Maati Monjib | Moroccan political analyst and historian
“Morocco’s withdrawal from the [anti-Houthi] alliance, like its entry into the alliance, is a ‘non-event’ and will not affect the determined alliance … However, the withdrawal will impact my ministry given the distraction that it assures their king in having provided cheap white Moroccan flesh [to the coalition] ...
This harsh tweet directed at Morocco and King Mohammed VI is from Turki Al al-Sheikh, a senior Saudi official, after Morocco’s recent decision to withdraw from the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen. The crisis in relations between Saudi Arabia and Morocco is as bizarre as it is rare. The main cause of the current crisis is the aggressive temperament of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his disrespect for his Arab partners.
Historically, relations between the Saudi and Moroccan ruling families have been excellent. Thus, during the Franco-Moroccan crisis of 1953–1955 Riyadh supported then-king Mohammed V against Paris. Morocco has also benefited from Saudi financial assistance since the 1970s. In a sign of the closeness of relations, in a speech in 1983 then-Moroccan king, Hassan II, described his Saudi counterpart as the “sovereign of the Kingdom of Morocco.”
Yet since 2015 tensions have been multiplying. That year, a member of the Saudi Royal Guard rudely pulled at the arm of Prince Rashid, the brother of King Mohammed VI, during a reception ceremony on the king’s visit to Riyadh. The misunderstanding escalated when Morocco proclaimed its neutrality in the conflict between most Gulf states and Qatar. However, the crowning moment came when Riyadh failed to support Rabat in its bid to host the 2026 football World Cup. The Saudis made matters worse by allowing their satellite station Al-Arabia to take a stand in favor of the Polisario Front in its conflict with Morocco. Rabat reacted by boycotting a meeting in Jeddah of members of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Therefore, its withdrawal from the coalition was only a matter of time.
Firas Maksad | Director of Arabia Foundation and adjunct professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Morocco’s declaration that it would no longer take part in military action alongside the Arab coalition in Yemen was in many ways anticlimactic, particularly since it had already withdrawn its ground forces in 2016 and repatriated its contingent of six F-16 jets in 2018. On both counts officials in Rabat cited as a reason increased tensions with Algeria and the Polisario Front due to the conflict in the Western Sahara, yet the decision appears to be a result of a cooling in traditionally warm relations with Saudi Arabia.
The inflection point was the June 2018 Saudi decision to support the United States’ rather than Morocco’s bid to host the football World Cup in 2026. Moroccans were outraged, however Saudi Arabia felt it had to prioritize its strategic ties with Washington. Riyadh also felt it had done its part for Morocco by supporting it to the tune of billions of dollars. Complicating matters further was Morocco’s prior decision not to stand by Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Qatar, despite Riyadh’s mentioned largesse. That the latest withdrawal announcement was made by Morocco’s foreign minister on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera news channel was probably lost on no one in Riyadh.
Intissar Fakir | Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program, editor in chief of Sada
Morocco has long been a committed partner of Saudi Arabia, and will likely be cautious not to burn any bridges with it. However, this remarkable development indicates that the Moroccan leadership feels comfortable asserting itself when its interests fall out alignment with Riyadh’s. Morocco is sending a message that it will not blindly support Saudi actions—especially if these do not pertain to Morocco or actively harm its national interests.
Although Rabat’s decision to recall its ambassadors from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for consultations marks a clear escalation in relations, tension had been gradually building over the past year. Morocco was unhappy with a television show on the Saudi Al-Arabia satellite channel that appeared to cast doubt on Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara. Certainly, undermining Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara is a powerful way of sending a message to Morocco.
A major bone of contention was that in 2018 the Saudis had supported the United States’ bid to host the 2026 football World Cup instead of Morocco’s, provoking a strong reaction in Rabat. Last year, Morocco did not host Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the trip he organized to rehabilitate his image after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Moroccan media close to the palace and security establishment have also drawn attention to the crown prince’s role in the murder. And last January, Morocco skipped a naval exercise in Saudi Arabia.
Given Rabat’s tendency to approach foreign relations conservatively, Morocco has had difficulty maintaining alignment with Saudi Arabia since Mohammed bin Salman came to power. Rabat is wary of backing his high-risk gambits by taking part in the Yemen coalition and joining the blockade of Qatar. The escalation is notable because Morocco could have found less public ways to distance itself from the crown prince. It also helps that the risks of alienating Riyadh are somewhat mitigated by the fact that Mohammed bin Salman faces intense criticism and condemnation regionally and globally.
Ali Anouzla | Moroccan investigative journalist
I do not think that Morocco’s decision to withdraw from the Arab military coalition in Yemen will affect the future of the war there. Morocco had virtually frozen its participation in the coalition as of 2016. In fact an Arab coalition does not really exist on the ground. What does exist is a Saudi-Emirati alliance, while the other participants, among them Morocco, were there to provide legitimacy for a war carried out by Arab armies against an Arab state.
I also don’t believe that the Moroccan withdrawal from the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will affect Morocco’s relationship with the Gulf states, who are divided over the crisis with Qatar. The Moroccan relationship with the Gulf states is not an institutional relationship. Rather, it is based on the personal relations and moods of the countries’ rulers. Therefore, the situation today can lead to unpredictable transformations. However, there is also something unchanging in this relationship because all the regimes in Morocco and the Gulf need each other and cannot dispense with each other.