The FINANCIAL TIMES, by Michael Peel (London, England, Oct. 22, 2012) — Morocco’s king arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Monday for the latest leg of a Gulf tour, showing how Arab world revolts have drawn together the region’s monarchs and left poorer countries seeking help from the petrostates.
King Mohammed VI’s five-country trip offers him the prospect of needed investment to help shore up his power, analysts say, while for the Gulf royal families he is a useful example of a leader adapting to regional political change by introducing limited reforms.
While the revolts sweeping the Arab world have so far unseated only dictators in republics, the mass opposition street protests in Kuwait late on Sunday were – like the 20-month-old Bahrain uprising – a reminder that neither the Gulf nor its highly-controlling monarchies are immune from unrest.
Morocco and the Gulf states are “interested in each other for different reasons,” said Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “King Mohammed has shown it’s possible to take steps that indicate a willingness to move towards a more open political system – but without losing many powers”.
King Mohammed’s Gulf voyage began in Saudi Arabia last week, with his planned itinerary also including Jordan, Qatar and Kuwait. Taieb Fassi Fihri, a counsellor to the monarch, says the visit is focusing on three areas of partnership agreed between Morocco and the Gulf countries – direct budget support for infrastructure and social projects, sovereign wealth fund investment and injections of private capital.
Analysts say possible areas for discussion include the Moroccan government’s imminent planned $1bn bond issue, its shareholding in Air Maroc, and the 53 per cent controlling stakeheld by France’s Vivendi in Maroc Telecom, the country’s largest telecommunications operator.
David Roberts, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said King Mohammed had to push for investment because political reforms that led to the election in November of a government headed by the Islamist Justice and Development party would “not be enough”.
“A vote is a nice thing but it hardly puts bread on the table,” Mr Roberts said. “He will need economic stimulus if he is to improve his position.”
While Morocco has traditionally engaged more heavily with its European neighbours across the Mediterranean than with the Gulf countries, it has recalibrated amid the western financial crisis and tumult in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, which has driven some tourists and investors away from the north African region.
Although officials says that Morocco sees itself as a truly international hub and doesn’t plan to press for the possible membership of the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council mooted last year, most analysts see the GCC looming ever more significantly in Rabat’s political and economic calculations.
“In Morocco’s case, the importance of GCC support has only increased with the weakness in the eurozone,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, research fellow at the London School of Economics.
“Both Qatar and Kuwait have made significant investments in Moroccan infrastructure and development projects in the last year, and the king undoubtedly will be seeking more such investment from Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well.”
For the Gulf monarchies, Morocco offers potential profits, a pleasant holiday destination for the region’s elites – and ideas on how to make political changes that fall well short of becoming an emasculated constitutional monarchy. While there are sharp variations in the stability of GCC ruling families, all of them are aware of the ripple effects from revolts elsewhere in the Arab world.
As leaders elsewhere in the Middle East fall or teeter ever closer to the edge, an informal kings’ club like that highlighted by the Moroccan monarch’s tour has symbolic force – and makes political sense all around.
“It’s a win-win partnership,” said Mr Fihri, King Mohammed’s counsellor. “When you see what is happening around us, I think the stability of Morocco is important.”