In recent months, Morocco has heightened its support for the Group of Five Sahel (G5 Sahel) countries. By doing so, the kingdom aims to compete with Algeria for influence in the Sahel and the rest of Africa. It also seeks to benefit from any potential Western or Arab military or economic support to the region—including pledges of financial support from Morocco’s closest Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, Morocco wants to be instrumental in the European focus on the Sahel’s security and stability given the implications for migration.
But there are potential strategic gains as well. For Morocco, one of the biggest challenges to its efforts to rejoin Africa politically is the lack of trust between Rabat and many African states. For decades, Morocco has had ties with post-colonial African states that were not as close, for example, as Algeria’s. Until recently African support for Western Sahara’s independence was also a source of tension between Morocco and much of the continent—particularly at the institutional level where the dominant African powers remain wary of Morocco.
To counter this, Morocco has sought to improve its bilateral relationships with African countries, particularly in West Africa and the Sahel, a region where it has long maintained soft power ties. Engaging with the G5 Sahel is a way of demonstrating to Africa that Morocco is aligning itself with the continent’s key security priorities—in Algeria’s backyard, no less—and with the African Union (AU) vision of promoting regional peace and cooperation. The G5 Sahel presents a further opportunity in that the group has excluded Algeria from formal membership, unlike previous regional security initiatives that Algeria led or promoted from within the AU.
For Morocco, the most likely positive consequence of its engagement with the G5 Sahel is improved relations with Mauritania, a country with which Rabat has long had uneven relations. Engagement could also pay dividends with regard to relationships across the Sahel and possibly enable Morocco’s future foray into the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional group of fifteen states that the kingdom has lobbied heavily to join.
Overall, Morocco’s support for the G5 Sahel is a relatively low-risk approach to augmenting its broader goals in Africa. It also allows the kingdom to become a strategic security actor, as the United States and the European Union cannot afford direct military intervention, and Morocco’s cooperation on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism is valuable in this regard. It gives Morocco an additional means of gaining leverage in the Western Sahara issue with Washington and Brussels, from whom Morocco has faced diplomatic and legal challenges to its de facto control over the area.
Morocco’s two main contributions to the G5 Sahel group are military and religious training. On the security front, in September 2017 Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita* announced that Morocco would assist the G5 Sahel to manage border security and promised to help counter radical Islamic teachings in the broader area. Moroccan delegates attended the International High Level Conference on the Sahel in Brussels in February 2018, during which Bourita highlighted a number of areas of collaboration, including border control, food security, social development, military training, and religious training for imams. In June 2018, Morocco pledged support for a G5 Sahel joint force whose operations focus on counterterrorism and combating transnational crime.
Morocco has long trained many of the G5 Sahel countries’ personnel and military commanders—among them current Mauritanian President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz. The commander of the G5 Sahel joint force, General Hanena Ould Sidi, another Mauritanian, trained at the Royal Military Academy in Meknes. In November 2018, local newspapers reported that more than 1,300 foreign officers—a majority of them sub-Saharan Africans—were receiving military and technical training in Morocco.
Morocco’s religious influence extends into the Sahel due to the region’s historical ties with the sultans of Morocco. Rabat has recently been formalizing this cooperation within the framework of its support for the G5 Sahel. It has held study programs for religious leaders from the Sahel and West Africa as part of what it terms “religious diplomacy.” This ensures that Morocco will remain at the forefront of counterterrorism and security efforts in the Sahel and perhaps eventually all of Africa and beyond. The Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams in Rabat has trained hundreds of imams from the Sahel and West Africa.
COOPERATION BEYOND SECURITY
Cooperation between Morocco and the G5 Sahel has also developed beyond security-related issues. Moroccan universities and educational institutions have been a major destination for students from West Africa and the Sahel, and this is bound to expand. Morocco also wants to play an important role in the energy field. During the G5 Sahel group’s December 2018 meeting, Prime Minister Sa‘deddine al-Othmani announced Moroccan plans to support the Priority Investment Program. Rabat intends to provide access to its electricity and water management expertise through the country’s top two state-owned renewable energy agencies—the Moroccan Agency for Sustainable Energy and the Moroccan Agency for Energy Efficiency—in order to bring electricity to the underpowered Sahel.
Over the past few years the bulk of Morocco’s diplomatic and economic outreach has targeted West Africa and the Sahel due to their proximity and their historical and cultural ties with the kingdom. Morocco-Chad relations have grown since 2013, when Rabat first established a diplomatic presence in N’Djamena, and an important aspect of this is bilateral security cooperation. The two countries have also increased cooperation in other domains, more recently on water scarcity, sanitation, and management.
Morocco’s cooperation with Niger dates back further. Niger has supported Morocco’s proposal to join ECOWAS and in 2017 the two countries signed sixteen bilateral cooperation agreements. Morocco and Niger also inked a partnership agreement on a host of socioeconomic issues in July 2018, singling out youth employment and climate change.
Burkina Faso has also been one of Morocco’s closest African partners. The two countries have signed dozens of bilateral agreements and Morocco is an active investor in the Burkinabe banking and telecom sectors. Ouagadougou has also supported Morocco’s bid to join ECOWAS. Mali is, likewise, an important trading partner, with longstanding religious and cultural ties. There too, Morocco has been expanding bilateral cooperation. To that effect, Morocco signed six agreements with Mali—including a military cooperation agreement—in March 2018.
The main exception to positive relations with the Sahel countries is Mauritania. Historically, ties have fluctuated between close cooperation and periods of tension. Disagreements over the Western Sahara and the presence of Mauritanian regime critics in Morocco have long hampered Moroccan-Mauritanian ties. The relationship deteriorated in recent years under Mohammed Ould Abdelaziz, but Morocco has recently made efforts to improve the situation and recent meetings between officials have included proposals to work together to secure border zones.
In June 2018, Morocco dispatched Hamid Chabar as ambassador to Nouakchott after a two-year vacancy. Other gestures of goodwill have been economic and political. Morocco recently denied entry to a political opponent of the Mauritanian regime, a significant step given that Mauritanian opposition figures have historically found refuge in Morocco. Rabat is a key investor in the Mauritanian mining industry, and a delegation from the General Confederation of Moroccan Companies, Morocco’s main private sector representative, visited Mauritania last December to reinforce financial ties and prepare for further cooperation in sectors such as renewable energy, health, telecommunications, and fishing.
However, as with all of Morocco’s foreign policy considerations, the Western Sahara issue is never too far away. Mauritania—an important actor on the Western Sahara and a former party to the conflict—was also present in the revived negotiations under United Nations auspices in December 2018. The initial meeting in Geneva coincided with a G5 Sahel meeting in Nouakchott.
Better relations with Mauritania in the context of collaboration with the G5 Sahel would be one less obstacle to Rabat’s quest for regional influence and support over the Western Sahara. Still, three of the G5 Sahel countries—Chad, Mali, and Mauritania—continue to recognize the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Algeria, which over the years opted for a less active foreign policy in its neighborhood, has, predictably, been critical of Morocco’s efforts.
Morocco’s efforts to engage in regional security in the Sahel could pay dividends in terms of regional influence, but that is likely to be tenuous. Members of the G5 Sahel are still devising a strategic vision for regional stability. Morocco cannot expect much in terms of immediate tangible gains from its involvement in the Sahel, as the G5 Sahel force itself is facing significant challenges in collecting pledged aid. What is important, however, is that heightened Moroccan engagement with the G5 Sahel has created excellent optics for a country that still provokes doubts among African states.
*An error in this article has been corrected. Nasser Bourita was mistakenly described as a previous foreign minister. In fact, he remains Morocco's foreign minister.