ques- tions with regards to Morocco’s future role in relation to Israel and the Palestinians, a conflict that the Kingdom has played an active role in for decades. While many facets of Morocco’s political and economic future look bright, it will have to carefully navigate its newfound position with re- spect to Palestine and the Palestinian people it has publicly supported for so long. Thus, much remains to be worked out in the nuances of the new Morocco-Israel relationship, the consequences of which will likely influence the future proliferation of normalisation throughout the MENA re- gion.

The Original Article on TRT.

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